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The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part II

The second part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy is that good writing in any particular genre should seek to do that which that genre does particularly if not uniquely well. Fantasy shouldn’t try to be science fiction. We don’t require a scientific explanation for Pern’s dragons after all. A horror story set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a western, although it could be. Where it lands on that spectrum depends on the tropes used and the dominant mood generated by the piece and the author should be seeking to control where it lands on that spectrum through a deliberate selection and use of those tropes and dominant mood.

Fantasy is largely about a nostalgic view of a mythic past based on existent real world historical civilizations. We tend to see much of fantasy set in pseudo-medieval worlds with parallels to Western Europe, knights, sword-fighting, Vikings, castles and so forth. It would be perfectly possible to create a fantasy world eschewing all of these but many people may complain it doesn’t feel like fantasy. We could have a fantasy world entirely bereft of Humanity, but containing magick, fantastic beasts, medieval technology, etc. But if the two sides’ contending combatants fighting with swords are eight-foot tall talking cockroaches, the audience may not find it to their liking.

You can make the argument that that should be irrelevant to a definition of genre, that if the dominant tropes and emotions hold true, then it should be classed in that genre. My take on these matters, however, is practical. This discussion of literary theory is being pursued to develop a rubric for the creation of professionally publishable works of fiction and what the readership wants always has a place to play in such matters. Much of fantasy avoids Tolkienesque dwarves, orcs, elves and halflings at all, even as other works embrace them. The elements that are conventional are used as a counterbalance to the ones that aren’t so the reader doesn’t feel helplessly dropped into a universe where they don’t know any of the rules at all. For example, we don’t excuse incoherent characterization of human beings in fantasy merely because the rules of the universe permit dragons or magick. Characters have to have understandable, reasonable motivations or we aren’t satisfied.

What I’m struggling to say is that that nostalgic view, that mythic past, is important to fantasy. And since we can change up some tropes, we can have, as we have seen in recent years, a move to explore cultures other than Western Europe in our fantasy literature. More and more we are seeing worlds built on a mythic past set in Asia, Africa, Australia and Central and South America and that’s all to the good. And it doesn’t mean you can’t introduce something new or different. We can have eight-foot tall insectile warriors as part of the fictive background, as Burroughs did on Mars, but it just means we also need to introduce more conventional characters as well or to take our time easing the reader into the new society to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Although describing Burroughs’ other Martians as more conventional may be deceptive, his voluptuous Martian princesses are egg-laying after all.

A final argument I would make regards the difference between fiction and film. So many of my fellow emerging writers are terrified adherents to the theory of “show not tell.” But fiction isn’t film. Film tells things poorly, even crudely. Voice-overs, opening scrolling text and lengthy conversations in which people relate facts they should all already know are ugly ways of conveying information. But authors of fiction shouldn’t be so terrified of telling a story that they can’t give the reader key and vital information in a sentence or two, or even a short paragraph. It is called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” after all. There are things we want to know about the author’s universe, things that might not be easily worked into a conversation between two people who have lived in that universe for their entire lives and take those things for granted. A paragraph on the operations of a key technology, such as how FTL functions in your universe or how your magick works, is no sin. Cruder, more ham-fisted techniques can be used, such as the youthful ignorant character who needs everything explained to him but your reader may find it stretching credulity when your character, even if he’s young, has been alive in a world where priests heal wounds and broken bones by touch or the city’s politics are dominated by its ruling class of wizards, and yet he knows nothing of magick as an excuse for the reader to be told these facts as they are told to him for the first time. The emotional response of “how dumb is this guy” or “has he lived entirely under a rock not to know that much” may be what you elicit from your reader.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
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