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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Part 3 of Worldscaping: Breaking the Rules

Genre fiction doesn't follow the rules of the real world. There's technology beyond capability, actions defying physics, creatures unlike anything our known world contains. Fantasy, in particular, is an escape from a world of the commonplace rules where we can experiment with the physical world.

So why do we all keep rehashing the same old hat world?

I think I've made my love for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings pretty clear, but just in case ... let me restate. I love the books, I love these stories, and I love these worlds. But I don't love them so much that I want to keep reading those same stories and worlds again and again and again.

I'm a re-reader. I will read books ad nauseum, and then some. The Harry Potter books are like a super comfy sweater that I throw on whenever I don't want to think about what to wear. And each time I wear it it gets a little softer and comfier. Yes, maybe I worn some holes in it, but to me it's still perfect and will never, ever be thrown away.

Comfy sweater, you are perfect in everyway.
But then somebody decides that maybe I'd like this new sweater, that's a lot like my favorite old sweater And I think, hey sure. It looks like my old sweater, which is something I like, I'll try it out.

And then I put on new knock-off sweater and it's itchy and uncomfortable and like nothing like my favorite sweater at all! My old sweater is soft! My old sweater fits perfectly! My old sweater has a mustard stain on the front that I love!

That's the problem with the same old fiction. When you're just flat out copying the masters and following all of their rules, you're no longer being judged on your own terms. I'm no longer judging you based on your own merits as a sweater. I'm judging you on how you compare to my favorite sweater, and all I notice is that you're not my favorite sweater and not that you're a good sweater by your own right.

Okay, I may be carrying this sweater thing too far.

In writing, it is very tempting to lean on the worlds and rules that we know work. It's much easier to take a world that's already been created than to make up the rules to our own. But genre fiction authors have a lot to prove as is. Not that I have an axe to grind, a bone to pick, [insert other applicable idiom here], but genre fiction isn't widely regarded as, well ... literary. Worthwhile. Valuable. It's considered a lower caste of fiction with less to offer.

And if you're already competing with that prejudice, do you really want to add further obstacles by encouraging people to compare you to Tolkien? Because not many people are going to win that battle.

There're reasons that things become "rules". It's because those things work. They're proven to grab interest, to propel stories, to really drive character and plot development. So, study the rules. Know why they work. Learn to manipulate them.

And then break them.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy "Rules" that Authors Should Break 

1) The One
I don't know whether to blame The Matrix or Harry Potter or what. There are some many Ones running around out there at this point that we might as well just assume we're a One and prepare to fulfill or life or death destiny. I understand that in an epic story arc, your main character may need to be the turning point of the world's destiny. Look, I get it. My story is no different. But The One is a rule that needs to be conscientiously broken in these situations. Forget destiny, forget prophecy. And maybe (just maybe!) forget this idea that the fate of the world is somehow in the hands of a single "chosen" person.

2) Steampunk Wizards
Over it. Simply over it. Your novel takes place in modern times, yet all of your characters are running around with oil lanterns, candles, an clockwork mechanisms. Look, I'd like to imagine a world without Facebook, too. But when your main character is a teenager in the modern world, I don't care how much magic they have or how cool you think robes are. They've played Candy Crush.

3) Green-Skinned Romance
Oh, Captain Kirk, your slightly paunchy belly under that tight
yellow polyester shirt is positively irresistible to my alien-lady loins.
Captain Kirk wooing various green-skinned alien ladies in skimpy, metallic bikinis was certainly a spectacle in the 60s -- but the 60s was a decade of turbulence particularly around civil rights and race. Green skin wasn't just green skin -- it was also a metaphor for race. Sure, he had the famous kiss with Uhura, but that didn't occur until episode 68 out of 80. No, I didn't have that memorized.

The point is, when it comes to inter-species romance maybe we all should just pause a moment and think about what we're doing. Why are all these alien babes so hot for humans? And why can we all seem to reproduce without issue, despite having completely separate evolutionary roots?

4) "High Fantasy" Worlds
High Fantasy is fine, but there is so much recycling of the Tolkien worldscape that I'm bored to tears. Elves are majestic and beautiful and above everything, humans are like elves but dirtier and worldlier, dwarves and bearded, beer-drinking miners, halflings are adorable, orcs are ugly and smelly, swords are magical, etc. You know what I miss? Evil fairy-assholes, centaurs, lady dwarves, and maybe an elf that's more Keebler than Galadriel. This world, the Tolkien world, is one of the most over-used prepackaged worlds in fantasy.

What are some of the "rules" that you have broken as a writer, or that you think should be broken more?

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