Saturday, January 21, 2012

Genre mixing

Another storytelling talent that I picked up from my (de)mentor, Joss Whedon, is genre-mixing. For instance, Buffy is a high school story and a paranormal story (though lately, those are starting to feel like the same genre), Firefly is space sci-fi and a Western (a combination that every viewer now wishes they'd thought of), and Dollhouse ... well, Dollhouse is all sorts of things. (I'd call it a delicious mix of modern-day science fiction, spy story, and romance story.)

Aaaaand I'm already using way too many parentheses. Whee!

Anyway. Mixing genres is like mixing drinks -- it expands your pallete (both the writer's and the reader's). It allows you to experiment with previously-untried combinations, and can give your story a richer,  more pleasing taste. Of course, just like mixing drinks, sometimes the experiments end really badly, and you end up at the sink, desperately spitting and washing your mouth out. But we won't talk about that.

I've heard some suggestions that mixing genres can be dangerous, especially for a new author. The theory goes that the way to sell books is to appeal to familiar, well-worn market niches. People like what they recognize. They gravitate to what they understand. Make your story safe, or watch  it sit on the shelves. I've particularly heard that traditional publishing houses tend to reject proposals  that don't fit such niches.

Well, here's my humble opinion: it's time to give our readers more credit. Yes, the familiar is comfortable, but, at the same time, the whole reason that people read fantasy books is out of a longing for the unfamiliar. If readers want routine, there are plenty of places for them to get it (like the day job). Formula can be fun, but I choose to believe that people who read my books are ready for excitement and adventure.

And so, for instance, when I wrote Atticus for the Undead, I decided to do something I'd never seen before:  combine urban fantasy and legal procedurals. After all, I like both Law & Order and Buffy, surely I'm not the only one, right? I had friends who could enjoy both genres. I'd had teachers and even law school classmates who liked both (I knew I would fit in at law school when I met the student who did cosplay in her spare time). And the rumors I'd heard said that many law professors loved Battlestar Galactica because of the novel ways it presented real-world legal and constitutional issues. Well, if Ron Moore can do it, why can't I? (Other than the fact that he's about 1,098349181 X better as a storyteller than I am.)

Similarly, The Weaver Saga combines paranormal/urban fantasy elements with cop/detective fiction. Granted, that's a combo that has been tried before (see X-Files and its progeny), but it still provided me a broader range of storytelling tricks than I'd have had in either genre alone. And I took the combo one step further by adding in Young Adult elements.

I'm still very much starting out as an author, but if mixed books are like mixed drinks, my readers so far seem to feel that I'm a pretty good bartender. And that's enough for me.

So, in summary, Whedon was right again. (Duh.) People come to fantasy so it will spark their imaginations. And one great way to stir the imagination is by shaking up genre conventions.

1 comment:

  1. Great ideas for combinations, John. I'll have to check out the books. Thanks for this post, and thanks for tweeting.