Genrely Speaking: Weird Western

Boy oh boy we have not done this in a while. Long time readers know that genres are a thing that fascinate me, they are at once an attempt to codify stories and make discussing them easier and, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary groupings that carry different connotations among different people. For whatever reason the standards, exceptions and idiosyncrasies of genre classification entice me to think about stories through new lenses as I try and narrow down exactly what defines a story and its thematic content. Now all genres are broad categories and they tend to spawn a bunch of subgenres that narrow the scope to an extent, which for the purpose of Genrely Speaking are counted as regular genres rather than some beast of their own. A subgenre is almost narrow enough to be a useful tool for analysis rather than just a section in the library. 

That is, when it’s not just two genres pasted one on top of the other. 

Enter: The Weird Western. 

As the name implies this genre is built on a base of the Western. It has all the open horizons, independent lives and harsh consequences as that genre but it layers something… extra on top of that. That extra usually comes in the form of some kind of Space Opera or Low Fantasy (or, on rare occasions, some other Fantasy genre). On the one hand a Space Western can serve as a look at technology or social trends when they’re boiled down to just one or a handful of people surviving in harsh places. On the other a Fantasy Western takes many of the superstitions and traditions of the West and makes them real, living forces that the protagonists have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Given the many facets this broad genre can take I’m going to confine “weird western” to the realm of the second half of the blend, the Western with Low Fantasy, and refer to the first half as a Space Western. Note that this doesn’t rule out the Weird Space Western for the truly ambitious writer (see: Jack Irons, the Steel Cowboy.) Given this context, what are the pillars of the Weird Western? 

  1. Personification of the forces of change. This can take many forms, from clashes between Native American and European figures of myth to the personifications of railways directing expansion west to some kind of magical disaster driving people across the plains, some form of the supernatural will be involved in humanity’s move westward. This is true even if the Weird Western is set in some fictional world with no historical ties to the United States. One interpretation of this theme that I found particularly interesting was Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, where zombies started slowly overrunning the West in a metaphor for the creeping dehumanization of mechanization. 
  2. Magic as a treasure to acquire. The West was a place where people grabbed for a great many things. Land, water, livestock, transportation and precious metals to name a few. While all of those things still hold value in most Weird Westerns most of the players in the story are more interested in magic, which serves as a stand in that simplifies and streamlines the many different conflicts of a traditional Western into something a modern audience can easily understand. As modern culture has moved away from the kinds of work that defined the Old West fights over pasture or farm land and the relentless expansion of the railways have lost some of their immediate impact. Many Americans today don’t even own their own property, much less property that they use to sustain themselves. They are more used to wealth and prosperity in the abstract, in terms of bank balance, investment and the like. Magic in a Weird Western typically serves as an analogy to these more familiar landmarks of prosperity and survival and frames the characters’ desires in a format modern readers instantly resonate with. 
  3. A focus on outsiders. While the Western has always had its love for characters from ‘outside’ communities, from the traveling gunfighter to the displaced veteran, they still tend to focus heavily on specific communities. High Noon, Shane and Tombstone all feature very, very local stories with mostly local casts adding maybe one or two outsiders to provide prospective or an audience vantage point. This makes the narrative a bit more grounded and lends the tale an air of believability (roving gunslingers were by far the exception in the West, after all). In Weird Westerns outsiders are often a much bigger part of the narrative, with large numbers of them roving the West in search of the things that make them powerful and effective. Or, on the flip side, the story may feature people who have been displaced from a quiet town or camp and forced into bigger, more mystical environments that they must then learn to survive in. This lends the Weird Western Genre a tendency to build casts of hunter gatherers, rather than farmers or miners. If not balanced properly it can undercut the Western feel of a story (see the novel A Few Souls More for an example of this). 

What are the weaknesses of the Weird Western? It combines two genres that have a limited appeal. The most popular flavors of fantasy are some kind of Modern or Urban Fantasy and High or Epic Fantasy while Western is a genre few people pay much attention to at all. The tropes and archetypes that define the genre just aren’t as immediate and appealing to most people as they used to be. 

The genre also runs a serious risk of doing too much to really excel at any one thing. Most Weird Westerns try to blend a magic system or two with building a realistic supernatural West, strong characters, historical events and real world cultures. They also need a good plot, the ability to write dialog that is at once snappy and somewhat archaic and a sense of the bittersweet nature of a vanishing frontier. The author needs to do all of these things while balancing them so neither half of the Weird/West balance overwhelms the other. It’s a hard genre to do well and not a lot of people will be excited even if you execute perfectly. 

What are the strengths of the Weird Western? Like many forms of fantasy it gives us the ability to examine difficult questions at a bit of a remove. But more than that, when done right it taps into a section of myth that is powerful and currently quite fresh and new to the modern mind. The West is also one of the best settings to juxtapose modern knowledge and understanding with the conflicts of might and right, civilization and nature. Many of the conflicts we face today are the same as were fought in the West, and with the supernatural to personify the clashing forces there’s much you can say quickly and easily in the Weird West. 

The biggest struggle in the Weird West is building a world that will hold both the supernatural and mundane human portions of the narrative. The West was a very specific place and time, as I’ve mentioned before, and you have to be careful how you introduce anything new to it if you wish to keep the defining elements of the Western present. It’s fun, for sure, but also a tricky challenge. There may be something to talk about there. Hm… maybe we’ll take a crack at that next week. 

Genrely Speaking: Horror

Some people love getting scared, particularly when they know they’re actually totally safe. Full disclosure: I’m not one of them. But this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tackle a genre I’m not a fan of so today I want to look at the modern horror story, something cinema has simply dubbed “horror” though it’s a bit different from traditional ghost stories or scary campfire stories.

Horror relies on tricks of production in setting it’s scenes and drawing readers in much more than most genres. Consider the impact of music in films like Halloween or the eerie claustrophobia of the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project (the original). Edgar Allen Poe, mastery of written horror, achieved a similar restricted and unreliable point of view using first person narrators in most of his famous horror stories.

That said, these flourishes are not the pillars that hold up this aesthetic genre. Rather, those hallmarks are:

  1. A sense of isolation. It’s very hard to feel scared in a group of people. Even strangers provide a sense of camaraderie and empathy for most people that builds confidence and helps you avoid horror. So characters must become isolated from those around them in some way before we can get truly scared for them. Poe’s stories almost never mention characters outside the immediate circumstances. The Evil Dead puts it’s characters in an isolated cabin far from civilization that they wind up stranded in due to circumstances. It Follows achieves isolation by making it’s monster visible only to the person it afflicts, leaving the victim alone with the creature even in crowds.
  2. The threat of death. And actual death. Horror requires us to be well and truly scared for the characters in order to work. Death is the most effective threat there is, period. Even horror stories that aren’t chock full of actual death pile death symbolism onto their stories. The unnatural appearance that drives the apprentice to kill his master in The Tell-Tale Heart, the way the girl’s head spins entirely around in The Exorcist, the deaths of the crew in Alien, all of these make it clear to us that the stakes are real.
  3. The unknown. Things we understand are not as scary as those we don’t. Consider the contrast between Alien and Aliens. At first Ripley and company didn’t know what a xenomorph was, what would work against them and what wouldn’t. When Ripley killed the alien and escaped only to face xenomorphs again in a new context the xenomorphs are not presented in the same way as before. While Aliens is certainly a thriller it’s not a horror story like Alien is because the weird biology and full shape of the aliens are known to Ripley and us, the mystery that’s half the horror is gone. This is why so many horror stories have supernatural monsters in them – these creatures can operate by their own rules, rules the audience won’t know until the story tells them, keeping us jumping as we try and figure out what is going to happen next.

What are the weaknesses of the horror genre? The biggest weakness of horror is that it’s grown very trope reliant and characters often make decisions purely because they serve the plot. Going places alone, being dismissive of supernatural forces that have proven their potency and malevolence, these are things that no person with even a passing knowledge of pop culture would do but horror story characters routinely indulge in. This can leave the audience very frustrated with the story and is one of the primary reasons I can’t stand the genre most of the time.

Another weakness is the need to provide the unknown. It’s very easy to wind up with contradictory events that are never explained or previous things known about what characters are facing getting undone just to provide new “mystery” about what’s happening. This is a particular problem in long running horror franchises.

Finally the threat of death hanging over every character means many writers never bother to develop the characters who are dying so their deaths can wind up feeling meaningless and lacking impact. This also makes it easy to pick out who’s going to live just by looking for the well developed character or two. Kind of undercuts the suspense which, in turn, is half of horror.

What are the strengths of the horror genre? As said in the opening, the thrill of something scary happening to someone who’s safe is very powerful. Poe’s horrific stories also provided a glimpse into the worst side of humanity from a place of safety, a benefit I’ve advocated for previously.

Good horror is also a great place to find good examples of narrative tension, story pacing and great villain ascendancies.

Personally I don’t plan on tackling horror in any of my writing and I’ve no desire to dig through the pulpy backlog of “classic” horror. But I’ve read Poe and I do know two things. The best horror has a razor sharp understanding of human nature and refines every step of its tales with the single minded focus of the master craftsman. If those are skills you need examples of you can find them elsewhere but I wouldn’t fault you for seeking them in the horror genre either.

Genrely Speaking: The Mockumentary

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking and wow it’s been a while since we did one of these. Partly because of the schedule I’ve been working on and party because the list of genres I feel qualified to talk about has been steadily shrinking. Today we’re going to look at a characteristic genre that is actually quite new in many respects.

A mockumentary is a work of fiction that takes the format of a factual documentary, “behind the scenes” making-of piece or reality TV show. While everything discussed in the mockumentary is fictional the “facts” of the story will presented as if they were just that – facts. (The “mock” in the title has less to do with insult and more refers to being an approximation of reality, although it can mean both.) While mockumentaries are almost entirely done on TV or in movies aspects of the genre can work their way into other media. In fact Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, while not a mockumentary in the truest sense, frequently quoted from a fictional galactic encyclopedia to give a perspective on events. A more recent example of a written mockumentary, one intended to serve as such, is Max Brooks’ World War Z.

The most famous mockumentary in modern pop culture is undoubtedly the sitcom The Office (in both the British and American incarnations) and people will tend to associate the term with comedy, particularly as it satirizes the easy target that is reality TV.

The highlights of a mockumentary include:

  • Interviews with experts and people who were on the scene. These may include characters who lived through the events the mockumentary is documenting, historians who have studied the characters in question a great deal or technical experts who explain the ins and outs of the way things work.
  • Ambiguous characters. A mockumentary is a genre that cares more about characters than about events, but the structure of the story naturally tends to give you a lot of contradictory information about them. Like in a mystery story – and real life – the things people say about themselves and the things other people say about them rarely mesh in a mockumentary. Part of that is differences between the way characters see themselves and each other, part of that is because some of the information you get in a documentary is bound to be false (deliberately or not) and so mockumentaries must be the same.
  • A lot of world building. There’s a lot of chances to slip in tidbits about a fictional world in a mockumentary. Was there an extinct race of elves on one continent of your world? Maybe a major character had an interest in collecting artifact from their civilization, a fact brought up during an interview with a close friend. The audience not only learns about your character’s interest in archaeology they learn the world once had elves. You can be more direct as well. In a mockumentary about deep space colonization you can have an expert on shipbuilding explain why a specific faster than light drive was chosen for an expedition and explain the “science” behind the drive at the same time. The possibilities are endless.

What are the weaknesses of a mockumentary? With ambiguous characters around every corner it can be harder to get attached to them simply because the narrators aren’t trustworthy. In most fiction the reader assumes they’re getting straight facts even if the work is written in the first person. But a mockumentary frequently introduces contradictory narratives to keep us on our toes. Even when the audience gets to see events “as they really happened” they still have to decide whether they trust the personal testimonies given after the facts. Constantly looking out for spin from fictional characters can be exhausting and too much like real life for some people

On top of that, it’s easy for mockumentaries to get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the story. Too much time spent exploring all the viewpoints in a story, too much emphasis put on worldbuilding details instead of plot progression, and the story can fall apart. Even if the writer does a brilliant job audiences can still get fatigued with all the work needed to track it all.

In short, it’s very easy to overwork your audience with a mockumentary.

What are the strengths of a mockumentary? While characters will undoubtedly come off as ambiguous due to the way they are presented they can still be studied in much more depth in this genre than in most. A mockumentary is as much about the testimony about an event or series of events as the events themselves. What people say about something a simple as a car accident on the street can reveal a lot about who they are and what kinds of priorities they have. Done right, a mockumentary can provide powerful character studies.

I don’t think the mockumentary is ever going to “take off” and become a powerful force in the literary or entertainment worlds. They require a lot of work on the parts of both the creators and the audience, and the kinds of stories you can tell within the strictures of the genre are pretty limited. But that doesn’t mean the genre is bad – in fact, there are few other genres suited to the kinds of stories it wants to tell. The fact that without it we would have missed out on those stories is probably enough to make it a good genre.

The only real question is if it will ever be great. I can’t answer that but I have no problem with watching to see if it can.

Genrely Speaking: The Western

Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. I know I promised you all more fiction at some point and trust me, I ‘m working on it, but these bits tend to be fairly popular too and I wanted to come back to genres once before turning back to fiction. So let’s take a look at a genre that I am personally not very invested in, but is still a major part of American literature.

While Westerns immediately conjure up images of the cowboy, the genre’s most common protagonist, there’s actually a lot of other figures that could populate a tale in the Old West. And it’s even possible to create a story with the Western feel without having to actually go to the historic time and place of the Western United States, circa 1870-1890. What you really need are the following:

  1. The feeling of openness. This, of course, comes mostly from the landscape. The Western plains are flat and featureless, giving the sensation of infinite possibility just across the horizon. Add in the very small number of people living there and that sensation only intensifies. It’s one of the reasons we see “space westerns” crop up from time to time in the form of shows like Firefly and the original form of Star Trek, to say nothing of anime series Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun – outer space is the ultimate unlimited space. But this sense of openness extends to characters as well. The cowboy is the cliché of the Western, but many other characters populate these stories without anyone giving them a second glance. Robbers, prostitutes, miners, railway men and private investors all swarmed through the West and people never batted an eye. Watch El Dorado with John Wayne some time to get a feel for the many faces that can appear in a Western with nary a blink of an eye. From tough girl Joey McDonald (Michele Carey) who actually shoots Cole Thorton (John Wayne) to Mississippi (James Caan) who’s to green to even shoot, there’s a wealth of strong characters that avoid or earn most cliches nicely and who never earn a strange look from anyone else.
  2. The importance of independence. Characters in Westerns are at their most noble when they make their own decisions. Even El Dorado’s Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) is shown as something of a noble character simply because he decides who to work for and does it with all the considerable skill he possesses. The fact that he’s working for something of a villain doesn’t bother Thorton – those are just the kinds of decisions a person has to make. And a few months beforehand, Cole had been thinking about working for the same villain, so he understands the other side of the story. The important factor is that the characters are their own selves, and seek to remain so in spite of circumstances.
  3. The necessity of consequences. With all this independence running around and all these options to choose from there’s got to be another shoe dropping and it’s called consequences. People think of Westerns as all white hat/black hat in part because it shows people making decisions and then quickly facing the consequences of them. Joey McDonald shot Cole Thorton and, as a result, when the McDonald family needed Cole’s help he wasn’t able to help as much as he’d like because of the lingering consequences of his wound. Nelson McLeod worked for a villain and he wound up getting killed. But it’s important to note that Westerns try not to say whether the consequences came about because a decision was good or evil. Westerns are (typically) stories set right after the Civil War after all. Many people who went West had just fought a terrible war and, while they still felt there were things that were right and things that were wrong, they were much less willing to say for sure what those things were. The war had opened their eyes in many ways. The Western simply sees the facts of life – you make a decision and then the consequences come for you, for better or for worse. Even the vast open plains will only let you run from that for so long.

What are the weaknesses of the Western? Westerns are stories from a comparatively simple time. Frontier living was much more straightforward than life today and this is part of where the Western’s simply accept and deal attitude towards consequences comes from. But it can make these stories harder for a modern audience to accept.

Particularly because consequences in the Old West were doled out by whoever had the most raw power at any given moment, very different from the lives most people today live.

What are the strengths of the Western? Westerns are American myth, and thus have much of the appeal of all the great mythological traditions. Larger than life characters, chances for teachable moments and plenty of memorable moments to use as touchstones.

Westerns aren’t exactly “in favor” at the moment. They speak to a time gone by in imagery that is very steeped in that era. The age of the Old West isn’t far enough gone to be classic but not so near as to seem nostalgic or even relevant. But given time this genre will no doubt come back into some of its own and continue to do good work in the landscape of American storytelling.

 

Genrely Speaking: Superhero Literature

This is a genre. Seriously.

Superheroes are big right now and writing novels about them has slowly started to gain ground as writers interested in telling their own superheroic stories have realized just how difficult it is to break into the comic publishing industries. The two big comic publishing houses are reluctant to throw resources behind unknown characters/authors and the process of printing comic books, which the American market expects to come in color, is very expensive for smaller/independent publishers so not many new titles get started that way, either.

That pretty much leaves writers wanting to dig into superheroes but with no artistic skill of their own two options – find an artist willing to work with them and pursue the webcomic route or write a novel. Artists willing to work on these kinds of independent projects are hard to come by so we’re seeing more and more superhero literature turning up. To be fair, novels are capable of many things comic books are not and authors may also be drawn to that. So what are the signifiers of superhero literature?

  1. Superheroes. Or at the very least people with the powers of superheroes, going the whole nine yards and including costumes, codenames and the like is optional although the best examples of the genre that I’ve seen find very good reasons to include both (particularly Marion G. Harmon’s excellent series Wearing the Cape). Note that these characters do not have to be at the center of the story, they just have to be present. Carrie Vaughn’s End of the Golden Age features a completely normal protagonist and is probably the best-written example of the genre I’ve read.
  2. A strong emphasis on physical conflict. A direct influence of the genre’s original incarnation, superheroes have always been a bit of a power fantasy and the ultimate fulfillment of that fantasy is being able to stand up to danger in the most direct way possible. Whether it’s stopping a tsunami or battling a supervillain expect superhero fiction to have the protagonist right there on the scene, facing the opposition with their bare hands and whatever powers at their disposal.
  3. Analysis of the emotional and long-term consequences of the conflicts the protagonist are caught up in. This is what really sets the genre apart from comic books. Producing comic panels that accurately convey subtler nuances of emotion is difficult, as is having enough text space to really delve into a character’s psyche. Raw text allows much more depth to be explored and is much cheaper to produce. This is not a license for satire, the story must take the superheroics of its characters absolutely seriously and show people reacting to them in authentic ways. When it does, superhero literature is at its best.

What are the weaknesses of superhero literature? Setting aside the inherent ridiculousness of the concept the genre has a strong emphasis on sensationalism and wish fulfillment that, when not handled well, can make it feel very juvenile. Of the three points listed above #3 is the most important in making the story work – if the emotional depth or realistic look at consequences is missing then the willing suspension of disbelief will quickly fall apart for all but the most hardcore audiences – who are probably all reading comic books and not that interested in pure text.

Which is the genre’s other weakness. Superhero literature is for those who like the abstract idea of superheroes but have never found that idea taken in a direction they care for by most comics publishers. It’s not likely to be a point of contact between book lovers and comic lovers and we’re not likely to ever see a series of novels focusing on big name properties like Superman or Iron Man simply because those characters’ stories are already being told in another medium that fans like better.

What are the strengths of superhero literature? There are a lot of serious questions the idea of superheroes would raise in any society. Few of those serious questions are addressed in comics and, when they are, the constraints of the medium (25-40 pages of story a month in most cases) can really cramp comics ability to answer them. While some titles, like Irredeemable, have tangled with the these ideas a little and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman promises some of the same the societal implications of superheroes that are a running subtheme in Wearing the Cape, no other medium can go as deep as a novel.

Also, while superheroes are often presented to audiences as role models what exactly that means for people when those role models come up short is rarely addressed in comics. Both End of the Golden Age and Alex Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible offer interesting insight into what trying to be a heroic role model might cost heroes shouldering the mantle of role model – and those who love them.

Superhero literature is a very young genre, the youngest we’ve tackled so far, and as such there’s a lot to be desired in it. That said it does show promise in taking a very popular kind of story of the era and making it something a little deeper and more challenging. All in all, well worth a look every now and then to see how it’s developing.

Genrely Speaking: Ghost Stories

Yeah, it’s that time again. In many ways, this genre is a spiritual successor to the fairy tale and in truth ghost stories probably started as a modern offshoot of folklore. However at this point it kind of exists as its own thing, with its own purposes and that makes it a genre of its own. What’s more, ghost stories are very popular, enduring and “grown up” modern stories where fairy tales are considered old fashioned and “childish” and generally a niche thing, baring reinterpretations aimed at a mass audience.

So what, exactly, is a ghost story?

  1. It is a story focusing on a string of unexplained events popularly credited to a supernatural force, namely a person who is now dead. Yes, I consider stories about demonic entities, such as The Exorcist, to be separate subgenres with their own conventions and tropes. In order to be a ghost story there must be a ghost, or at least the idea of a ghost. The quintessential American ghost story is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the reader is never clearly told whether Ichabod Crane’s terror is inspired by a ghost or just a jealous rival masquerading as one. Of course some ghost stories go all one way or the other – all Scooby Doo ghosts and goblins prove to be normal people plus some tricks while Jacob Marley is generally accepted as quite real in A Christmas Carol. The main point is that the idea of a ghost has to be present as an inciting incident.
  2. A focus on the state of the dead person before and after their death as a motivation. This is most pronounced in A Christmas Carol, with a heavy emphasis between Marley’s contentment with life before death versus his horrible state after death. Likewise, the nameless Hessian soldier’s loss of his head is exactly what drives his haunting of Sleepy Hollow and makes others terrified of him. Note that, while the states of these spirits are pitiable, they are more the source of motivation for the living characters to act. Yes, some ghost stories present clear cut motivations for a ghost’s actions but even in these stories the dead prompt responses from the living characters at the heart of the story and those reactions are what drives the story forward.
  3. A contrast between courage and exploration and cowardice and superstition. This is most pronounced in Sleepy Hollow, where Crane is strongly contrasted with his rival, “Bram Bones” Van Blunt, a very famous local who seems to possess more fortitude and a keener, if not more learned, mind than Crane. On the other hand, Scrooge’s willingness to travel with the other spirits he meets after Marley’s visit and learn about humanity and relearn his own story shows a courage the character is rarely credited with. Yes, he whines a lot but his circumstances surely justify it to an extent. Scrooge learns and grows where as Crane never does.

What are the weaknesses of a ghost story? As I said before, I truly feel that ghost stories started as just another kind of fairy tale intended to convey a simple moral in a memorable fashion. Unfortunately the memorable fashion was a story of suspense and occasionally horror and those are the aspects of the ghost story that far too many people emphasize in the telling.

A ghost story of cheap thrills and jump scares isn’t going to linger long. Worse, after sitting through a few of these the audience learns to anticipate what is coming and steel themselves against it. Worst of all, a surprisingly large number of people grow out of being easily startled as they age, to the point where a bad ghost story, chasing pure thrills, is going to break against them to no effect. Other than making the teller look silly, perhaps.

What are the strengths of a ghost story? When told well, with good atmosphere and an eye towards pacing, these stories can emphasize feelings of isolation, loneliness and, most importantly, how characters overcome these things or what weaknesses cause others to succumb to them. These are both incredibly valuable lessons that create empathy and understanding in audiences and when handled correctly make for powerful emotional investment for the reader.

Proof is no further than A Christmas Carol, one of the most commonly referenced stories of English literature. A TV show that lasts more than a season or two is probably going to do a homage to it, it has more TV, movie and stage adaptations than perhaps any other work of fiction and the original text still rings true today. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is another prime example, although it hasn’t had the widespread cultural impact of Dickens’ tale it’s still widely recognized and frequently comes up around Halloween.

Ghosts are rarely real things – I’m not going to say they’re never real and when they are they’re probably not what we think they are (dun, dun DUN!) But they hardly need to give you nightmares and, like many things that have little bearing on reality, they can be incredibly useful tools for making characters in stories reflect on themselves and, by extension, prompt audiences to do the same. So don’t be ashamed of reading a ghost story now and then, so long as you can rest in peace when you’re done.

Genrely Speaking: Fractured Fairytales

What’s the big deal? You just take a standard fairy tale and break it, right?

No, not exactly. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, now would I?

Where the fairy tale is one of the oldest genres of literature in the world the fractured fairy tale is one of the newest, in many respects even newer than science fiction. Like it’s cousin the fairy tale it’s a characteristic genre. In fact, most things about the fractured fairy tale are based on the fairy tale but, at the same time, it’s not a metagenre in anything but the most literal meaning, in that it’s a genre that came after the fairy tale.

The genre was really codified by the segment of the same name on the animated TV show The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. In fact, if you want a perfect example of everything the genre is supposed to be you need look no further than that. But at the same time the genre has the potential to be more as seen by one of it’s classic works, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is probably the first fractured fairy fale. The typical hallmarks of this genre of literature include:

  1. Application of logic or modern thought to situations that are clearly not modern. This isn’t a fullblown endorsement of anachronism, although it can go that far, but rather a tendency to give characters in classic stories modern viewpoints to point out how silly those situations would appear to modern people who have never encountered a fairy tale before. This can be done for the purposes of deconstruction or just for laughs. Bonus points if there is at least one character who stubbornly clings to the mindsets of the period the story originally came from and points out why all the modern ideas aren’t making sense either.
  2. A stronger emphasis on character. This is the first principle taken so far it becomes a hallmark all its own. Basically, where a fairy tale presents us with a generic protagonist who is a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto a fractured fairy tale stuffs its main characters (and sometimes its entire cast) full of so many quirks it’s hard to believe there could be anyone in the world like them. Which is the point. The general competence of the Yank vs. the shortsightedness of King Arthur in Twain’s tale is a good example of this – although again, Rocky and Bullwinkle are rife with examples as well.
  3. Loads of humor, frequently in the form of satire. Where the normal fairy tale is told for the lesson a fractured fairy tale exists to help us smile at our foibles. Frequently the humor comes from the aforementioned use of modern perspectives in situations where they don’t always fit. See most of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Of course, Rocky and Bullwinkle was frequently lampooning modern political figures and its fractured fairy tales are no exception but they did it in a way that made the fairy tale conventions look silly at the same time they made their target look silly. But the most frequent target for a fractured fairy tale’s humor should be the fairy tale itself, with its characters running a close second.

What are the weaknesses of a fractured fairy tale? Like all genres that put humor front and center, your audience’s sense of humor is going to dictate a lot. Humor is harder to do in text than it is in live mediums or over recordings as a lot of it is timing and reaction, things the audience must provide in their own head in a written format. This is why fractured fairy tales rely so much on pointing out absurdities – the bizarre is one of the few forms of humor free of the confines of timing. But it’s also something of an acquired taste and one not everyone is going to have.

Also there’s the question of familiarity. Fractured fairy tales assume at least a passing knowledge of the source material, usually European folklore although more rarely folklore traditions from elsewhere in the world. No culture’s folklore is without aspects that look odd to the modern eyes but not everyone is familiar with world folklore – some people aren’t even familiar with their local folklore. That can also contribute to fractured fairy tales being a miss, rather than a hit.

What are the strengths of a fractured fairy tale? They say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and if you’re looking to do satire then the whimsy and general absurdist humor of a fractured fairy tale can really help with that. Once again, look at Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the reasons they got away with the satire in that show is how generally good natured all the humor in the show was. Yes, they were making some political points but not with any ill will at heart.

And when the audience is familiar with the source material it makes for a sort of instant investment for the audience. They know the story already so they’re predisposed to it, whether to like it because it’s a fresh take on a favorite or just looking forward to a good skewering of a story they found weak.

In all the fracture fairy tale is a great kind of yarn, a familiar story skewed just enough to put a smile on our face and make us think. It’s certainly not an easy genre to write in but it sure is a fun one to read or watch when it’s done right.

Genrely Speaking: Fairy Tales

A few weeks ago I talked about Cinderella, the new and old films plus the character, and in the middle of it I had to stop to kinda define what, exactly, a fairy tale was. That got me thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there was some place I could send people so they could know exactly what I meant – okay, enough of that you know what time it is.  Genrely Speaking is where I define literary genres, or at least explain what I mean when I mention them. And since I work at a library that means I know what I’m talking about, right?

No.

Never let that stop me before, though, so let’s get cracking, shall we? Fairy tales are a pretty amorphous group of stuff in the modern era, in fact some people will call anything with a remotely unnatural element to it a fairy tale, but in general it’s a characteristic genre referring to a story with these elements:

  1. An emphasis on circumstances. Jack of beanstalk fame is a fatherless boy who’s family is very poor. Cinderella is a fatherless girl who’s family is wealthy but abuses her. Hamlin is a city overrun with rats. These are the circumstances of the character, the situation they find themselves in, and we tend to be presented with them very matter-of-factly. There’s no backstory, these are just the facts of life. There’s no introspection, each hearer is left to fill that part in on their own.
  2. Character in action. This is the heart of the story. Jack trades his cow for beans, he climbs a magic beanstalk, he robs a giant and defeats him with cunning. He is bold even when others would call it foolish and it pays off in the end. Cinderella serves quietly and kindly in spite of all cruelty but when the opportunity to leave comes she takes it. She is humble and charitable but not a doormat. Hamlin’s leaders make a promise to get rid of the rats but then backpedal on it. They look after their own but are duplicitous with strangers. We never see deeply into the motivations of these decisions, almost as if the people who told the stories knew their hearers would all have different motivations and just wanted to encourage people to act in a certain way regardless of their motives because certain actions were better for all involved.
  3. Poetic justice. The protagonist comes out ahead in ways that show their actions and attitudes were better than those of their enemies. The giant dies chasing Jack even though, as the bigger man, it would probably have been better to admit he’d been outdone and left it at that. Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother loose their eyes and parts of their feet because they did not have the humility to admit they were beaten or the charity to let Cinderella move to a station above theirs (not that she would see herself as above them) while if their heart had been more like Cinderella’s they would have been in no danger. The leaders of Hamlin loose all the young people of the city to the Pied Piper because they broke their word. The end of a fairy tale is always a dispensation of justice be it ever so harsh.

What are the weaknesses of a fairy tale? The biggest two are simplicity and brevity.

Fairy tales are simple stories without much depth to them. They’re stories with morals ranging from the blunt to the anvilicious and they exist pretty much only to tell us why we should or should not behave in a certain way. There’s not much you can cram into that and, as a result, most fairy tale characters experience no character arc, have no background and speak for themselves very little if at all. The stories they live in can be retold in just a few hundred words because really, what more do you need for such flat characters?

What are the strengths of a fairy tale? Simplicity and brevity.

Yes, the characters of a fairy tale barely qualify as “characters” but their very simplicity makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes and wonder if we could do the things they did – and then be inspired to strive for or avoid those actions. The brevity inherent to the genre makes it that much easier to remember the stories. And the whole thing in aggregate has made for one of the most memorable and prolific groups of stories in Western literature.

Walt Disney built much of his empire on fairy tales. Bill Willingham’s Fables is a love letter to the genre. There’s plenty to love about these little tales from long ago even though they aren’t the kinds of stories we tell now. So don’t knock ’em – anything that can last that old has to have something good at its core.

Genrely Speaking: Historical Fiction

Welcome back to Gernrely Speaking, the part of the show where we crack open a genre and look at what it means when we mention it here. As I’ve mentioned before, the literary classifications we call genres exist as much as an expression of opinions as they do a scientific taxonomy of fiction. So keep in mind that any definition of a genre is as much a subjective idea as it is an ironclad classification, which is one of the reasons this segment’s name is a pun based on the phrase “generally speaking”.

Today we’re going to look at a genre that doesn’t get much press these days: Historical fiction.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of historical fiction? You don’t know what it is or what it looks like? Well then we’d better start there. Historical fiction is an aesthetic genre that generally has:

  1. Real History. Lots and lots and lots of history, the historical kind of history that comes out of history books. “Historical” is in the title because there has to be solid, well researched history serving as the foundation for this story. While some of a historical fiction novel is fiction the broad backdrop for the story has to be historical. This is why a novel series like the Thieftaker can kind of sort of qualify as historical fiction – while the main character, his magic and his close associates are fictional, the backdrop of events he lives in are not.
  2. Encounters with historical characters. Much like with it’s counterpart, alternate history, half the fun of historical fiction is seeing known historical figures in a new light. In this case the new light revolves around whatever scenario the new story adds to the historical record. Murder investigations during the revolution? Sounds like the mind of Ben Franklin might be needed. Stuck behind Confederate lines during the Civil War? Enter General Lee! If you’re a history fanboy then historical fiction is definitely a genre for you.
  3. The ability to pass without trace. The heart and soul of historical fiction is that it is something that could have happened during the known historical events depicted in the narrative. It’s a “what if” but a very specific one. So nothing the fictional characters do can have any outcome on actual historical events. No matter how much those events may grate on those characters, both protagonists and antagonists are going to have to live with the verdict of history as we know it.

What are the weaknesses of historical fiction? The biggest drawback to this genre as a writer is the amount of research you will have to put into writing it. The facts have to be right, or someone in your audience is going to spot your mistake and call you on it. Again, this is historical fiction. It has to actually be historical while still being fiction.

The second big hurdle is all those historical characters. While historical figures from ancient times like Ceaser, Nebuchadnezer or King David have a little wiggle room in how we can expect their character or disposition to be displayed, by the dawn of the age of exploration there’s enough written in enough different sources that a competent, well studied author can make a good stab at knowing what an important person was like day to day. And again, you have to get it right because the kind of people who will read these books are the kind of people who will catch these discrepancies and be upset by them.

The third problem is for readers new to the genre. They might find the careful web of historical facts and important events distracting or confusing, taking away their ability to keep track of a well written yarn.

What are the strengths of historical fiction? If you love history you will geek out over well written historical fiction. They’ll mention all the important things and you will most likely love every minute of it. It’s just like a well written tribute to your favorite movie, novel or comic book character – there will be easter eggs and fanservice just waiting for you to catch it. The fact that all the events and characters were real just adds to the fun.

For people who aren’t into history, good historical fiction is a great chance to learn about historical events in a gripping and exciting way. The works of G. A. Henty, a historian from the 19th century, were intended to teach his readers the history of Britain while entertaining them and exciting their imagination. Other authors may put less (or more!) emphasis on the actual historical narrative in their books but all the good ones will make sure there’s plenty of historical fact there. If you love a good book but never managed to make it through a dry history text in school, this may be exactly what you need to start a lifelong love of the past.

Genrely Speaking: Satire

Satire is the last of the three metagenres to get tackled here on Genrely Speaking, the previous two being deconstruction and parody. Satire stands apart from these two metagenres in that it is generally intended in a noncomplementary way. Deconstructions and parodies tend to come from a deep love for a genre and a desire to share it with other people – in the first case, a desire to share it with new audiences in the second a desire to share it more deeply with those who love and enjoy it already. Satire does not come from a love of its source material.

Satire is a metagenre that tries to make an idea, person or genre look ridiculous. Generally it does this by adopting the stance of its target and pushing the ideas until they become absurd.

The hallmarks of satire tend to be as follows:

  1. A very strong tendency to extremes. There’s no middle of the road here, by the very nature of satire it has to be as loud and unreserved. A great example of this comes from the book Animal Farm, where pretty much all of the pigs qualify as ridiculously extreme examples of the kind of propaganda Orwell is satirizing. The horse Boxer is a satire of those who follow such propagandists. Voices in satire tend to be loud because quiet voices tend to sound more reasonable than shouting ones and the point of satire is not to appear reasonable. With one notable exception.
  2. The voice of reason. The point of satire is to push things to such an extreme that the audience is repulsed by it but, at the same time, it’s important to make it clear that the author is not actively endorsing it. So there tends to be this one sane person that tries to bring reason to this totally insane situation and inevitably fails. It’s important to keep readers from getting the wrong impression. Clover is an example of this from Animal Farm.
  3. No sense of actual reality. The point is to push an idea to utter absurdity and discourage people from thinking that way. So the work almost never tries to keep any semblance of reality. Oddly enough, many satirical works wind up seeming realistic despite themselves – Animal Farm in particular turned out to be eerily prescient, describing the cult of personality surrounding Stalin to a T. But that’s not necessarily the goal.

What are the weaknesses of a satire? The biggest weakness of satire is that it’s not really a very nice approach to looking at bad ideas. People who hold them already are going to be offended by the treatment and people who are undecided on the issue may be put off by the tone most satires take. That’s not to say a satire can’t be done well but it’s a difficult balance to strike and even when you find it the unreality of the approach is probably going to put off as many people as it attracts.

Also, there’s always a small minority of people who just aren’t going to get that a satire is mocking the thing it portrays and interpret it as an endorsement for something terrible. Or worse an endorsement for something positive. A more clear cut repudiation of a philosophy would probably serve better.

What are the strengths of a satire? They can be a vehicle for a very prescient engagement with an idea when handled very well. George Orwell wrote two very cutting satires (Animal Farm and 1984) that have stood the test of time, in no small part because he effectively showed how bleak the ideas he was attacking were.

In the end, satire is a very two-edged sword. It can leave a very, very memorable impression but it is going to put a lot of people off, particularly if you don’t use it well. Some people have chosen to put elements of satire into works that, on the whole, are not at all satirical. The character of Gideon Gleeful, from Gravity Falls, is a very modern example of this, satirizing TV psychics and faith healers while still serving to advance the general mystery driven plot of the show.

Ultimately, the use of satire is a personal choice, usually driven by how strong a person’s feelings on a subject is and how they want to address them. How much a person likes satire is the same – some people will like it and some will hate it. You won’t have to read much of one to know which one you are and, if you don’t like what you see, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning it.