Thinking Out Loud: Reality, Genre, Kind, and Degree

Photoshop -- Suspending reality since 1990
From Flickr user Evonne

I’m doing something a little bit different (for me) when it comes to my NaNoWriMo project this year. My first completed NaNo piece was science fiction, and my second was fantasy. This year, I’m going for something more in the heist-adventure mold. (Think Leverage with a team inspired in part by pulp heroes.) In other words, this will be my first big step outside of speculative fiction. The biggest adjustment I’ve needed to make is figuring out how “realistic” this needs to be.

Speculative fiction (by which I mean mostly science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, and paranormal romance) doesn’t demand much by way of realism. Some elements must be realistic – characters should behave believably in all stories, for instance – but the author has significant leeway with most other aspects. Social norms, geography, and even the laws of physics are all up for grabs in the early stages of planning. (A few subgenres, however, do require that some of those aspects stay relatively realistic. Think mundane social structures in urban fantasy.)

In other words, speculative fiction allows the author to write about worlds that differ in kind, as well as degree, from our own. Outside of those genres, the rules change.

When fantasy books really are magical
From Flickr user Sodanie Chea

This is not to say that all other genres follow strict realism. Crime must occur with greater frequency than is realistic for most protagonists in mysteries, and even those with jobs that would put them in close contact with crime on a regular basis investigate more extreme/outlandish crimes than the typical detective. The threats in a Tom Clancy style thriller may start with a basis in reality, but they typically escalate well beyond what’s likely. And again, even in the cases where the level of the threats is within the realm of possibility, the frequency is often much higher than any reasonable person could expect.

Similarly, the circumstances of romance fiction, while following the laws of physics and usually grounded in what’s at least marginally possible, often depict scenarios, character actions, relationships, and emotions that get far more intense far faster than is typical. Going in a different direction, psychological horror (think Silence of the Lambs), characters will often behave in far more intense ways far more frequently than most people will ever experience.

All of this is good; it’s how drama works. A world full of strictly realistic fiction would get dry in a hurry. One of the reasons people look to genres beyond literary realism for escapism is that they want to vicariously have experiences that are far more intense than their daily lives.

The SUITCASE was the killer? And it's both sentient and a wizard? REALLY?
From Flickr user Donnie Nunley

The distinction between these genres and speculative fiction is that the variations from the “normal” world are only in degree, not in kind. An author who throws a supernatural explanation in at the end of their mystery novel betrays the audience. Similarly, the gritty present-day technothriller that concludes with the deployment of extraterrestrial ray guns as a deus ex machina will likely disappoint.

Once a story deviates from reality in kind as well as degree, it enters the realm of speculative fiction. This is why mysteries that end with a ghost as the killer usually get classified as fantasy or horror, and why the ray gun technothriller won’t disappoint if it’s identified as science fiction (assuming the author does the work earlier in the story of establishing at least the possibility of extraterrestrial ray guns).

In other words, the subgenres of loosely realistic fiction (not literary realism) can be adapted as subgenres of speculative fiction, in addition to the “purely” speculative subgenres like space opera or epic fantasy.

This has been important for me to work through as I’ve been planning my NaNo project. When I first started thinking about it, I felt hamstrung by the constraints of reality. Only when I got to the point of understanding that I could deviate from reality, albeit just in degree, did I start to feel more comfortable developing the idea. It turns out that I can still make nice, pulpy tropes like evil plots and shadow networks work outside of speculative fiction, which was a liberating realization. It also made me glad I’d read enough non-specfic works to realize what was possible within those boundaries.

So how about you? What are your thoughts on genres, reality, and your own writing?


2 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud: Reality, Genre, Kind, and Degree

  1. It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate the more “realistic” genres (crime, historical, hell even romance). For most of my life I was a science fiction/fantasy/high adventure kind of guy. This is reflected in my writing as well. My earliest work was all about adventures in space, through time and other dimensions. It wasn’t until I expanded my reading horizons significantly that I began to notice how vast the literary world is and this even led to my appreciating my favorite genres in a new light. Reading Lovecraft and Weird Fiction and delving into history made me realize a few things. One, truth is stranger than fiction and if you look hard enough you’ll find stories about nearly anything throughout history including evil plots and shadow networks. It’s made my writing so much better knowing that everything has already happened, the job of a writer is to find it and give a narrative gloss. Though I will admit, I find whenever I try my hand at some more realistic fiction, my mind inevitably returns to the fantastic. I guess that’s just how I’m built. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, M.J. Good luck with NaNoWriMoTGIFROFL!

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