Nitpicking to Nukes #2: Genre Wars

If you’re a writer, and especially if you write what’s usually pegged as Genre Fiction, odds are good you’ll have heard a few  blithe statements leveled at your chosen field. Usually, these run along the lines of Genre Fiction being plot rather than character driven (I’m still not sure why that’s supposed to be bad, per se) and bearing little connection to reality; the last bit’s a particularly weird criticism to level at stories deliberately trying to diverge from reality. If you’re one of the people who levels those statements, then consider how pleased you’d be to hear me call your pieces long-winded, pretentious, inefficient, irrelevant, unimaginative, and all the other things that I could call them if I wanted to be unreasonably malicious and very likely way inaccurate. Those are failings of a bad writer rather than any genre. I’m okay with being called a bad writer, that’s just how criticism works, but I want it done honestly.

Let me break this down: to me all stories are inherently plot-driven, because all stories express at least a few events- ideally in sequence, but not always. I wouldn’t read a novel for a two-hundred page analysis of a character, that’s why we have psychological journals and the like. You can run on and on and on about how characters should give rise to plot and not the other way around, but frankly I don’t see any practical difference between the two methods. We’re not crafting a physical thing here, per se, and I don’t think most readers could tell the difference between a literary fiction piece that I wrote by developing a rural farmer and his struggle to reach more modern views while keeping ties with his family, and a story I wrote about racism into which I infused this fictive rural farmer, assuming that the quality and content were otherwise identical. Characters will ultimately suit the plots in which they participate, and vice versa. As long as they synch up correctly, there’s no practical way for anyone to tell which came first. I’m not demeaning your method, I just prefer to shift between the two as it feels useful. Changing perspective from time to time is always helpful to me, and I’m a little sick of being subtly condescended to by people I’ve literally just met. Writers get enough crap from everyone else, we don’t need to sling it amongst ourselves like the wordiest group of nine-year-olds on Earth.

I’ve heard recently that characters, by definition, are supposed to change in some way over the course of a story, which is something I don’t see very often even from the literary fiction crowd. At most, ‘a change’ seems to mean some minor, insignificant alteration to a practically microscopic part of a character’s personality. One tiny lesson. Hell, what about Hemingway’s protagonist for The Sun Also Rises? He only changes in that he gets slightly more despondent by the end of the book. How is the perpetuation and further growth of being very sad a damn change? And why is it considered so clever to mention hundreds upon hundreds of little details that don’t matter to the characters or plot? I thought everything in a novel served a purpose beyond salving the writer’s need to hear herself jib-jab for another paragraph before coming to the point! I’ve heard so many times that every word in every story and poem serves a purpose; I’m pretty sure the only purpose everyone could actually agree on is taking up space. I don’t care how many items your single father keeps on his desk, what I care about are which items he cares about! Change is supposed to express the realism of the character, that they react to the situations around them. Yet, I’m sure you could list several people who haven’t changed in spite of their experiences; that may be good, that may be bad, but if the point of characters is believability first of all, I don’t see how change matters, unless lack of change matters just as much.

When your writing is character driven, it’s because people interest you more than the events surrounding them, and the events that affect them are much the same events that affect us. When my writing is plot driven, it’s because I’m writing about characters who have larger concerns, because those are the kind of characters that interest me, and a diplomat trying to stop an interstellar war is not going to pay attention to how many damn bobbleheads he’s collected. You don’t always think of every single item in your room when you walk in, so don’t pretend that’s realistic. Pick the important things to the character at that exact moment, so will know which ones are important; don’t insult me by expecting me to . And as far as representing realism, there’s this- if I want to understand a farmer, I’ll go talk to a farmer. They’re not extinct, and they are in fact living, thinking people. People like talking to other people. That’s not an insult to your painstakingly crafted tale of a Nebraskan farmer who’s sick of being asked about corn all the time. I just would rather talk to a person for a few hours and make a lasting connection than read a book about a fictitious person who’s directly based off of real ones. I read novels to visit other realities, not branches of the same one I already live in.

I’ll tell you this. I’ve read fantasy about plucky minstrels who use magic through music, and I’ve read space opera about a disfigured military genius with a raft of personality issues and a heart of gold. These characters got into all sorts of ridiculous situations, but that didn’t stop them from seeming like real people to me. I’ve seen some very wise statements in genre fiction, both uplifting and sobering, and I’ve seen some very stupid, childish and cynical ones in literary fiction. A good writer transcends genre, and a bad one is still bad no matter how literary the piece. In the end, writing is like every other art. What genre you work in means absolutely nothing- it’s an even pettier version of the same human insecurity that drives racism and sexism- someone writes words expressing many of the same thoughts, but using a different setting. Do you see how stupid that is to obsess over? It’s how you use your words that matters, and what you want to achieve, not whether you get your point across using a bunch of young adults afflicted with PTSD or a sentient bag of luggage with several hundred tiny feet and an infinite appetite.

One thought on “Nitpicking to Nukes #2: Genre Wars

  1. A plot-driven story is where events outside the characters push the story along. A character-driven story is where the story takes place because what the protagonist does. There is of course character-development in plot-driven books (like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but plot doesn’t disappear from a character-driven stories either (like the Book Thief). Neither form of story-telling is necessarily better or worse than the other, but you see more plot-driven stories in certain genres like fantasy and science-fiction and more character-driven stories in realistic fiction.


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