Category Archives: Tropes & Archetypes

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

Don’t Forget to Tweak the Recipe

Bakery dessertsAs Guy discussed yesterday, sometimes it’s necessary to change up an author’s approach and writing style when developing stories in very different genres. It’s also important to make sure different stories in the same genre feel unique and fresh, even though they’re recognizable as written by the same author.

You can use your own special sauce, but still need to tweak the recipe so stories don’t feel so similar readers feel bored or frustrated.

A great example comes to mind. Long-time favorite author, David Eddings. He wrote great epic fantasy, and part of his special sauce included large casts of endearing characters. Sure, a lot of those characters easily fit into fantasy tropes, but he portrayed them with flair and humor and made them real. As a young reader, the characters felt alive to me, like long-time friends, and I was eager to share in their adventures.

Eddings introduced some of my all-time favorite characters in The Belgariad, a five-book series that followed the development and growth of the simple farm boy Garion until he matured into Belgarion, the mighty sorcerer and king of a league of nations. Cool stuff. Belgarath, the ancient and grumpy old sorcerer was a hoot to read about. Silk, the spy/assassin/thief, fascinated me, while Barak, the hulking viking-type warrior was a classic brute with a heart of gold.

Then in The Mallorean, Eddings again launches into a very similar tale, using the same beloved characters. That second five-book series was one of my favorites as a teen. The characters were well developed, they played off of each other extremely well, and their adventures were fun and creative. Eddings even poked fun at the fact that the second series was so similar to the first, and that actually worked really well.

A later series that Eddings wrote offers a cautionary tale, though. The Elenium, although a fantastic series in its own right, included perhaps too much of Eddings’ special sauce. Although on its face the story is very different from the epics centered around Garion, it explored very similar concepts. The most striking similarity was how the characters interacted. The makeup of the protagonist team was very different, but it felt like they were falling into the same patterns as the group of companions in the Belgariad and the Mallorean. For me that made it harder to enjoy the books because it felt like Eddings was trying to imbue the same hearts into his cast. That was sad, because they were really good books, but they needed a little more space of their own to really shine. I wonder sometimes, if I had read them first, would I have loved the Elenium more and felt the Mallorean was too much of a copycat?

I still recommend reading all of those series. They’re classics and well worth the read. I’ve found that with pretty much every favorite author, there are lessons I can learn. With Eddings, it’s distinguishing the different series a little more. I’m grateful to find examples of what works and maybe what doesn’t already out there to learn from and make my own writing that much better.

So develop your special sauce, be aware of it, and at times be sure to change up the recipe with a new story or series.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

I Heard it From a Fool

the man who knew too little“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”
~ Winston S. Churchill

The Fool, often known as The Jester, is a well-known and very useful trope in both TV, theater, and novels. Sometimes in our work, the tomfoolery is subtle, or devious, or creepy. With The Fool, it’s in your face.

In TV, the fool can come in various shapes and sizes. Often they really are clueless, but blessed with abundant luck and usually a cheery outlook. The ridiculous, almost accidental ways they escape bad things is always great for a laugh. They’re excellent for comic relief in an otherwise tense situation.

A great example is the movie, The Man Who Knew Too Little. Bill Murray gives a stellar performance as Wallace Richie, a bumbling incompetent who is mistaken as a spy and ends up stopping an international assassionation plot without understanding anything that’s going on. Simply brilliant.

Other times, perhaps they’re more the Profound Fool, an idiot who still offers spot-on advice and remarkable insights that no one else seems capable of figuring out, despite their genius or heroic attributes. And it’s often because the fool is so simple that they can see the truth about problems, which everyone else is complicating unnecessarily.

Bill and TedThink Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This classic time travel sci-fi movie follows the high-school slackers Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan, who have delusions of greatness with absolutel nothing to back up their claims. They’re failing school, and can’t even play the instruments, even though they want to start a band. Even as they embark on their excellent time-traveling adventure, they really don’t seem to get it for a while.

For example, when the Evil Duke at the castle where they fall for the princesses decides to kill them by torture and orders, “Put them in the Iron Maiden.”

Instead of shuddering with their impending doom, they think he’s talking about the rock band.

But of course by the end of their awesome adventure they meet cool historical figures, ace their history presentation, and set everything right with the universe with their momentary flashes of insight, and their determination to “Be excellent to each other, and Party on.”

Then there’s the Fool of Shakespeare’s time. That kind of Fool can say anything to anyone, and they usually do. In otherwise strictly-managed social heirarchy, the fool grants a way for truth to be shared, to poke fun at pompous or foolish or disturbing tendencies or justifications.

“That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.”
~Isaac Asimov, Guide to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was famous for using ‘the fool’, and took the trope to whole new levels. They were usually ignorant or poor, low class commoners, who used their wits to tear down or humiliate or make fun of their betters. They could be used to poke fun at moral issues or the lies or justifications that nobility tried to use.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
~William Shakespeare

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
~Feste, Twelfth Night, I.5.328

If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage.
~Clown, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.3.372

Winning will put any man into courage.
~Cloten, Cymbeline, II.3.983

the Court JesterOne final type of fool I’ll mention are the Jesters. In the middle ages, these were entertainers of nobility. Singers, dancers, storytellers, satirists, and comedians. They perfected the art of being clever fools, and a wonderful example is the movie The Court Jester.

Hawkins, the main character in the classic movie, The Court Jester. Danny Kaye did an amazing job playing Hubert Hawkins, who has to go undercover as Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester to the King. The entire move revolves around his antics and the intrigue and plots he gets caught up in more by accident than any design. If you haven’t watched the movie, do it now. You’ll thank me later.

So when designing your stories, don’t forget to consider including a Fool. It might turn out to be an extremely wise decision.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Well, that was Unexpected

 

I have a confession to make-I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until after my husband and I started dating.

I know, I know, most self-respecting geeks are at least familiar with the Doctor. Me? Nope. As a matter of fact, two friends and I went to England a few years back. Naturally we went to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. I’d seen it before, but the others hadn’t, so we went.

During the rather dull ceremony (sorry, it’s the truth) the band played some great sci-fi music, including Star Trek. A number I didn’t recognize received thunderous applause from the crowd. Lucky for me, the friend standing next to me at least knew that it was the Doctor Who theme song.

While we were dating, my soon to be husband finally talked me into watching. The first season of the reboot is rough, and I didn’t particularly love Rose as the companion, but once I’d made it through a handful of episodes, I started to get it.

Then The Empty Child happened.

If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about.

The entire two-part story is based in World War II London, and through the whole thing a little boy in a gas mask keeps appearing asking if anyone and everyone is his mummy.

Seriously creepy.

I spent the entire episode trying to figure out what sort of wretched creature would do such a thing. Then the reveal at the end blew my proverbial socks off. It went so contrary to where I thought it would, that I probably sat with my mouth hanging open for a good fifteen seconds.

While my boyfriend pointed and laughed at me. (He’d seen it two or three times.)

The writers of Doctor Who have pulled this off a number of times. My personal favorite is Gridlock:

The Doctor takes Martha to New Earth, where she is kidnapped by two carjackers and taken to an underground Motorway, where the remainder of humanity on the planet live in perpetual gridlock.

What is left of humanity has been circling on the futuristic freeway full of flying cars/motor homes for who knows how long (years? Decades? Centuries?) trying to find an exit open. About half way through the episode we, the audience, figure out that they’re never getting off the freeway. It’s some sort of sick trap.

Well, the Doctor won’t stand for it (he’s got a very insistent need to protect humanity) and he and Martha set out to figure out what’s going on.

Adventure ensues.

But once again, when we expect to find a creature that is both parts cheesy and foul, we find something totally different. A friend of the Doctor’s who moves through time at a different rate than most. And he didn’t trap humanity underground on the freeway because he was mean, but because he wanted to keep them safe from whatever catastrophe happened on the surface of the planet..

It’s brilliant. In so many places the writers allude to something, and then allow the watchers to come to their own conclusions, which are totally wrong.

For me, this is one of the best thinks a story can do. Not so much trick the reader, but provide an insight that can truly delight them at the end.