Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, it’s once again time to break down a genre and see what makes it work. And what better genre to break down than the deconstruction?
Tropes are the tools of writers. They provide readymade structure for a story, a character, a scene or an exchange of dialog. They set the standard and, although a story is pure mediocrity if the standard is all it achieves, tropes are still very useful if applied in a thoughtful and informed fashion. But.
All genres tend to have tropes pile up around them. All genres can become over-stylized, over-formalized, totally divorced from verisimilitude and meaningless as a reflection of the human condition. When this happens the genre stops serving anything other than itself and rapidly devolves into empty entertainment until, eventually, it stops being entertaining. Unless.
If a creator with a firm understanding of the genre itself and what purpose it serves in addressing the human condition comes along and carefully, lovingly takes all those extraneous tropes that have attached themselves to the genre like barnacles and pries them loose he can go back to the roots. By looking at the original purpose of the stories and breaking off everything that no longer serves to advance those purposes the creator literally deconstructs the genre as it is understood in modern times and leaves behind the core impact, revitalizing the genre and making it relevant to us once again. This is the deconstruction.
Deconstruction is mostly a characteristic genre, since the tropes of a genre that have the hardest time changing are those that revolve around the people populating the story. Genres tend to gain or loose favor as their themes gain or loose prominence in society while the aesthetics of a genre either change to fit or split off into new genres (as we see with the divergence of alternate history and steampunk). So how exactly do you recognize a deconstruction when you’re reading one?
- Look for an emphasis on normal, relatable central characters. The main character is where genres seem to build up the most tropes. Be it amnesia in action or fantasy stories, the grizzled soldier in war movies or the hardboiled detective in noir, fiction tends to wind up filled to the brim with characters who look nothing like real people. The first thing a deconstruction does is pull all of that away and rebuild the central cast as the most normal, relatable characters the creator can think of. Inevitably these characters will be defined by tropes and themes that the creator, and not necessarily the audience, can relate to (I’m looking at you Neon Genesis Evangelion) but the point is that the creator is trying to put the characters at the center of the story back in touch with reality.
- At least one or two supporting characters who are very much average or below average. Not to harp on this too much but we’re going to harp on it. Deconstructions are trying to take the genre aesthetics they’re founded in and bring them back in touch to normal life. That means not only bringing the leading characters back closer to normal but, given that most fiction is inherently a little unbelievable, it means making characters that are completely normal, who’s only tie to abnormality is their connection to the main characters, not only to ground the central characters but to give the audience a stronger connection to the story through more characters like them.
- An emphasis on real, believable consequences to character’s decisions, especially as regards their relationships with one another. In buddy movies the two central characters often forgive each other’s mistakes with little to no hurt feelings or anger. Fantasy stories often use magic to sidestep death or other realistic consequences (sci-fi sometimes does the same with technology). Many genres allow characters to achieve a significant degree of emotional intimacy in a short period of time. Deconstructions tend to eschew these shortcuts.
What are the weaknesses of deconstruction fiction? In and of itself, a deconstruction does not stand out. Many people will not be able to tell the difference between a deconstructed space opera and a regular one. In fact, this is ideal – deconstructions do not aim to change the genre they are deconstructing but rather bring about a sort of Renaissance in it, making the genre more relevant and vital to the culture of the times.
Also, a deconstruction is not a parody although sometimes it can be treated as such. That’s always bad for the work, since a parody seeks to playfully poke fun at the tropes at the core of a genre while a deconstruction aims to take out every element that isn’t the foundation of a genre. The two takes on a genre will actively work against each other and wise writers will avoid this. Worse, since a deconstruction aims at making a genre accessible to a new audience while a parody requires knowledge of a genre to make sense, parodying a genre you’re deconstructing can actually alienate the very audience you’re most trying to reach.
Finally, if it’s not done by someone who really loves and appreciates what the genre they’re deconstructing brings to the table there’s a real risk that the deconstruction will come off as mean spirited or just disrespectful. Yes, the point is to help a genre shed all the baggage it no longer needs and get a fresh start but, just like trying to do that with a person, if you don’t handle the genre in a loving and patient fashion you’re just going to make people mad.
What are the strengths of deconstruction fiction? First and foremost, it brings new life and new light to stories that could seem old and tired. As surprising as it now seems to us, given their wild popularity and the widespread imitation of them, Tolkien’s works were, in a way, a deconstruction of the Norse and Scandinavian myths that he loved so much. But instead of the fearless warriors of unparalleled skill that tended to populate those stories, Tolkien’s preeminent characters were… short, kind of portly people who loved gardens and good food.
Tolkien made the epic myth relevant to the people of Britain in his day by making the people who headlined those myths totally relatable and understandable to the people of his day.
But beyond that, deconstructions actually reinforce the central message of the genre. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. While the Plutonian isn’t exactly normal, he doesn’t have the unflinching morals or sterling character of the Last Son of Krypton. He’s dysfunctional, neurotic and incredibly self-centered, unfortunately making him much like the cultural icons of now. His eventual self-destruction and descent into depravity is something we’ve seen from very many celebrities and seeing it raises questions about how our modern day society treats the people we idolize.
And yet in the midst of that Waid gives us Qubit. With every bit the unshakeable moral core the Plutonian lacks, Qubit holds up everything that is central to superheroes. Might for right. Protection for the powerless. Mercy, even for the worst. And in the end, we find that it’s Qubit who’s held the center, Qubit who’s set the example for his fellows and Qubit who’s refuted the idea that a man, no matter how far he’s fallen, can be irredeemable. And at the end of it, the poor man just wants to be remembered for doing his part and standing by his friends.
At it’s core, a deconstruction tries to do exactly what these two stories did. They try to take the old, the tired, the no longer comprehensible, and revitalize it by once more putting us at the center of the story and shouting out the importance of their messages straight into our lives.