do a D&D games genre story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 2)

Okay, and we’re back with the second instalment of this series looking at the stories (and fun!) that come out of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games that you can play with friends over Zoom or whatever as the world crumbles away outside.

A reminder – this series is aimed at folks, especially writers and storytellers, who are interested in getting into D&D but don’t have much experience in playing/running RPGs. If you know such a person, tell them about these posts!

The D&D story revisited

Role-playing games are (to my mind at least) collaboratively creating and telling a story.

I said in my last post that D&D primarily creates a particular style of story – action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations and defeating antagonists.

In hindsight, I should have unpacked ‘action-adventure’ as an aspect of tone. The tone of modern D&D is less like The Lord of the Rings (the books) and more like The Lord of the Rings (the movies), and probably even more like The Hobbit (the movies, I’m sorry). Battles and physical action are the main theatre of conflict, but that action is neither cartoonish and slight or grim and heavy.

Just like The Hobbit, D&D features white men killing dudes while glowering sexily.

(Tone is one of the biggest points of variation amongst fantasy games, to the point where I can’t really pull it out as a separate topic and instead touch on it throughout this post.)

Anyway – if you like these kind of stories, and already own some D&D books, you’re good to go! If you want to try something else, let’s discuss this (very much non-exhaustive) selection of alternative fantasy games and the stories they create.

(A quick aside – Some of these games are available in print, while others are ebook only. That’s how publishing works now. I’ll give links where I can and you can dig into formats if anything catches your eye.)

The same but cheaper

The first works in any medium tend to set expectations and shape responses – that’s why so many ‘Golden Age’ sci-fi stories are fuckin’ racist – and gaming is no different. D&D kicked it all off, and 50-ish years later, there’s still a strong ‘this is what RPGs are meant to be’ school of thought.

These games were all written by D&D designers, feel pretty much like D&D, have rules about as complex as D&D‘s, and create stories that fit squarely into the D&D oeuvre. Except gamers won’t spend D&D money on games that aren’t called D&D, so these games all come as thick standalone books that don’t cost 200 bucks.

Pathfinder: In fact, this game was once D&D! Specifically, it’s a light reworking of D&D v3.5, made as a competitor product because a very noisy segment of the market hated D&D v4. Over time, it evolved to become… still exactly the same as D&D, but with a fanbase who will tell you it’s totally different. Pathfinder ain’t for me (even though I wrote an adventure for it), but if you like granular detail, high production values and long, epic adventures (that you will probably read but never run), give it a look.

Fantasy Age: While its rules are a bit simpler, this game’s style, tone and stories are solidly in the D&D wheelhouse. I’m personally more interested in its two sister games – Dragon Age (based on the video game) and Blue Rose (‘romantic fantasy’ ala Mercedes Lackey) as they have more distinctive tones – but Fantasy Age is solid. Also, a new edition is coming that uses the Freeport pirate-fantasy setting as its base; I helped develop that setting and can thus objectively say that this will be the greatest work of art ever crafted by human hand. Probably.

Shadow of the Demon Lord: This game takes the perennial RPG question ‘can my wizard cast a spell to make the orc shit himself to death?’ and runs with it. Like a Cradle of Filth song, this game walks the line between scary grossness and fun-to-laugh-at-grossness, and bluntly does a better job of it.While Shadow presents a big tonal shift, with lots of horror elements and black metal guitar riffs, it fully supports D&D-style stories.

Numenera: Some people believe that ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fantasy’ are meaningfully distinct genres. Some people will believe anything. Numenera presents itself as different and innovative, but the stories it encourages are just like those of D&D except with ‘nanotechnology!’ <jazz hands> instead of magic. Honestly, I don’t much care for it, but I know folks who find a lot of value in its tweaks to tone and flavour, and you might also be one of them.

Problem children

Let’s move on to games that depart from the established story template. Are there fantasy games that don’t revolve around solving problems?

…yes, but not that many. Problems and obstacles are great ways to present conflict, and we all accept that conflict is the foundation of all good stories. (Although Ursula le Guin disagreed, because she was smarter and wiser than other writers.) Also, fantasy is a genre that strongly pushes problem-solving as a trope because it means characters engage with the external world, and the point of fantasy is to present and explore an imagined world that clearly differs from our own.

Instead, fantasy games mostly differ in the types of problems they present. D&D problems tend to be ‘monster threatens to disrupt the status quo in awful ways, please sword it to death.’ What else is there?

Forbidden Lands: This Swedish game focuses around exploring the unknown as its main external challenge, generating stories about survival and discovery rather than heroism and fighting monsters – or at least, fighting monsters for the sake of helping others. It also has a grimy, Nordic prog rock feel to it that’s kinda fun.

Spire: This is a deconstructionist weird fantasy game about dark elf revolutionaries in a skyscraper, and somehow manages to make that concept not just work but sing. While its mission-based playstyle still throws challenges at players, those challenges are about overthrowing the status quo rather than defending it, generating stories about sacrifice, politics and change. It’s a bloody lovely game, this one.

Blades in the Dark: If D&D is an action movie, Blades is a heist film. It’s about criminal gangs in a haunted electropunk Edwardian city – interesting how far we’re drifting from elves and Hobbiton – and the core challenge is committing crimes and intrigues. And if you play long enough to build up momentum, these flip from external challenges (get hired to steal a thing) to internal ones (decide how/where to extend your criminal empire). That’s a really interesting story progression, and part of what makes Blades‘ long game compelling.

…but still, these games are all about external action. Where are the games about interiority and emotion? Turns out they’re largely on, where young designers with fresh ideas about games as both a medium and an industry are publishing innovative, passionate games about the personal stories that interest them. I’m still exploring the games here, but one that leapt out at me is Journey Away, a game about young people exploring their magical world, finding wonderful things and getting to know each other. It’s smart, positive and family-friendly, and generates stories about discovery and friendship in which external conflicts are largely incidental. I want to see more games like this, I want to play more games like this, and given the state of 2020, I want to believe in more stories like this.

There are more D&D-ish story elements and alternatives to discuss, but this post’s gone on far too long already.

Come back in a couple of weeks and let’s get stuck into character, complexity and maybe even which monsters to beat up.

appearances genre

GenreCon be gone (sniff)

So what did you folks do on the weekend?

…look, that was a rhetorical question and you probably shouldn’t bother answering it, because I want to talk about what I did on the weekend, and that was go to Brisbane for GenreCon! This genre-writers’ conference was an absolute blast and I’m still on a bit of a high, marred only by being totally goddamn exhausted by the trip.

Others will, I’m sure, have more detailed and thoughtful posts to write on the con, but this is my space and I ain’t got no time for ‘detailed’ or ‘thoughtful’ or ‘coherent’ or ‘pants’. Let’s just knock out some Bullet Point Fever.

The highlights

  • Going straight from the airport on Friday night to Fat Louie’s karaoke bar, chugging a pile of beers, smashing the living hell out of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and basically rocking the post-reception con crowd like a motherfuckin’ hurricane.
  • Chairing a panel on exploring and writing hybrid genres, which was a terrific topic and one that I found really fascinating. I was blessed with an exceptional panel – romance editor/publisher Kate Cuthbert, romantic thriller author Sandy Curtis and gothic horror/historical fantasy author Kim Wilkins. We had a big, lively crowd and a lot of energy, and the panellists really had a lot of terrific insights and ideas to discuss. It’s the first time I’ve chaired a panel like this, and I hope I did a good job; I asked questions, kept things moving and generally tried to stay out of the spotlight, and I think people seemed to enjoy it. Also, Kim Wilkins is goddamn HILARIOUS, and I nearly burst a frontal lobe when she started miming T-Rex erotica.
  • 1376413_10151707269747536_1627616250_nGetting to finally meet Chuck Wendig, who I’ve known for years through our shared RPG work for White Wolf back in the day. While we’ve sporadically kept in touch, we haven’t actually met until now, and it turns out we get along pretty well. We had some beers, we talked about writing, we posed for photos and I think we had a pretty good time.
  • Getting to meet a whole bunch of other folks, some of whom I knew from Twitter (one of whom turned out to be my high school English teacher, much to our mutual amusement) and many that I didn’t. That was terrific, not just for professional networking purposes (although I did hand out a few business cards) but just because they were good folks and we got along well and then we all went to the pub. I like people who’ll come to the pub with me, especially writers.
  • My wife came with me. And that’s always a highlight.

The lowlights

  • Spending $70 on shitty hotel breakfasts that I didn’t realise weren’t included in the room cost and then vomiting up one of them anyway due to hangover.
  • Oh fuck, that fucking post-karaoke hangover. Fuck. Fuuuuuuuck.
  • Brisbane Airport and the Flight of the Damned getting home at arse-end o’clock last night.
  • …yeah, that’s pretty much it.

The takeaways

No, not the shitty pizza at the airport. A good con is one where you leave with something in your head as well as in your sample bag, and here’s the stuff that’s rattling around in mine right now:

  • At our hybrid genre panel, the authors all agreed that mixing genres (whether in terms of tropes or themes) requires you to read and engage with those genres, because you don’t read or appreciate them in the same way. (See Samuel R. Delaney’s notion of the ‘protocols’ of reading science-fiction.) While I know horror, fantasy and SF pretty well, and I’ve read my fair share of thrillers, crime and even Westerns, I’ve never read a romance novel of any kind, and I’m feeling that this is a lack, especially when it comes to evoking the romantic tension in Raven’s Blood. So I’m going to try to do some reading in the genre and learn from it. This may be difficult because I am Butch and Staunch and Manly GRRRR and have a rusty can of dog food for a heart, but I’m going to give it a shot. Kate Cuthbert has offered to recommend me some books; feel free to do the same if you have some favourites.
  • I attended an excellent workshop on the storytelling and narrative techniques of 80s and 90s action movies, where there was a lot of great discussion about what made films like Die Hard and Aliens great and how to use those strengths in our own writing. One of the strengths these films have is a clearly definable premise, and that’s something I kind of struggle to articulate with Raven’s Blood and with other, as-yet-unwritten ideas. I think I want to work on that, and on better defining the movements between acts in the novel so that the stakes and potential consequences are clearer.
  • At a panel on juggling writing with the rest of your life, Chuck – who is writing and submitting four novels in the next 10 months because he is an insane word robot with coffee-meth for blood – talked about the difference between short-term happiness and long-term satisfaction; between doing things you enjoy for the moment and doing things that eventually make your life better. That’s a divide I’ve always struggled with, but hearing it spelled out like that really helped me get some clarity on my time/energy/focus issues and how in the end they come down to prioritising what actually matters. On top of that, there was the idea that you could retrain your brain to gain happiness from satisfaction, and that blew my fuckin’ mind. If I can make that happen, if I can stop being someone who values ‘having written something’ over ‘actually doing the work of writing something’… hell, people, then I can do anything. And I’m gonna try.
  • The QLD Writers Centre team are fucking awesome. Meg Vann, Peter Ball and the rest of the team of ninjas pulled out a fantastic conference, full of energy and ideas and a willingness to just get things done. I’m really impressed by them, by the revamped State Library where they’re based, by the playfulness and neophilia of the recent Brisbane Writers Festival… it’s enough to make me miss living in Brisbane, just a little bit.
  • So was visiting Brisbane, to be honest. The place has changed, and it looks like it was for the better. I’m not leaving Melbourne, but I’m going to make more of an effort to visit all my friends, family and contacts up there more often. Preferably without braving the Flight of the Damned again.

Did I say a short blog post? Well, we all know I lie about that sort of thing every freakin’ time I post.

Anyway, take it from me if you weren’t there, it was a damn good event. The next one is in 2015, but there’ll apparently be pop-up mini-GC-events happening next year, including ones in Melbourne, Sydney and maybe some other cities. Make sure you catch them if they appear in your town; hunt them down like they’re some kind of multi-limbed creative Pokemon.

And hey, if you’re one of the folks I met at GenreCon, who’ve Googled me or started following me on Twitter, say hello! Read some blog entries, leave some comments, check out the free ebooks (and the cheap ones). Make yourself at home. Tell me a story.



character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it. Should I ask someone to rewrite my essay?

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.


Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

genre obituarist writing

Dramatic licentiousness

So ‘Inbox Zero’ was released into the wilds last Sunday and since then has racked up a measly 20 downloads. That’s not as many as I would like, given that it’s a free story and that I’ve sold more than 100 copies of The Obituarist and if you LOVED me you’d READ it and DISSEMINATE it and I wouldn’t have to BEG you to do YOUR PART in making this RELATIONSHIP work.

But I’m not going to get into that. Readers will find it, in their own time and own way, without any whining on my part. I’ve moved on.

Instead, I would like to talk a bit tonight about what ‘Inbox Zero’ might (or might not) mean for the ongoing development of the Obituarist concept. Because as a result of this story, I find myself starting to think of Kendall Barber as someone who has… adventures.

And I don’t really want that. Or at least, I don’t want to acknowledge it.

But to make sense of this, let’s first talk about dramatic license.

What do we mean by ‘dramatic license’? I think that, in simplest terms, it’s about choosing the interesting over the realistic; it’s making a decision that the world of the story would be better served by not making it line up with the world of the reader. That’s not the same thing as just including things in the story that don’t exist in reality, like dragons or faster-than-light travel; you can have those things and still write a story that cleaves to reality – it’s just a reality with extra stuff in it.

No, dramatic license is about making choices about how the elements of the story (real or imaginary, and let’s face it, they’re all imaginary) behave and develop, and why they go in that direction. To make the facts serve the story, rather than have the story serve the facts. Or at the very least, making up your own facts to replace the inconvenient ones of reality.

Some genre fiction is pretty forgiving to dramatic license, especially fantasy and science fiction. Crime fiction is much less so, because the best crime stories give the impression that they could have really happened, and hewing as close as possible to the real helps immeasurably with that. (Horror stories swap between realism and unrealism depending on what makes a story scarier or more emotionally unsettling, which is why horror is so much fun to write.)

Sometimes license is about physics and medical procedures and the physical doodads of a story, but more often it’s about character – about the decisions and actions characters take and the way the world reacts to those. On that  character level, dramatic license usually boils down to ‘things don’t change’ – because logical consequences aren’t always the consequences you want to explore, and a bad guy that followed all the pointers on those interminable ‘If I Was an Evil Overlord’ lists would bring your story to an early, not-very enjoyable halt. Vampires stay hidden behind the scenes despite investigators learning of their existence. The Dark Lord overlooks that one thing that allows a plucky young adventurer to find his weakness and cast him down. A superhero’s amazing inventions don’t transform the world, and he doesn’t have brain damage or post-traumatic stress disorder despite being punched in the skull by Bane every couple of days.

(You can write a cool story exploring what happens when you don’t take those dramatic liberties, of course. But those stories tend to deconstruct their genres, rather than celebrating them, and sometimes you want to read Justice League (Morrison-era, obviously) rather than Watchmen.)

So to bring this back to The Obituarist, I’ve set up a base in the novella that Kendall Barber is not a detective, and that he doesn’t go around solving crimes all the time – his job is unusual but mundane, his life deliberately ordinary, and when a crime falls into his lap he reluctantly gets involved mostly due to poor decision-making. That’s the setup for a stand-alone crime story, something with boundaries – you pass through, go out the other side and get back to reality.

But now here’s ‘Inbox Zero’, another situation where Kendall gets involved with a crime. I’m also planning a proper sequel, a longer story where – you guessed it – Kendall gets involved with a crime. There’ll probably be 2-4 more stories, long and short, in which our regular guy has to play Sherlock Holmes.

And the logical, real-world effect of this would be that the character does start to think of himself as a detective, as do the people around him, and that he attracts attention due to that; that his world and his personality change to reflect what he does. Which would mean that I wouldn’t be able to write the stories that I want to write – i.e. ones without that change.

So can I fall back on dramatic license and handwave away that logical development in tone and character while staying in the grounded genre of crime fiction?

I sure as hell can, ‘cos I’m gonna play the Murder, She Wrote defence.

How many crimes does your average homicide detective solve in a lifetime? Ten, fifteen, maybe more, maybe less, maybe depends what you mean by ‘solved’, and all that over the course of a 20-30 year career. Jessica Fletcher, a retired teacher turned crime writer, solved 268 murders in 12 years – and no-one said shit about it. No-one went ‘holy crap, that’s impossible’; no-one went ‘holy crap, she must be a serial killer’; the FBI didn’t hire her or lock her up. Within the confines of the narrative, no-one pointed out the sheer crazy fucking impossibility of Jessica Fletcher, and dealing with 268 murders didn’t drive her to drink, heroin or Chippendale shagging.

That’s the big dramatic conceit of ongoing crime fiction – that you can right a wrong and not be changed by it, and not have the world see you differently. That you can do it again, and again, and still be who you were at the start.

And that suits me fine at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have changes and consequences in mind for Kendall Barber; I have shit planned that will turn you white. But I want to keep him in the Jessica Fletcher zone while I do so, and have him say ‘I’m just an IT undertaker, not a detective’ and not have anyone in the story – and hopefully none of you – call bullshit on him (or me).

Come on. You let Angel of Death Fletcher get away with it, and she’s seen more bodies than Larry Flynt.

After all of that waffle about what I want to do with my writing, let’s flip it around – what should you do with yours?

Well, whatever you want. Duh.

If you want to do painstaking research and hew as close to the real as possible, with little or no bending of physics, psychology or logic, then that’s great – many awesome books do exactly that, and their grounding in reality makes them feel genuine and engaging. And if you don’t want to do any of that, if you want to do whatever makes sense for your story even if it doesn’t outside its pages, then that’s fine too, and more than fine, ask guys doing affordable research papers. Because being a writer is a license to make shit up in service to the narrative, and you’re the one who gets to decide when to keep it real and when to dump logic and realism in a sack and set them on fire.

Write what you know, sure – use the real world as your foundation and your font of ideas. Keep your readers engaged with tiny details, make them feel that your world and characters are genuine and not just amorphous blobs.

But stories have their own logic. Drama has its own needs. Characters will do as they must, even if it only makes sense to them (and you). And when the needs of the narrative demand that rivers flow upstream from the sea, then turn your boat around and paddle up a waterfall.

Because if you do it well, if you write it powerfully, your readers will pick up their oars and row right behind you. Reality be damned.

genre superheroes

What is a superhero anyway?

So okay, if I’m gonna talk about superheroes all month, I should probably define my terms, right?

Superheroes are heroes. Who are just super.

…okay, that’s probably not enough.

The problem with the superhero genre is that it’s broad, and inclusive, and has very fuzzy boundaries. Well, I say ‘problem’, but to be honest it’s more like a positive feature because it means so much cool stuff can be included in there. But it gets confused when the genre reaches out to absorb other genres, such as pulp or ‘weird adventure’. Is Hellboy a superhero? Atomic Robo? The delightful Marineman, which you should check out? They’re all larger-than-life characters that have impossible adventures, but the label seems out of place. And I’ve seen attempts to classify characters like Indiana Jones and Perseus as superheroes, which is definitely stretching things too far.

At the same time, some readers want to exclude characters that to me are obviously superheroes. After The Avengers movie came out, I saw a lot of viewers say ‘Hawkeye and Black Widow aren’t superheroes’, which bamboozled me. They wear costumes and have codenames and possess special skills and they’re in the Avengers, so how can they not be superheroes? Usually the logic is ‘they don’t have superpowers’ – which is true, but that’s true of plenty of superheroes. I mean, by that logic Batman isn’t a superhero – and when I said that a few people agreed and then I had to just drink rubbing alcohol until the pain in my head went away.


So it’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and defining it would be hard work for a Saturday morning. So, rather than do the heavy lifting myself, I’m gonna quote someone else who already did the hard yards, comics journalist and Batmanologist Chris Sims at Comics Alliance:

In his very funny Super Villain Handbook — available now at finer bookstores everywhere — War Rocket Ajax’s Matt Wilson does a very nice job of defining what separates a super-villain from an everyday crook. The dividing line there was theatrics, and I think the same holds true for super-heroes. There has to be some kind of sense of grandeur to it.

I do think costumes and codenames are a definite aspect of it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean capes and tights. It means there needs to be a distinctive look for the character…

It’s also pretty crucial that they have abilities far beyond those of a normal person, even if they aren’t outright super-powers. Even characters like Batman and the Punisher, who “don’t have super-powers” are still defined by being way more determined and/or pissed off than any real person could ever sustain, even before you get to stuff like a lifetime of combat training and a family fortune.

And because they have those abilities, they need to be called on to do things that no one else could possibly do. The threats that they face should be on a level that’s somewhere beyond realistic, because the characters themselves have abilities that are beyond realistic…

To me, it’s very important that super-heroes lives up to that title; as obvious as it sounds, they need to be heroic. There has to be an aspect of their character where they’re putting some kind of moral or ideal above themselves, with an element of sacrifice or altruism as the motivation. And that ideal can be as vague or specific as it needs to be…

Thanks, Chris!

I think I’d add something else to that – that superheroes need to be unique but not one-of-a-kind. By that I mean than an individual superhero must have a unique identity, rather then being just Cyborg #17 and there are twenty others running around who are just the same. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be the only super-character in the world; there need to be other unique characters around for them to interact with, whether allies or enemies. I say this because stories about lone super-beings either pull away sharply from the genre, or pull it apart and deconstruct it. I’ve certainly never seen one that remained within the genre and had a central character that remained either ‘super’ or ‘heroic’ by the end.

So those are the points that make the definition for me. In the end, superheroes are like pornography (a quote you should feel free to take out of context): I know what they are when I see them. If a few of them are edge cases, that’s okay; genres have boundaries and some characters sit on or near them, and talking about those characters can be fun. We may not all be on the same page, but at least we’re hopefully all reading from the same book.


Which, again, could be confused with porn.

genre ghost raven writing

Getting my ya-yas out

I don’t understand young-adult (YA) fiction.

I mean, I used to think I did. YA fiction was fiction written for young adults – or teenagers, as we used to call them back in my day. Stories about teenagers, for teenagers, at a teenage reading level. That makes sense, right?

But the eager degree to which less-young adults swoop up and devour YA fiction shows that it’s not as simple as all that. Books like The Hunger Games and Twilight have many, many adult readers, from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. These are stories that resonate with adults, even if adults perhaps do not read them for the same purposes as teenagers – or maybe they do, I don’t know. Look at the way Twilight got snapped up by adult readers, its sexual elements strengthened and made more overt via fanfic, to finally transmogrify into Fifty Shades of Grey and have its pages filled with boners rather than sparkle-vampires while still retaining much of the characterisation and language level of the original. (Or so I assume, anyway, which probably means I’m making an ass of myself, so feel free to correct me.) That suggests that there’s something in those stories (or perhaps the writing approach of those stories) that speaks to adults, and they’ll take those stories and make them theirs by whatever means necessary, often by adding a whole bunch of fucking.

So anyway, many adults read YA fiction and enjoy it. But not me. I read YA books when I was a teenager, but these days I’m in my 40s and pretty much only read adult-adult books. The few times I’ve accidentally started a YA book in the last decade or so, I’ve quickly stopped when I realised that this wasn’t a story that resonated with me. That’s not a judgement on my part… okay, let’s be honest, it probably is a judgement and me looking down on YA books. Because I can be a lit-snob sometimes, even though I try to fight that urge.

But I’m trying to change that, because right now I’m trying to write a YA book, Raven’s Blood. Or, more accurately, what I think might be a YA book. Because, as noted, I don’t read YA and don’t get it. But I think this story might fit nicely into that category, and I’d like to see what working within those genre boundaries is like – which is why I’d like to work out what those boundaries are.

And I think I need some help with that.

So this is not a post where I sit you all down and educate you on what YA really means. This is a post where I hold things up, say ‘Is this it? What about this?’ and hope that you (the collective you) tells me what you think and whether I’m right – or, more importantly, where I’m wrong. Because I mostly learn by getting things wrong.

(I could probably also learn by reading some YA fiction, and I will do that at some point, but I like to get a grounding in theory before moving into practice. Which probably explains why it took so long for me to get a girlfriend in my teens. But I digress.)

This is what I think about when I hear ‘young adult’:


A protagonist that is a teenager, first and foremost, probably around the 17-18 mark. Obviously that varies down a bit (early Harry Potter) and up a little (late Twilight), but nonetheless YA books are almost always about young adults. (Although books about young adults aren’t necessarily YA, of course.) And this makes sense, because the assumed audience want to read about characters that they can personally identify with, characters their own age and with similar problems – making sense of the world, finding love, coping with the fact that their parents are STUPID.

Similarly, the antagonists should be similar to the enemies of teenagers – parents, authority figures, the forces of the adult world that try to dictate and reshape their lives before they’re fully-formed. They don’t have to specifically be those people, but they should fill a similar role. Alternatively, the other great enemy of teenagers is always other teenagers, who chip away at their identity and self-image from the other side and occasionally pants you in front of the class. Adults tell you what you should be; teenagers tell you what you shouldn’t be. Both are there to be overcome, possibly with lightning bolts.

Plot and themes

Does ‘coming-of-age story’ make me sound like Cranky Grandpa? Because that’s honestly what I figure most YA stories have – what they should have – at the core of their plots. They should reflect the lives and concerns of teenagers – the quest for identity, the need to love and be loved, the lure of booze and drugs and internet porn, and pretty much everyone in the world trying to tell you what to do and who to be.

Sometimes those concerns are presented as is; other times they’re reflected through genre tropes, so that there are vampires and aliens and spy agencies and killer bears and all of them are trying to boss you around and stop you from seeing that girl you like. Using genre like this is fun and makes for an engaging story, but can also let you use tropes as metaphors for the sturm und drang of teenage life. From that POV, it makes sense that so many YA stories are dystopias – growing up is always about inheriting the world that older people already fucked up.

And at the end of the story, the teenage protagonist should be that bit closer to adulthood – an adulthood hopefully defined on their terms, rather than just their parents’ or society’s terms. Unless it’s one of those books with a really bummer ending.

Prose style

Look, this is the point where people are going to tell me I’m an arsehole, because my first thought when I hear ‘YA’ is ‘unsophisticated writing style’.

Not, I want to be clear, an unpolished or poorly-written style – just one that is pitched at a teenage reading level. A style that primarily promotes an accessibility of voice and language, that clearly describes the appearance of people and places in mentally-reproducible details, that presents the characters and story and then gets out of the way. It is not the kind of thing we get from Don deLillo or Milorad Pavic, is what I’m saying. (Although now I’m wondering how you could use Pavic’s ergodic approach on YA fiction – like a longer, more complex Choose Your Own Adventure story. Hmm.)

This is certainly the bit where I struggle with YA, because I like my prose to be interesting in and of itself, as both writer and reader. I don’t much like transparent writing; I like stunt-writing that shows off its tricks and puts technique in the spotlight, which is not what I think YA is about.

And this is where I draw my line in the sand between the two books I’m writing right now, Arcadia and Raven’s Blood. Both are about young women trying to define themselves and their place in the world, but they have very different prose styles. Arcadia is all about exploring voice, the use of nested narratives, drawing story from structure – all that kind of high-falutin’ stuff that is probably going to alienate or irritate a lot of adult readers, let alone teenagers. Raven’s Blood, meanwhile, is where I’m trying to write in a clear, straightforward style (with occasional dips into moderate ornament), and that’s why I think that it could be considered YA and why it’s worthwhile trying to write more towards that genre and that market. Once, you know, I actually understand it.

So these are the elements I think of when I think about YA fiction. Am I right or wrong? How would you define the genre – or would you even bother? Most of all, if you’re a YA reader – why do you read it, and what about it speaks to you? If any of what I’ve written is correct, why do those elements appeal to you as an adult reader?

Get in there and leave comments, people – I’d really appreciate it.

(Seriously, comment. I don’t get enough comments, and it leaves me feeling like I’m typing into a void and that the world is empty and the darkness has leaked down from the moon to drown everyone else’s souls and I’m alone SO ALONE if a trees falls onto the blog and nobody comments then my words don’t make a sound.)

genre writing

Genre (part 3) – Let’s you and him not fight for a change

And for one last shake of this ragged and bloody bone before moving on to different topics, let’s talk about literary fiction. Specifically those works held up as ‘literary’ by critics and readers, rather than ‘mainstream’, which basically means books you can buy in Kmart. And let’s talk about why they’re much less of an enemy to genre fiction than genre fiction’s fans are to themselves.

One thing I saw that saddened me while on the genre panel at Continuum was the attitude from a few audience members about how literary fiction was pretentious and boring and not as good/smart/fun/whatever as genre fiction. I had kind of hoped we were finally getting away from that kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defensive nonsense, but I’m not surprised that it’s as thick on the ground as it ever was.

Genre fandom, or even just genre appreciation, can become a form of tribalism, of personal identification, and part of tribalism is the defensive stance against things from other tribes. You sometimes see it within subgroups of a tribe, such as a comics fan who’ll read anything Marvel but never touches DC (or vice versa), but you see a lot more of it against the real invaders, the true tribal outsiders that dare to be popular and critically acclaimed despite not having any cyborgs or elven princesses in them.

I’ve heard genre readers say, in all seriousness, that people only read literary fiction because they want to look intelligent, or because they want to impress girls, or because they have no imagination. That literary fiction is all about middle-class women having affairs and worrying about the drapes, or about liberal white guilt, or just artwanky fucking about with postmodernism and footnotes. (Although they usually shut up about the footnotes when you mention Terry Pratchett.) Above all, they moan that literary fiction doesn’t have enough story, enough ideas, enough fun.

Even if this were true – and I defy anyone to come away from Wonder Boys or The Dumas Club or The Solitudes and complain about the lack of ideas/story/fun in those books, to name but a few – it’s a claim that relies on circular definitions. It presupposes that the point of a text is to deliver readily accessible things like ‘ideas’ and ‘story’, which are the things that genre texts (from all genres) focus on, so that a text that delivers less of those things (or just does so in a less immediate and explicit fashion) is thus a failure, as though those are the only reasons to read a book, or see a film. Identity politics and tribalism; if you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you like this, you have to hate that. If you don’t like this fun thing, you must hate all fun things, and you’re not the one who gets to define ‘fun’ because you’re not in the Fun Tribe. Fucking funoclast.

And then there’s the claim – at best silly, at worst wilfully pernicious – that ‘literary’ fiction is a genre. If that was the case, then we could draw lines of meaningful similarity within any two works in that genre cluster. So what’s the link between Middlesex and Trainspotting? Between The Corrections and The Shadow of the Wind? Between The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Love in the Time of Cholera? What are the common themes, common tropes, common conventions? Or is this just the drive to break up every group into tribes, to validate one’s own personal identification with a boundary to say ‘well, everyone else does it too’, to reduce everything to different colours of soccer jerseys rather than consider the possibility of different sports?

The most you can say about literary fiction (or genre-less fiction or whatever you want to call) it is that it tends (tends) to be work that focuses on underlying themes rather than overt plot or distinctive elements – that it’s about what things mean, rather than which things happen. But what those things are, and what they mean, and why that meaning matters, changes from writer to writer, book to book, even reader to reader. There’s no shared agenda or set of elements; just the desire to create this story, this way, this time. The same desire genre writers have. The same desire every writer has.

(You could also, if you’re feeling mean (and I often do), argue that it’s a field of writing where the bar of quality set a bit higher than in popular/genre fiction, where too often bad writing gets excused because the story has great ideas or a really cool vampire. Sure, there are shitty literary works – I can’t comprehend how Ian McEwan gets sales, let along awards – but fantasy can’t be snooty about good and bad when Cum-Drunk Sluts of Gor gets a bye ‘cos it has swords in it. But I’m not going to argue that. I’ll be good.)

Shit. All I’m doing is ranting now, I admit it (and for like 1000 words). I’m not saying anything useful because this kind of antagonism just fills me with antagonism in return. And it pisses me off, but more than that it makes me sad, because genre fiction can be smart and well-crafted and inspiring and, yes, fun, and I want to see its readers exalt those elements and revel in them, to proselytise (without being creepy) about how enjoyable their favourite book/show/movie/text is and draw other readers/viewers in to share that joy.

And every time they – we – descend into this let’s-you-and-him-fight tribalist bullshit we do ourselves, and those works we love, a disservice. Maybe if we knock off the identity politics, talk about what matters to us, and stop insulting those with the temerity to like something different, we could all start having a better time.

Well, everyone but me. I have blog posts to write, and I’m so good at being a sweary smartarse, after all.

On that note, I’m done talking about genre and its value for the moment. I may come back to the topic some day, but not for a while.

Next time – no more than 2-3 days, I promise – I’ll whack up some flash fiction, talk about some kind of regular schedule, maybe tinker with the theme some more and say ‘fuck’ a couple of times. Get excited.

genre writing

Genre (part 2) – Let the burial commence

(Sorry for taking so long to get this post written; real life has required much of my precious time and sobriety of late. I’ve been editing a tonne of maths books, spending a weekend playing World of Warcraft in Adelaide, and right now I’m on the Sunshine Coast attending a conference. Okay, technically, lying in my hotel room bed half-pissed after attending a conference. So, you know, I have a pile of excuses. It’s not laziness. Well, not just laziness.)

Okay, so I said last time that while genre is flawed, and a blunt instrument, that it still serves as a function as a filter and a way to guide decisions about what to read/view next.

But the thing about blunt instruments is that they’re clumsy and imprecise, they leave scratches on the furniture when you drop them, and they leave dents in your baby’s head when you clamp down to pull him/her into the world. And yes, I’m aware this metaphor is no longer working.

The thing is, when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, or at least a thumb – and when your primary classification and filtering tool is genre, everything starts to get assessed by what boundary it falls within and what label it should attract. And the notion that something doesn’t fall within a boundary, or crosses a boundary, becomes discomforting and less acceptable.

The desire to rigidly codify genres is something I see a lot, along with statements like ‘well, that’s not really science fiction then’, or ‘I prefer to call that ‘science fantasy’’, or ‘Twilight’s not proper horror because the vampires sparkle and it’s all about girls and feelings’. And that’s just confining things to the big three nerd genres; bring in other genres, like romance or crime, and whole new subgenres like ‘paranormal romance’ get invented to prevent nerd germs cross-pollinating and ruining the sacred purity of a construct invented to make it easier to sell books in stores.

Add to this the personal identification some people make with a set of boundaries: ‘I only read science-fiction’, ‘I don’t read horror novels’, ‘We eliminated all the Twilight fans from our fan group during a series of bloody purges.’ And if it seems like I’m picking on people who don’t like Twilight, well, I don’t like Twilight either, but let’s pillory the books (and those who like them) because they’re appalling fuckingly written, not because they bridged the gap between romance and horror and made purists of both genres feel like they weren’t in charge of the label any more.

Genre doesn’t benefit from being a tight codification of rigid rules; all that does is put iron rules in place for marketers and cover designers, who need to know the right proportion of rockets to swords to vampires for the artist. For the rest of us, who above all else (and this can be argued, but I have to keep believing it) want to read good stories, genre labels are more useful when they’re broad; genre boundaries are more useful when they’re porous.

I’m going to quote commenter David from the last post:

We need to stop thinking in Boolean terms, and instead think in terms of fuzzy set theory.

Take Star Wars.

It has spaceships and robots and laser battles. It also has magic. But it has more sci fi characteristics than it has fantasy characteristics, so it gets shelved in the sci fi genre.

Genre is about clusters of similarities, rather than exclusive boxes.

(If you thrill to the thought of me repeating your words to make my arguments better than I could, well, leave a comment! And possibly pursue some kind of therapy.)

Close clusters of meaningful connections make for a more useful concept of genre than rigid definitions inside prescriptive boundaries. That’s a mission statement. So is the fact that, as a writer and a reader, I want genres to include lots of different things, so that I can read and write fun stories without needing to define where they belong and what subgeneric (is that a word?) group they need to be relegated to.

Because, in the end, the story is the thing – the story and the way it’s told. Everything else is distraction.

One more post about genre is on the cards – hopefully written faster and more coherently than this one – then maybe some new flash fiction in the coming days. Blogging regularly is tricky, because I only have a limited supply of wisdom, and usually I use it up by thinking ‘Actually, I’ve had enough to drink now, I should just go home’. But I’ll try to keep some in reserve for you guys. Promise.


genre writing

Genre (part 1) – I come not to bury genre, but to praise it a little bit

As I mentioned last time, I was just on two panels at Continuum 7 on the weekend- one on genre and one on roleplaying. The roleplaying one has sparked some thoughts about character and narrative that I’ll try to crystallise next week, but I thought I’d write a bit this week about some things that got brought up at the genre panel, along with some things I didn’t manage to discuss.

So. Genre. Despite the fact that I read a fair bit of SF/F/H/other-letter, and write it as well, I don’t have a strong interest or affinity for genre as an umbrella concept or label. I’ve never really been comfortable with these crude, broad filters that basically say ‘hey, you liked that book with spaceships, so you should read this book with spaceships in it’. Or it has vampires, or dragons, or Batman. (Okay, admittedly I’ll consider reading anything that has Batman in it.) It’s a very surface appraisal of a work that has everything to do with obvious motifs and tropes, and very little to do with deeper themes or, most importantly of all, quality. Because what I want to read, first and foremost, is good fiction, well-written fiction, and if the writing is good I really don’t care if it’s about nurses or cyborg wendigos.

…and yet, I read and write genre fiction. So why, given that attitude, do I keep coming back to the wendigos rather than focusing on the nurses? And why does genre serve a purpose?

Because crude and broad or not, we need filters sometimes to make decisions about what to read/see/play next, especially as the bookshelves become digital and the range of available texts broadens to the point of incomprehensibility. With more material available to read this year than there had been in the rest of human history, we need some way of winnowing it down and picking out what we want. And unfortunately, ‘well-written’ is a very idiosyncratic filter that has different meanings to everyone who applies it, and the core themes of a work can be interpreted a large number of ways. Genre may be simple, but it works, because even if you can’t agree on the allegorical subtext of Lord of the Rings, we can all agree that it has elves and swordfights. If that’s what you really liked about the book – and there’s nothing wrong with liking elves and swordfights – a basic label that tells you this other book has elves and swordfights works, even if the core themes are completely different and the writing is shit. And if you come away thinking that that book was bad, then that’s a step towards finetuning your filter to winnow out the books that don’t give you what you want.

On top of this, we have the increasingly-rapid change to reader-controlled labels, where it’s the audience that decides how a work should be tagged on online stores and e-book libraries. (And often the author too, but their voice is one among many and doesn’t carry much extra weight.) That’s a powerful tool that helps us group like texts together, and in multiple overlapping bodies, that physical bookstores can’t do. But at the same time, it means that we’re drifting away from fairly well-defined genre labels (which are crude but predictable) to an increasingly large array of subgenre labels, which are precise but far less defined. More to the point, they’re far more individually defined; each reader has their own vocabulary and critical notion of what constitutes a subgenre, and each new tag is another small set of personal preferences dressed up as a real thing.

Broad genres are glyphic – they say a lot, but in a compact, easily transmittable fashion. They’ll have individual spins on it, sure, but two readers will develop reasonably similar conceptions of a body of texts if you say ‘science fiction’ or ‘romance’ or ‘Western’, conceptions that will share a lot of core tropes and themes. You can chain those glyphs together and still retain meaning, but it starts to get vaguer – ‘Western romance’ is going to convey some core meaning, but the edges start getting bigger and fuzzier, and the themes get cloudy.

But subgenres have a lot less utility, because they take out some core elements of a genre and bring in others, and the meaning behind the word hasn’t been nailed down and codified by millions of readers over decades of use. Terms like clockpunk, faithpunk or dickpunchpunk start to promulgate because they sound like they mean something more than a flat, boring genre label, but instead they end up as white noise in a tag list, arguments on web forums, and buzzwords dropped on Twitter to attract more readers.

Except for my work, of course, which is the purest, most genuine dickpunchpunk. I have a manifesto and everything.

I want to keep talking about this, but this post has already taken three days to write thanks to interruptions and a short attention span. So I’ll break it up into pieces and come back to it in a few days – where, after reluctantly lauding genre here, I’ll talk more about how it sucks. It’d be good to get some dialogue going on this, so please, hit the comment button and have your say.