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Bad Horse


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Apr
25th
2016

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres · 5:08am Apr 25th, 2016

Mysteries. Everybody thinks they know what they are. I’m beginning to think maybe no one does.

Scholastic’s genre chart says:

Purpose: To engage in and enjoy solving a puzzle. Explore moral satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at resolution. Consider human condition and how to solve or avoid human problems.

study.com says:

The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience.

education.com says:

The plot usually begins with action, intrigue, or suspense to hook the reader. Then, through a series of clues, the protagonist eventually solves the mystery, sometimes placing himself or herself in jeopardy by facing real or perceived danger. All information in the plot (clues) could be important in solving the case, yet in some cases, the author presents misleading information (a red herring) to challenge the reader and the detective. With foreshadowing often used to heighten the suspense, there usually will be several motives for the crime, lots of plot twists, and plenty of alibis that must be investigated. The solution to the crime must come from known information, not a surprise villain introduced in the last chapter of the book; however, the clues must be cleverly planted so that the mystery is not solved too easily or too soon

PBS says:

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a "closed setting" such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the "Watson" at the end.

These state the obvious, but fail to explain the true appeal or source of emotional power of mysteries.

I’ve read three books on fiction writing this year alone that used Sherlock Holmes as an example of a shallow character, including Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. It seemed outrageous to me that, given the entire universe of commercial fiction to choose from, not one but three writers would independently single out Sherlock Holmes as an especially shallow and uninteresting character.

I think they must not have read many Sherlock Holmes stories. I imagine they thought something like this:

Genre fiction does not have interesting characters.

Mystery is the simplest genre, and so should require the simplest characters.

Sherlock Holmes is the best-known fictional detective.

Therefore, Sherlock Holmes is the simplest well-known fictional character.

Sherlock would not approve. :trixieshiftright:

Sherlock Holmes is the original source of fan-fiction. People are still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. And it takes only a passing familiarity with either the original stories, or with the fan-fiction, to see that what fascinates people with Sherlock Holmes stories is Sherlock Holmes.

I thought for a long time that this accusation of simplicity was merely unjust to Sherlock Holmes. Then I remembered Monk, television’s obsessive-compulsive detective. He was another exception. And Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s soft-spoken detective. In fact, almost every detective I knew was an exception!


What are Genres?

What are genres? Why is there a genre called Western in the bookstore, when the world’s output of Westerns today is less than half of fimfiction’s output of ponyfic?

I think that every genre originates around a way of looking at the world, expressed through a central narrative. If I use that as a definition of genre, a lot of things become genres that we currently think of as styles, like Medieval painting, romantic poetry, and Nazi propaganda posters.

Once a genre is established, it mutates and splinters into sub-genres. It gets subverted, meaning its message is reversed. It gets hijacked, its subjects and tropes used as a host to camouflage content from other narratives. (For example, John Keats wrote poems with some romantic values and styles, but neo-classical tropes, characters, and metaphysics. Star Wars, and all other space opera, is fantasy masquerading as science fiction. I could call Gormenghast an existential tragedy masquerading as a fantasy.) A genre’s narrative gets hollowed out and its shell re-used by hack writers who copy all the trappings of a genre, or by clever writers who create something with an entirely different feeling (Murder, She Wrote).

I see these as some of the core worldviews and narratives of some existing genres:

Christian fantasy: The world is fundamentally just. Virtue will be rewarded in the end, even when it defies logic. To overcome evil, a hero must face a conflict between virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics, in which it is obvious that acting virtuously is stupid, illogical, suicidal, and will give victory to the villain. He must then act virtuously anyway, and through some “deeper magic” (C.S. Lewis’ term), this stupid virtuous act will prove to be critical to his victory. (Examples: Aslan letting the Witch kill him in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Sam and Frodo letting Gollum live in Lord of the Rings; Luke switching off his targeting computer in Star Wars.) See my post "Fantasy as deontology”. The social function of fantasy is to dissuade people from doing their own reasoning about ethics. This is perfectly reasonable, since half of all people are below average, and half of all Americans voted for that person you hate.

(I changed this to say "Christian fantasy" due to bookplayer's comment. By this I don't mean just fantasy written by Christians, but the entire tradition derived from them, including writers who aren't Christian. This tradition probably starts with George MacDonald, and continues with GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, & Star Wars. Early 20th-century high fantasy simpliciter focused more on a sense of wonder, and usually approached ethics through the frightening amorality of its other-worldly creatures. Mythago Wood and Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell are more in that tradition.)

Inversion (Black Company, Game of Thrones): The world ought to be just, yet is not, and the virtuous suffer more than the unvirtuous.

Classic Horror: According to Stephen King, horror is Republican. The central narrative is that evil in the world comes from bad people who’ve been corrupted, and the way to fight evil is to identify those who are impure or corrupted (e.g., vampires, zombies), and kill them. The central narrative is that a town is invaded by an outside evil which can appear like ordinary townsfolk (a vampire, a werewolf, alien body-snatchers), and which must be sniffed out and killed to purify and save the town.

Inversion (Heart of Darkness, Fallout: Equestria): Evil comes from good people with good intentions in bad circumstances.
Existential horror (Lovecraft, Lord of the Flies, Sartre, Kafka): Horror is the state of nature, or human nature; “normality” is an illusory construct.
Economic horror (“The Mailmare”): “Civilization” is any social and physical infrastructure that allows good to predominate over evil.

Romance (Harlequin-style): A good man is a bad man who loves a good woman. The central narrative begins when a young woman accidentally meets a man who is slightly older than her, and very successful. She is repulsed by his self-absorbed brooding and his tense paranoia, which makes him seem often on the verge of violence. She antagonizes him in some way. But they’re physically attracted to each other, and meet again, often forced to cooperate by circumstances. She earns his grudging respect, and then his love, which tames his wild ways.

Science fiction: The world fundamentally makes sense. Everything can always be understood. Problems may still be caused by selfishness, but also by misunderstandings and inadequate information. They are never, however, intrinsic, unavoidable, or insoluble as in existential horror, nor due to external circumstances which knowledge alone cannot resolve as in economic horror.

Inversion (“Frankenstein” (the short story, not the movie), Michael Crichton): Science is spiritually arrogant and inherently dangerous.

Western: The world is a violent place that cannot be ruled by law, society, or authority. Government is inherently corrupt. Only lone virtuous violent heroes, unconstrained and uncorrupted by social structures, can cleanse society of its parasites.

Subversion (High Noon, The Gunfighter): Society doesn’t deserve to be saved.

Subversion (The Searchers, Unforgiven): Good guys are just bad guys with good luck and good press.

Mysteries and westerns seem similar. Both conventionally star a lone, eccentric hero who solves problems no one else can, through violence in westerns and logic in mysteries. The main difference is that westerns are drenched in testosterone and self-righteousness, and have happy endings. Mysteries include 2 western-like varieties: the genteel detective stories with happy endings, and the hard-boiled PI stories with violence, testosterone, either self-loathing or self-righteousness, and cynical endings. It seems to me that westerns and mysteries together cover all of some coherent subset of possible fictions.

64% of western readers are men, while 70% of U.S. mystery readers are women. I won’t assume mysteries are just westerns for nerds, but I suspect most readers of PI mysteries are men (especially given Raymond Chandler’s vicious misogynism), and that there is a close link between westerns and hard-boiled detective novels.

(Notice that the core narrative of every genre is a dysfunctional, sometimes psychotic ideology. I wonder why that is? Are genres a type of cult?)

But what are the core narratives for mysteries? Let’s start by looking at famous mysteries and fictional detectives. Grab your pipe and your deerstalker hat—the game is afoot! Continued in part 2, "Famous fictional detectives".

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Comments ( 52 )
Oliver #1 · Apr 25th, 2016 · · 1 ·

Notice that the core narrative of every genre is a dysfunctional, sometimes psychotic ideology. I wonder why that is? Are genres a type of cult?

Distilling most everything eventually results in alcohol if fermentation products exist anywhere in the source. :) That is, I suspect this might be an artifact.

But other than that, genres are products of systematic imitation, and systematic imitation is an activity motivated by finding audience. X is popular. Therefore, people who like stories like X exist. Therefore, if I am able to write a story like X, it will find readers. If you want to call that a cult, you wouldn't be too far off the mark, but you wouldn't be wrong to call modern primary education a cult (it has a LOT of properties which are scarily identical to those we condemn in a malicious cult) or even adulthood itself.

I shoulda asked this before posting part 1, but please:
- Vote this comment up if you'd rather get a 10,000-word blog post all at once.
- Vote this comment down if you'd rather get it split into parts over 3 days.

While not exactly what you're talking about, you may be interested in this episode of the podcast Writing Excuses, where they discuss the difference between "Bookshelf Genres", and "Elemental Genres", a term they use to categorize the different ways narratives engage readers.

Sorry, Sherlock Holmes is a dull character?

It made this face;
blankfirebulletin.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/benedict-cumberbatch.jpg
sexy by association!

You can't do that with a bad character.

Regardng "core narratives" and pathological mindsets:

It strikes me a bit off that you've self-identified the "true" examples of each genre and then self-identified "subversion" examples in each genre that exemplify a different mindset entirely; and thereafter proceeded to attest a larger truth about the genre based on your own categorization scheme. This strikes me a bit like selecting a bunch of purple blocks out of an assortment, putting them in a box, and then making the claim that blocks are generally purple. :twilightsmile:

Also, thinking more on this, I don't get how "Sam and Frodo letting Gollum live" is anywhere near the sort of magical thinking exemplified by Luke switching off his computers and listening to a deeper truth, or Aslan's faith in the higher spiritual order. Not every act of mercy, pity, charity or goodness is done in the service to mystic spirituality. Sometimes it's just an act of mercy, pity, charity or goodness. And yes, the narrative in LotR obliquely rewards our heroes for having done so, but "good deeds are rewarded by good outcomes" is not the same lesson as "turn off all logic and everything will be fine." Moral behavior is not by itself an irrational act. People choosing to be kind to their fellow man is one of the basic cornerstones of humanity's success.

And lest you accuse me of being too Polyanna here, I have to admit that the other cornerstone of humanity's success is people being dicks to their fellow man, so there's that.

3894631 Luke wasn't flying completely in the face of logic when he turned off his computer: he heard the ghost of his mentor telling him to use an alternate system to guide his shots.

I'm not so sure that such an act is "virtuous" in and out of itself, though.

There's that old debate where charity can be considered entirely self-serving, since it makes the giver feel good about themselves. Is that virtuous? If you use that sort of philosophy, I can't come up with any action that is virtuous.

3894698
This is a good point, and it bridges back into the discussion about the concept of living in a fantastic moral universe. When higher-order spiritual forces (Aslan, e.g.) are demonstrably real and make frequent, direct, visible incursions into the world, adherence to the morality that those figures espouse is not really an act of abstract virtue when looked at from an entirely in-universe lens. Or, as the late Sir Terry put it:

It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the Disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows.

This may in fact be what Bad Horse is attesting to: fantasy as a genre where behaviors that seem irrational to us are demonstrably rewarded (so much so that the genre-savvy hero is merely being practical, not virtuous) but LotR is arguably a poor example of this (inasmuch as the world is eventually saved not by virtue but by evil's tendency to destroy itself through its own lust and desperation).

3894624
Agreed. In terms of fantasy, that fits neatly with Tolkein/Arthurian/fairy tale fantasy, but ignores that the fantasy genre comes as much from Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and other big-swords-and-badasses stories. Other stories that aren't "straight fantasy" by that definition include Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz (unless you use very loose definitions of "virtue" or "stupid and illogical."[1])

...which leaves the majority of defining works of the genre outside of the traditional definition.

[1] By this I mean that I'm not sure believing in fairies is a virtue, and in fact the story presents the desire to stay in a place where things work like that as being immature and unsatisfying in the end. Similarly, while it's a virtuous act that brings down the witch in The Wizard of Oz, it's a pretty damn logical one (throwing water on a burning friend) and that doesn't solve the problem in the end because the Wizard is an asshole. Instead Glinda is just like "Oh, shit, have a solution," pretty unconnected to ethics.

I struggle to think of any ideology that couldn't be deprived of nuance to the point of becoming a monstrosity.
Jainism, maybe?
In any case since fantasy lets the author conjure any sort of reality they want without having to answer for it (thus becoming the perfect political platform for people who don't watch the news) it seems like the characters are the only thing that the reader could ever be able to engage with.
If GRRM says the seven kingdoms are going bankrupt that's whats happening if he says they aren't they aren't. On the other hand if he has a character do something they normally wouldn't he needs to justify himself to the audience. The more general definition of fantasy seems to be fiction that's primarily involved with correlating character traits and motivations to outcomes rather than focusing on circumstances.

"Smart decisions" are treated like distinct objects. Jack confronts the devil. Jack uses "Smart decision" it's super effective! Jack has leveled up! "Smart" has increased! "Hubris" has increased!

3894478 This sounds really interesting! It will go to the top of my to-listen-to queue. I'm about 5 years behind in Writing Excuses. :P

3894624 No; it's like claiming that all true books are purple.

Seriously, that is a problem, but I don't have time to take a random sample of all these genres. My impressions based on my past reading experience is my sample. I'm okay with it, though. That's how humans usually do things.

The core narrative should be present in the early stages of a genre, when there are a small enough # of stories to do an informal survey. For mystery, there is an almost-clear beginning (I skipped Voltaire), and not so many varieties to look at in the early stages.

Fantasy is a strange case because ALL literature was fantasy for about 2000 years. I'm rebooting fantasy after the enlightenment, when people began making an intelligent distinction between what was and was not possible. But there were very few "high fantasies" between 1850 and 1950. Maybe 5 important writers?

The analysis of horror I cribbed from Stephen King. I should make a note of that.

Romance is another tricky case, and it was drastically different before the Renaissance. But contemporary Harlequin-style Romance accounts for half of all novels sold, and it's very rigid and prescribed, you can just look up their guidelines and the formula is spelled out for you, so no real head-scratching there.

3894758 Good point about Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz. I don't consider Conan and other testosterone-fests "fantasy", because when I go to fantasy conventions, or fantasy writing groups, I seldom run into anybody who reads those kinds of stories. People who read them also read westerns, superhero comics, space opera, and hard-boiled detective novels, which are all part of a submerged "macho" genre that plays with the trappings of all other genres.

A Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story once won a Hugo for best science fiction story. :applejackunsure:

I'll change my example to say "Christian fantasy". Eddison, David Lindsay, and Dunsany were early high fantasy, and I don't think they were about stupidly following virtue ethics instead of rationality. Some were about a sense of wonder. Lindsay was all about ethics but was really weird, some kind of gnostic or something. Theory: Fantasy got Christianized starting around 1900, by George MacDonald, GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, & Tolkien.

Sherlock Holmes is the original source of fan-fiction. People are still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. And it takes only a passing familiarity with either the original stories, or with the fan-fiction, to see that what fascinates people with Sherlock Holmes stories is Sherlock Holmes.

I'm unsure this doesn't make him shallow, though. It might just be that Holmes has a lot of really good hooks. It also depends on how you're defining shallow.

I've read the entire Holmes canon, although the last time I did so was in the 20th century, so it's been a long while. And when I try to think back, what I remember most about them is some of the more interesting mysteries and reveals, and a bunch of personality and character traits about Holmes and Watson that never really went anywhere; they were there as window dressing or as one-offs.

He was somewhat transgressive as a character; in British literature at the time, even popular literature, portraying an upper-class protagonist who was clearly supposed to be a man of virtue and enlightenment being a drug addict was something Not Done; they'd have to be a villain, or a degenerate, fallen figure, because getting hooked on drugs doesn't happen to Good People.

But they don't really go anywhere with that. Holmes barely changes or grows, and when he appears to it is usually forgotten by the next novel. People talk about Irene Adler, about Moriarty, about his relationship with Mycroft. Those things are fleeting in the original canon, if I'm remember rightly; they brush against Holmes only lightly before receding.

I don't think he was shallow; the set of character traits and hooks he had are enough by themselves to elevate him above that, I think. But I also don't think he was especially complex. And there's a colorable argument for shallowness to be made. I think what drew people to him, and why he was one the original fanfiction inspirers in the modern era, is his unrealized potential as a character, not his actuality; his hooks.

It's like... hmm.

Let's roll back the clock to the halcyon days of 2010-2011. Remember Season 1 and the front half of Season 2? Pre-Discord, pre-Chrysalis? Remember the S1 villains?

You know who got a shit-ton of fanfiction written about her? Trixie. You know who was a deeply, utterly shallow character at the time? Trixie.

Seriously. She was almost a stereotype. She was the flashy outsider who rolls into town with a bunch of cheap tricks and a pack of lies, ultimately gets into a problem created by her own hubris and vanity, and is saved by the virtue and true power and strength of the protagonist, before running off in bitter disgrace.

That's a goddamn template. There's no depth there.

But there were hooks. In the specific context of the show, she was a seemingly-skilled unicorn magician, which functions as a counterpoint to the beloved Purple Bookhorse, who is the protagonist and also a skilled unicorn magician. She had a forceful and direct personality, a big mouth, a talent for showmanship, an arrogant streak a mile wide, and an attractive design.

Those by themselves don't serve to make her not a shallow character. But they did provide a lot of places for people to grab on, take hold, and run with it. A lot of people wrote a lot of words about her.

Another good example: Blueblood. Shallow as hell, even more of a walking set of stereotypes than Trixie was. But he has a great hook. "Princess Celestia's degenerate nephew, who looks like Prince Charming on the outside but is a terrible person on the inside?" Amazing hook. That doesn't make him not shallow, but it let people write a ton of stories about him. Indeed, if he were more fleshed out, less shallow, it would harder to write things like The 18th Brewmare of Bluey Napolean.

Gilda goes into that box as well. She had hooks, but no depth. Indeed, one of those hooks was "griffins exist." That was huge! Spawned a whole sub-genre. At this point I think there are people who legitimately forget that "Equestria and the Griffins had a war" is fanon, not canon.

Doesn't make Gilda not a shallow character.

Indeed, an important precondition of people becoming fascinating by, writing stories about all these characters is that they're shallow, because it lets you take their hooks and actually develop them, which is much harder with genuinely complex characters with a lot of strong development already behind them.

Hell, you know who else you can make this argument about? Princess Luna, everybodies waifu at the time, that's who. Her character wasn't so much "shallow" as "nonexistent:" two minutes of screentime, zero backstory beyond the singular hook of her fall from grace and her becoming Nightmare Moon.

That hook is so strong it probably made her the most popular character in fandom at the time who wasn't named "Twilight Sparkle," a popularity that endures to this day in a lesser form. She was, and is, huge. And she's been fleshed out since then.

But at the time? Shallow.

3895048 Those are really interesting observations. Do you think shallow characters with hooks are inherently more popular than complex characters? Should someone writing to make money deliberately write shallow characters with hooks? Will the best-sellers list inevitably be full of books with shallow characters full of tantalizing, unrealized possiblity?

3894739

When higher-order spiritual forces (Aslan, e.g.) are demonstrably real and make frequent, direct, visible incursions into the world, adherence to the morality that those figures espouse is not really an act of abstract virtue when looked at from an entirely in-universe lens.

3894698

Luke wasn't flying completely in the face of logic when he turned off his computer

The fantasy world is designed so that those things are the winning moves in those worlds. People who read/watch those fantasies do really forget that distinction, and apply those lessons in the real world. I know, because I've had multiple conversations with people who used the "sparing Gollum worked out" argument as evidence for how things work in reality.

I don't think we would enjoy fantasy if we didn't forget the distinction and immediately apply all "lessons" to the real world in our heads. Relating fiction to our own lives is a great part of the appeal of fiction.

3894739

LotR is arguably a poor example of this (inasmuch as the world is eventually saved not by virtue but by evil's tendency to destroy itself through its own lust and desperation).

Where do you get that? It was the heroes who fought among themselves in LotR. The evil forces were a great machine, united, a model of cooperation, just as Tolkien the Catholic would have imagined the forces of Satan to be. I don't recall that they ever fought among themselves.

Evil was defeated only because the Ring was destroyed, and the Ring was destroyed because Frodo spared Gollum, which was an incredibly stupid thing to do, because it made the entire world-saving destroy-the-ring quest likely to fail.

3895159

Those are really interesting observations. Do you think shallow characters with hooks are inherently more popular than complex characters? Should someone writing to make money deliberately write shallow characters with hooks? Will the best-sellers list inevitably be full of books with shallow characters full of tantalizing, unrealized possiblity?

I'll be honest, I do not know.

I've been rolling it around in my head all morning, because it's an interesting conundrum. I can think of a bunch of characters who fall into the "no depth, but their traits made them real real popular." Draco Malfoy springs to mind; walking stereotype for most of his existence, zero depth, massively popular. It's a thing that happens, and it happens a lot.

On the other hand, Tyrion Lannister is also everybodies golden boy, and he's one of the most complex and nuanced characters to come out of genre fiction in recent memory.

I don't want to fall into a correlation equals causation trap here. I am comfortable making the assertion that a character can be very popular and resonate with large numbers of people despite not having a lot of complexity, depth, or nuance. I'm also comfortable saying that for those interested in consuming, producing, or otherwise being involved in transformative works, having a bunch of unrealized hooks on a character can be a BIG BIG plus. We've got Skywriter in the thread here; he took Cadance and her hooks and just ran with them back when all they were was "portfolio is love, Crystal Heart, alicorn."

I'm hesitant to extend beyond that.

Where do you get that? It was the heroes who fought among themselves in LotR. The evil forces were a great machine, united, a model of cooperation, just as Tolkien the Catholic would have imagined the forces of Satan to be. I don't recall that they ever fought among themselves.

(Thought about putting 2000 words about the subtle differences between Sauron-as-Satan and Morgoth-as-Satan here. Thought about it. Decided that would be tendentious even for me.)

Not to speak for Sky, but I've seen this viewpoint advanced before, and usually the reasoning is "Gollum's lust, desperation, and blindness are the reason he takes his pitch into the lava, and that's a metaphor for evil being its own undoing."

The thing is, if we go by the Man Himself, it is actually both... but Bad Horse is more correct than Sky is here. Tolkien deliberately intended the big thrust behind the completion of the quest to be "Frodo's inherent gentleness, mercy, and all-around goodness are what saved the day; a cold-blooded utilitarian would have failed." I'm paraphrasing, of course, because Tolkien was 100% up-front about this. Gollum being all fucked up inside and that being a contributing factor was there as well, although the more direct point he wanted us to take away there was "Gollum couldn't have not been fucked up inside; that's also the point."

Tolkien wasn't shy about telling people what he intended to be taken away from his stuff, although sometimes he failed in his intention, in my opinion.

3895177
I guess we have to fundamentally disagree that the act of sparing Gollum's life was "stupid."

3894968

I don't consider Conan and other testosterone-fests "fantasy", because when I go to fantasy conventions, or fantasy writing groups, I seldom run into anybody who reads those kinds of stories. People who read them also read westerns, superhero comics, space opera, and hard-boiled detective novels, which are all part of a submerged "macho" genre that plays with the trappings of all other genres.

I appreciate the distinction you went on to make, but I just wanted to point out that I'm still not sure this is fair. I agree that fans of Conan and the testosterone fests are also likely to be into other pulp (including comics,) but there's an easy place to find them at a fantasy convention: the D&D tables. Those tend to be the favorite stories of the grognards and min-maxers, not to mention a lot of the more adventure-oriented fantasy fans who like to play Chaotic Neutral. In fact one could argue that they find their most popular modern parallels in the (pulp) RPG spinoff novels like the Drizzt books and Warhammer stuff (I've never read them, but I think Dragonlance belongs more in the fantasy genre you described.) I think it's unfair to "No True Scotsman" those people away, since they're still clearly an active fanbase for what most people would call "fantasy."

3895159

Do you think shallow characters with hooks are inherently more popular than complex characters? Should someone writing to make money deliberately write shallow characters with hooks? Will the best-sellers list inevitably be full of books with shallow characters full of tantalizing, unrealized possiblity?

I've argued before (I forget where, I want to say it was the comments of a blog post by xjuggernaughtx) that if you want a fandom that's the way to go-- that properties that develop large fandoms with fanfiction often have lots of underdeveloped characters and/or an underdeveloped setting paired with a strong hook. And I think it's for the reasons 3895048 stated.

I don't know about sales or quality of the work, but it does seem to inspire an active following.

3895268 on the subject of hooks drawing audiences, I think that limiting observations to characters is a mistake, as well. The abundance of fanfiction for FiM is as much a factor of the setting's hooks as any character in it.

1910s rural aesthetic. A millennia of continous history implied in the first episode. Triracial groupings. Dragons, buffaloes, and griffons with implied or explicit governments of their own. Other cities and towns named in early episodes. There is a ton of potential in and out of itself right there.

How many stories on this site have zero canon characters in them at all?

As an aside, it's very easy to be cynical about altruism and charity in any reality. FiM has friendship being a function of power right in the title, since magic is power as demonstrated in numerous episodes. Friendship is also a damn fine way to acquire power in real life, too, which makes me think of high-functioning sociopaths being among the best friends you can have, so long as you're invaluable to them.

3895386

on the subject of hooks drawing audiences, I think that limiting observations to characters is a mistake, as well.

Oh, absolutely! But the original context was in regards to a character (Sherlock Holmes) so I approached it along that axis.

3895302 also raised the point that the setting having unrealized hooks can be a big draw. I'm thinking, again, of Harry Potter.

3895428
I think the Ur-example of setting hooks is Lovecraft. Of course he left it to the public domain, so it's not fanfiction in the traditional sense, but the Mythos is more or less nothing but "here's an idea about how reality works in this fictional world. Go." And people continue to write in it, often directly linking it to his works via vaguely sketched locations like Miskatonic University.

I honestly think that if he'd been more detailed or definitive, few people would know who Lovecraft is today.

3894968

I don't consider Conan and other testosterone-fests "fantasy", because when I go to fantasy conventions, or fantasy writing groups, I seldom run into anybody who reads those kinds of stories

I'm guessing you don't think you read them. Chances are you've at least swallowed one in disguise by accident (Ender's Game springs to mind as a likely candidate, as does anything with an improbably skilled and destined protagonist that narrates in first person).

3895302

I agree that fans of Conan and the testosterone fests are also likely to be into other pulp (including comics,) but there's an easy place to find them at a fantasy convention: the D&D tables. Those tend to be the favorite stories of the grognards and min-maxers, not to mention a lot of the more adventure-oriented fantasy fans who like to play Chaotic Neutral.

Interesting parallel with D&D. going one step further, I'd suggest that "Conan" genre has been taken over by videogames such as Skyrim or Dark Souls. maybe not the exact same type of macho or pulp, but in both cases the story takes a backseat to adventuring and wish-fulfillment

the games were massively successful, and the audience is pretty similar to the D&D/Warhammer groups, but perhaps they're more likely to attend PAX than a traditional Fantasy con.

3895477 I know it's popular to pick on Ender's Game now because of Card's politics, and I've been slamming Ender's Game for many years. But it's not in that category at all. It's hero's-journeyish, but it's an idea book more than an action book, and it's got strong science fiction elements, not just space opera trappings.

3895513 And do you consider that cred to be the reason for its success? What about the sequels?

Most importantly: is any defense of Ender's game having legitimately interesting literary aspects in its first installment something that wouldn't be found in the first Tarzan and Conan?

3895528 Have you read either Conan or Ender's Game? They're both in 3rd person, and they're not at all alike. It's like comparing The Odyssey to Joyce's Ulysses. They are too different for discussing their differences to be worthwhile.

3895558
When I said anything with a first person narrator of improbable skill I meant more along the lines of Dresden Files or In the Name of the Wind. The salient feature of these fantasy adventure stories seems like the continuing legacy character which Ender has and keeps until his final ascension to godhood. This aspect I think is worthy of comparison at least.

3895302
I'm with Bookplayer. It's inconvenient as hell, but you can't define away the Sword & Sorcery genre from fantasy[1]. It's integral to that great Petri dish of fantasy: D&D. D&D's feedstock was equal measures of Leiber, Vance[2], and Tolkien and it has succeeded in retransmitting those tropes to generations upon generations of nerd of one stripe or another. They are, for most people, inseparable from fantasy.

Also, I don't think that the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories are that bluntly macho. A bit, certainly, but there's a dry sardonic quality I seem to recall. Though I read them an appallingly long time ago, so I could be remembering wrong.

[1] If by 'fantasy' you mean what's commonly shelved under fantasy. You can, for the purpose of core-narrative discussion, define your own subgenres so that what you call fantasy is really... deontological fantasy? Morality play fanasy? Something of the sort.
[2] Whose chief contributions to D&D come from a cycle of stories that's actually a bit SFish.

3895586 It is a commonality, and that what I consider EG's big problem, along with its resentment. Maybe Ender's Game is a Conan model for nerds. Sometimes Ender beats people up, but I think Ender usually has to reason things out, and Conan has to hit things very hard. The other books in the trilogy are more about using intelligence and not about fighting, IIRC.

3895689 Sword & sorcery is the same genre as Homer, Beowulf, King Arthur, that stuff. That was not considered fantasy; I think most of its audience considered it history. "Fantasy" is deliberate fantasy.

3895707
I don't have issues with using your fantasy-category for analysis. I'm just saying it isn't what people think of when they say 'fantasy,' is all.

(Amazing post, by the by. I'm eagerly awaiting part #2.)

I think Ender's Game has a setting that talks about Card's more philosophical musings but most of the story is straight up pulp action. You might be slightly preoccupied with image of an oily barbarian and not say the Doc Savage model of hyper-masculinity. I think the particulars of what the protagonists credentials are are interchangeable in these cases. Doctor Who works just as well as a real nerd Conan - the important part is the one for one correlation between "main character has desirable traits" and "all problems are solved when character shows up (after an exciting distraction)."
(Which is slightly different from the epic poems you mentioned in which the larger than life figures typically tend to fail, at least eventually.)

EDIT: or at least that's my pet theory entirely composed during this conversation.
The heroic fantasy shows how virtues translate into good results.
The fantasy epic seems like it's built more like a puzzle, there are a lot of characters with a mix of good and bad traits. The story is about defining and getting rid of the bad and cultivating the good. After this has been done to a sufficient degree all the problems solve themselves. The events themselves are largely decorative, it really doesn't matter if the entire party has been swallowed by a whale and lord Dredd is about to summon the Abomination so long as the characters display the correct attitude things will work out.

...and incidentally Ender would count as a subversion, since his perfect virtue is being abused by society and he can only start doing real good once his been set free from it.

3895756

The heroic fantasy shows how virtues translate into good results.
The fantasy epic seems like it's built more like a puzzle, there are a lot of characters with a mix of good and bad traits. The story is about defining and getting rid of the bad and cultivating the good. After this has been done to a sufficient degree all the problems solve themselves.

I like that. That's a more general schema. It might be too general--I have to think whether there are non-fantasies that work that way.

Dr. Who is in part 2, BTW.

What are examples of heroic fantasy & fantasy epic? I don't know how you differentiate between them. Traditionally, "epic" meant a very long heroic poem.

3895745 I'll agree there are many people who consider swords & sorcery to be fantasy, but I think we're talking about something like the distinction between science fiction & sci fi. The most prototypical fantasy writers (the center of the category) don't seem to think of s&s as fantasy. I don't think I saw one S&S story among the hundreds I read in many issues of "The year's best fantasy & horror", for instance.

It's not a firm distinction, but it may be as firm as the distinction between fantasy and romance. It even exists within D&D players. There are D&D players who roleplay, and D&D players who min-max, and it's hilarious difficult when they mix.

And a thing can be both. Tolkien's big stories have all of the S&S trappings except the stone-jawed protagonist, yet they're so much more.

3895177
3894739 Wasn't a huge part of the reason evil failed in LoTR because Saruman constantly tried to undermine Sauron and gain the ring for himself? I think the heroes would have definitely failed on like 5 different occasions if Saruman hadn't planned on deposing Sauron with the Ring.

I think Skywriter's point is that sparing Gollum is different from Luke turning off the targeting computer, because Frodo and Sam didin't think sparing Gollum would directly lead to success the way Luke thought turning off the computer would lead to success. The first one is a hero being rewarded for a selfless act of virtue, the latter is a hero being rewarded for putting faith above logic.

3895992 3895295 Letting Gollum go wasn't just a nice thing to do. They were in Mordor. Gollum still wanted the ring. It was highly probable that Gollum would wait until night, kill them, and take the ring.

Letting Gollum go was like if you were in Berlin in 1943 on a mission to assassinate Hitler, and hundreds of people had already died to get you this far. Then a Nazi soldier found out your plans, but he promised not to tell anybody, so you let him go. It is not virtuous. It isn't even selfless. It is a choice to betray everyone who died for the mission, and risk the lives of millions more, so you can feel a little bit better about yourself.

3895941
I'd say anything with a characters name in the title has decent odds of being a heroic fantasy. ideally the author should die before the character does (naturally only to be brought back to life afterwards) . I'd consider the mystery genre to be a heroic fantasy where brains replace swords, or in the case of hard boiled detectives supplement swords (brains in this instance getting treated with the same general degree of realism as swordplay in a fantasy setting).

In contrast having more than one main character would be a decent definition of a fantasy epic. A heroic fantasy has a lot of short stories "Indiana Jones" works as an example. An epic has a beginning, a middle and an end. The heroic fantasy protagonist doesn't change much past the beginning of a story or else only acquires enhanced versions of the traits he has in the beginning of the story. In contrast change and growth are what the epic is all about. Heroes can die in the epic. You can use the epic as a doorstop.

As you can tell these aren't really rigorous definitions, for example you can have a long series of cookie cutter novels about the same protagonist then suddenly shift gears into a format where things work differently or vice versa take a character from a popular story and spin them off into their own franchise. Homer provides Ur-examples: Iliad is an epic (one that uses popular heroic characters no less), Odyssey is the spin-off.

I'd also say that a lot of things should be counted as fantasy that aren't. Love stories where two characters are meant to be, Christmas miracles etc. are all built on supernatural elements that are so culturally ingrained as to become invisible in fiction.
An alien would assume destiny is a thing that exists on earth purely from how often it gets mentioned in romcoms (and that people frequently won lotteries).

3896059 3895295
Ok, so it is a stupid choice, and perhaps also a selfish choice in terms of rational morality versus sentimentality. But my point is that it was different than the other two examples, with characters deliberately going against logic for the purpose of winning. Let me put it this way: Suppose Sam and Frodo heard a voice from the Eru, the high god of Middle Earth, telling them "give Gollum the ring and trust in my power to ensure he will take it to Mount Doom and throw it in himself." If Frodo and Sam had listened to the voice, then it would be exactly the same choice as the other two.

As it is, Frodo and Sam follow a path of "use common sense and good judgement when pursuing your goal, except allow morality to override those whenever they come into conflict." Luke and the Penvensie kids follow a path of "use morality at every step of the way to achieve your goal, and only use common sense when there is no clear sign from a higher power." Do you see how they are different?

3896183
This was pretty much my initial point, yep! :pinkiehappy:

While reading through the initial post, I couldn't help but think of a few bloggers on this site. I can think of a few who, when listing the title, author, and genre of a fic, will get a bit cheeky with what they classify as a genre. I've seen things like "Flutterdash", "Would It Matter?", "Displaced", and "another goddamn peach fic" all used as genres. How incorrect is this, really?

Like 3894384 said, it's all about systemic imitation. As a reader, nay, a consumer of media, I see something that interests and excites me. It latches ahold of my psyche, plays out in my imagination, and then I decide "this is worth my time to craft into a shared experience with others". When my story is released, the same effect occurs. If my story is unpopular, the theme may hit an evolutionary dead-end. If popular, it may explode into possibilities, as some would imitate me closely, while others would diverge into the land of "instead of X, what about Y?"

Something like "Would It Matter?" starts as a simple, broad question, which the author intended to have no direct real-world analogue. But other authors see analogues based on their own unique life experiences, or find counterpoints and nuances, or do nothing more special than to observe Death of the Author, and so the conversation unfolds to show not one man's experience, but a cornucopia of experiences. "Displaced" is simply the most recent (waning) iteration of the fandom's expression of wish-fulfillment that naturally evolved from brony-in-Equestria to "Five Score, Divided By Four" spinoffs to "LoHaV" spinoffs to "Displaced" spinoffs. Something like "Fallout: Equestria" spawned innumerable homages, as other writers wanted to contribute their own small tales into this shared lore, as a sort of recursive fanfiction. Heck, even with something like "Flutterdash", direct your attention to 3894758 's series of "How ____ Is The Most Romantic Ship" blogposts. Yes, any pairing could be used for a "vanilla romance" story, but the intricacies of the characters and how they would mesh together inclines each particular pairing to a particular niche of storytelling. A story of bullheaded pride and conflicting ideologies would be a comfortable fit for an Appledash fic, but far less so for a Flarity fic.

Now I confess, "genre" is not the first word that springs to mind here. "Fad" or "bandwagon fic" perhaps, the concept that an idea will captivate the authors and readers of the present, but will quickly fade from consciousness, in much the way that we don't see anymore "Would It Matter?" fics today. "Niche" perhaps for the OTP fics and the wish-fulfillment fics; ideas that will drift and evolve but which will never really die. An "artistic movement" for something of a grander scope, far outliving the lifetime of a single fandom... or perhaps equal to one? When the last story is uploaded to fimfiction.net, will this not serve as a unified artistic expression by thousands of inspired, all sparked by the imaginative creation of one Lauren Faust?

Is a genre any different then, save for expressing a yet-greater time scale? Would Mystery still exist prominently if it had not been codified by Sir Doyle? I'm sure that Love and Sex would exist, given our biological cravings, but would it be recognizable as today's Romance without the infamy of Romeo and Juliet? There was a great time period where the Epic was the only story worth telling, and yet this genre has not survived in that same format in the modern era. Yet still, much like with "Five Score, Divided By Four", the legacy of "The Odyssey" is clearly recognizable in today's literature.[1]

Aren't genres simply a fad of impressive evolutionary scope, codified by popular successes, mutated by curiosity and experimentation? Mystery, then, has no objective truth to its definition, and is naught more than "the progeny of the original Sherlock fandom".


[1] Don't judge me. I saw the opportunity to type that sentence, and I seized it without regret.

3896233
The modern mystery, as we think of it, largely came from Poe.

3896247
Fair, and BH does a really good breakdown in Part 2. My point was less to snub Poe's influence on Doyle, and moreso to the point that we don't have that many Auguste Dupin TV/movie reboots. Holmes is the detective who remains in the public consciousness, despite Dupin setting the groundwork, nor whichever sources inspired Poe in the first place. Still, I suppose "the progeny of the original Dupin fandom" would be more accurate.

3896174

In contrast having more than one main character would be a decent definition of a fantasy epic.

Actually now that I really think about it this is a surprisingly rigorous definition.
If there is one main character and we're in a fantasy novel then despite whatever this characters outwards flaws may seem to be he has the most important virtue necessary to solve the problem. He only needs to prove as much which is the plot.

If there are two main character both of whom are virtuous in different ways we need to compare virtues. If they are virtuous in the same way we need to see whose more virtuous or else one of them winds up being sidelined. If only one or neither seem virtuous they need to develop or else reveal hidden virtues, which either one might not have. No matter what the outcome is uncertain compared to the first option.

3896233

Aren't genres simply a fad of impressive evolutionary scope, codified by popular successes, mutated by curiosity and experimentation?

Yes.

Mystery, then, has no objective truth to its definition, and is naught more than "the progeny of the original Sherlock fandom".

No.

The mayfly is a species that is merely a set of random experiments of mutation, coalesced into a stable phenotype by successes. But it would be wrong to say it has no objective truth to its definition--that one can't identify a mayfly, or notice how some other insect is similar to, or different from, a mayfly.

You can even study the mayfly and learn its strategy, or "theme", which is the blitz. Millions of mayflies, after having grown all year from larva to adulthood, hatch all at once, too many for predators to eat them all, then mate very fast, and lay many eggs immediately. No time wasted picking out a territory; perhaps not even a mouth or digestive system for the adult form. The anatomy and behavior of the mayfly--even though it developed by chance--make sense once you understand its species strategy.

You can also talk about other species that are related but use different strategies, and species that aren't related but use the same strategy (like cicadas).

3896348 The only one-main-character stories I can think of right now are sword & sorcery & other fighting novels. The whole Conan / western / Superman / Philip Marlowe thing. If that's what you're trying to distinguish the epic from, I think other things are more important distinctions, like doubt on the part of the protagonists.

3896506
Superman would fall out of the category if doubt was a consideration. A character being irreplaceable as a story's center piece is what really seems to be necessary. If other characters show up for a single plot or temporarily challenge the protagonist for the spotlight it isn't really enough to consider them on par with the main lead. Multiple protagonists means that if the two are in different places at the same time the story needs to flip back and forth between what both of them are doing or else lose track of the plot. The "what they're doing" part is important. Shifting perspectives to how imperiled the captives the villain kidnapped are isn't the same. Neither is showing the villains plotting against the heroes. Showing the heroes' actions and just how they realize their virtues is what's intrinsically important to the audience so unless that is happening between multiple people we've still only got one lead.

Western: The world is a violent place that cannot be ruled by law, society, or authority. Government is inherently corrupt. Only lone virtuous violent heroes, unconstrained and uncorrupted by social structures, can cleanse society of its parasites.

Bear in mind, however, that some of the most notable Westerns by Sergio Leone (the 'spaghetti westerns') deconstruct this. Once Upon A Time In The West is like an enormous parable of how the ethos you describe withers and dies of its own accord as soon as the pressure of civilization moves in, and the lawless violent heroes are the ones who are inherently corrupt or futile. They pretty much end up just destroying each other, pointlessly, and the railroad (and civilization) is still there after they're gone.

I daresay a lot of pulp Westerns are as you describe, though. And some of the classic movie Westerns have interesting points to make about it: like John Wayne in 'The Searchers' being too complicated to properly be a hero, and in the end unwelcome in the happy ending because he remains an outsider. You could say the lone virtuous violent heroes don't necessarily get rewarded except with more violence and death, and that's also part of what makes a Western.

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