Guest blogging seems to have become more popular in the last few months, though it's a first for Speculative Horizons. I'm pleased to therefore host Gail Z. Martin - author of the popular Chronicles of the Necromancer series - on her October 'Days of the Dead' blog tour!
Given that there are plenty of interviews with Gail already floating around the interwebs, I thought we'd do something a bit different. Gail has therefore kindly written an article on her thoughts concerning innovation versus expectation in fantasy.
So, without further ado...
James asked me to write on the topic of “innovation vs. expectation.” As readers, we’re drawn to a particular genre because it promises that there will be certain elements in the story that we like, and yet we also want something new. As a writer, that’s a challenge, even today where there’s more acceptance of cross-genre stories and things that don’t quite fit the traditional category.
For me, that means working with the elements and archetypes that make an epic fantasy an epic fantasy, while putting my own spin on things. One of the fun things about writing an epic series is that you don’t have to shoot off all your fireworks before the end of the first book. Your world and your characters can unfold gradually, the way we get to know the real people and real world around us.
Expectation has a lot to do with the degree of innovation that a given reader demands. Genre novels have certain elements that make them genre novels. For example, in a romance, two strangers will meet, clash, fall in love and end up together. In a classic mystery there will be a baffling crime, a quirky detective, some red herrings and ultimately, the bad guy will get caught. Predictable? Yes. Does that stop people from reading romances or mysteries by the boatload? No. So obviously, those types of books satisfy a pretty big group of readers precisely because they meet expectations.
So as a genre writer, there’s always the tension between meeting the expectations that place you within the genre, and yet providing enough innovation that there are some surprises along the way.
I have learned that reading is an incredibly personal thing. Every reader takes something different out of the same book. That’s because we read based on where we are in our lives at a given moment in time and who we are at that moment. That’s why sometimes we’ll read a book at a certain age or stage and it will be incredibly life-changing, and then we go back a few years later to recreate the experience and something’s missing. Or we can’t get into a book at one time and pick it up later on and can’t believe we didn’t see how wonderful it is. The book didn’t change. We changed.
Our expectations as readers say a lot about our inner hopes, fears and dreams, as well as our unresolved issues and our insecurities. For example, there are some readers who love fantasy stories about princes and princesses. There are others who hate anything to do with royalty and want a poor-boy-makes-good story. There are some readers who like the fantasy of reading about handsome or wealthy characters living in a luxurious world, and others who only identify with a hard scrabble kind of hero. In all of those cases, it’s not the book that’s good or bad—it’s the filter that the reader brings to the story and the way the reader feels the story speaking to his own fears, dreams and wounds.
A large number of readers like certain types of books BECAUSE they want escapism without too much stress. We live in a world that changes by the nanosecond. Most people experience chronic uncertainty about their jobs, their relationships, their health, the economy and the price of gas. There’s something delicious about settling in with a book that is familiar but different. It’s not going to change your life. It’s not going to make you rethink your entire worldview. It’s going to entertain you.
Other readers want to shake things up. They grow impatient if a story follows any conventions of a genre, and yet they are drawn to genre fiction and have a love/hate relationship between the elements they like and the way those elements often play out. They want a book to rock their world. That’s OK, too—but they’re probably not going to agree on books with the first group of readers.
I think of innovation vs. expectation as the difference between going on a roller coaster and skiing down a double black diamond slope. Both are exciting. Both are entertaining. You could call both “thrill rides.” But there are important differences.
When you get on a roller coaster, do you seriously believe there is a high probability that you’ll be killed on the ride?
Then why do you ride it?
Because although you know where you will get on and where you will get off, you enjoy the ride in between. For many readers, books are like roller coasters. They pick a favorite genre for the same reason people ride a roller coaster. They have a pretty good idea of what will happen, but they want to enjoy the ride between beginning and end. Other books are more like the black diamond slope. Absolutely anything could happen and nothing is safe. Realize that the difference is a matter of personal preference, not an inherent statement of value.
Not every book has to please every reader. Take the Mystery genre as an example. There are cozy mysteries of the Agatha Christie variety. Forensic mysteries from Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwall. Paranormal mysteries, horror/mystery combinations—plus more.
Is Agatha Christie intrinsically better than Kathy Reichs? Pretty subjective. They all have fans—but those fans don’t usually read all the types of mysteries that exist.
Like mysteries and romances, fantasy also has subgenres. We don’t have to fight about which one is “better.” There’s urban fantasy, paranormal urban fantasy, epic/high fantasy, slipstream/time travel and a whole lot more. But within each, you’ll find some adherence to the conventions that make it subgenre. Knocking genre fantasy for containing the elements that make it a genre is like complaining that someone always gets killed in a murder mystery or that people always fall in love in a romance.
Today, a certain percentage of readers seem to be disappointed if the hero lives through the book. Maybe that’s a reflection of the times. But if the hero always has to die or events always lead to the end of the world or total despair, then that type of book also ceases to be innovative.
A lot of readers like to see good guys win (and live to tell about it). Their idea of a good book sees good triumph over evil, and true love endure. In the real world, good often loses, at least from the perspective of a single lifetime. Love disappoints. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. And a “hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich.” To quote Bones McCoy, “Evil usually wins unless good is very, very careful.” So for them, an ending with some rays of hope is part of the entertainment experience they’re seeking and they want a book that delivers it.
What’s innovative? Well, that depends on where you as a reader are coming from. If you have never read a book like the one you’re reading, that book is, from your point of view, innovative. Everything is innovative at least once for someone. If you’ve read a lot of the same thing (which was apparently meeting your needs until you decided you wanted a change), something different is “innovative.” As a writer, innovation just for the sake of weirdness is usually not a winning strategy.
Not every element in a book needs to be earth shaking in order to offer innovation. It might be the way magic is used or the world’s political structure. It might be a religion or a type of creature. It might be the technology or the cultural assumptions or the gender roles or the lifespan. Change too many things all at once and it becomes difficult to identify with the characters or the story. What’s “too many?” That varies with the reader.
There will probably always be tension between innovation and expectation, which is how over 270,000 books get sold each year. The question isn’t, “Which is better?” For me, the question is, “What kind of book makes you happy?” And it’s perfectly OK if every person has a slightly different answer.
Many thanks to Gail for her article; it's always interesting to hear authors' opinions on topics like these.
Dark Haven, the next instalment in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series is due for release in February 2009. If you pre-order your copy through this website, you'll get 'virtual bonus items', so check it out.