Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Formulaic Fantasy

When I was in college, I had a particular professor who taught a particular class on novel writing.  I actually really liked the professor's teaching style, and her class was one of my favorites.  However, this professor was also, shall we say, an academic reader.  She didn't put much stock in scifi/fantasy literature.  She went around saying that it all fantasy is formulaic.

I was always mildly offended by this.  (Or maybe not so mildly.) It seems to me that the only people who would seriously believe this to be true are those who've never actually read fantasy (enter Professor Pretentious).  Of course there's your basic good vs evil conflicts, but they exist to a greater or lesser extent in every story and every genre.  If not, your story SUCKS! (Or, you know, something less harsh than that.)  Anyway, the only difference with scifi/fantasy is that the conflicts tend to be more tangible, but not preachy.

So how do you avoid writing formulaic stories, and is it really all that important?

While we writers should always strive to be creative and tell unique stories, I can't help but feel like the comment about fantasy being formulaic is the kind of excuse people use to bash on something they've never tried to understand. (Like the kind of thing people who've never heard a Garth Brooks song in their lives say about country music).  While I'm all about everyone having their own opinions, most people who make these kinds of broad over-generalizations have never given the thing they're bashing on a chance to work on them.  And (brace for a shock) most people who claim with a sniff that they don't like scifi/fantasy novels find that when they actually read one, they enjoy it in spite of themselves.

Truth be told, all fiction is somewhat formulaic by nature.  If you write for any amount of time, it becomes clear that there are only so many types of conflicts that your characters can face.  One obscure philosopher (maybe you've heard of him; his name was Aristotle) said there were only three: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself.  Of course you can always bring emotional words into it like love, hope, courage, etc.  No matter how many categories and subcategories you go with, there's still a finite number, so fiction by definition is somewhat formulaic.

So why do people continue to read new fiction (much less get excited about it) if all the conflicts have been explored before?  Because we learn to avoid true formulaic fiction.  The answer, it seems to me, is in the details.  New and interesting characters, new angles on age-old conflicts, and a surprising twist every so often to give the reader a swift shock in the pants keeps them coming back for more.  Let's use Katniss Everdeen as an example.  The Hunger Games presents all three of the classic conflicts at various times, but we (as vicarious readers) are facing them in an unpredictable arena that terrifies us, from the point of view of a stubborn, independent girl whose family is on the line.  Anyone who's ever felt protective of a younger sibling can identify with that, so we feel compassion for Katniss and want to see how it all turns out.

By exploring conflicts from different angles and the POVs of different kinds of people (i.e. characters) we continually better our understanding of the human experience.  And there is nothing formulaic about that.

What are your thoughts?

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