People enjoy the exotic, but not too exotic.
People enjoy the familiar, but not too familiar.
Reconciling these twin desires is the overriding concern of the modern-day fiction writer. A story where everything is formulaic, from characters to plots to setting, is predictable and boring. A story where everything is exotic and unfamiliar is disorienting, turning off most genre readers.
This is the strategy of writing to market. Understanding what readers want, carefully incorporating all the right genre tropes in your story, putting your own spin on the tropes while keeping strictly to genre conventions, and pushing it out to a highly targeted audience. An excellent strategy, one that works for many writers in the business.
LitRPG is the perfect example of this. Sword Art Online is arguably the most famous progenitor of the genre. The story fuses game-like mechanics, a fantasy setting and a self-insert protagonist surrounded by beautiful women. This formula appeals to hardcore gamers familiar with fantasy role-playing games, and with audiences who enjoy fantasy stories. The audience rewarded the writer with fame and commercial success, spawning the LitRPG genre. Today you see LitRPG variations of all kinds, from death games to VR MMORPGs to RPG mechanics in the real world.
Today, with Amazon opening the floodgates to self-publishing, this effect is even more pronounced. Book sales are driven by whales, readers who obsessively read books within a single genre—but only that genre. To reach commercial success, you must hook these whales, who will then recommend your books to their social circles, who are composed of fellow whales, who will in turn recommend your books to other fans. Write for them and the money comes in.
To appeal to these whales, you must ensure your story falls within the bounds of genre conventions, with the right tropes, for if what you write falls outside these bounds, you present the whales something they do not care to read—and thus, turn them off. After all, they have no reason to read you, you who write something that fails to fulfil their tastes completely, when there are dozens, even hundreds, of books out there that do.
While this strategy clearly works for writers seeking to create huge amounts of money in a short time period, I can’t help but wonder if this is what the art and craft of writing has devolved into: chasing tropes.
Misha Burnett captures it succinctly in his blog. H. P. Lovecraft used science and a materialistic worldview to create soul-chilling horror; today, ‘Lovecraftian’ means ancient creatures from the stars with strange tentacles. Raymond Chandler created hardboiled detective novel by drawing upon morality and his experiences in World War I; today ‘hardboiled’ fiction shares pacing, setting, jargon, tropes, but only rarely the moral heart.
This is where chasing tropes leads us to. Countless legions of imitators, carefully copying and reproducing and putting their own spin on a winning formula, in the process moving ever so slowly away from the original magic. So long as the money, the awards and the raving reviews keep flowing in, there is no reason to stop. Then some talent takes that genre and puts his own spin on it, creating a twist on the original, and the process continues anew.
Lord Dunsany brought forth the wonder and weirdness of Fae. Jack Vance assembled visions of ethereal beauty in dying wastelands. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien placed Christianity within fantastic lands, where good prevailed over evil even in worlds stranger than ours. Poul Anderson championed science and morality even in seemingly backward settings.
Today we have ‘dark fantasy’ and ‘grimdark’, defined by rape, murder, incest, betrayal, more rape, slaughter, more incest, blasphemy, and of course, rape. There is the ‘decolonisation’ of H. P. Lovecraft, which attempts to excise his racial views from his setting, or else simply has tentacle monsters and modern-day attitudes. There is modern fantasy, which transplants 21st century progressive ideology into settings that could not possibly have given rise to them.
The Chinese say that the first generation creates wealth, the second generation maintains it, and the third spends it. Here we see the writers of the pulp era creating awe and wonder, the writers of pre-1980 sustaining that direction while upholding cultural values, and modern and post-modern writers tearing it all down to push propaganda and drag the reader through the muck.
I can’t stand this.
It is my gift—and my curse—to see things differently from others. I do not view stories in terms of genres, except in the most vague of terms, or when I’m trying to explain it to others. I do not categorize stories by tropes, character archetypes, and plot structures. Where people see walls and divisions between genres, between categories, I see only possibilities for fusion and synthesis. I take the best of what I’ve seen, anywhere and everywhere in my life, and distil it into my fiction.
My stories are genre-bending. They are unlike anything out there. And that is why they do not succeed.
The Covenant Chronicles is a war between the forces of good and evil, with both sides using humans and conspiracies to push their agenda, featuring martial arts, magic, espionage, high tech, demons, and tradecraft in a futuristic alt-history setting. Dungeon Samurai is an isekai dungeon crawl with a litRPG setup but no actual litRPG. Song of Karma is a superhero series, in which the hero deliberately cultivates a low profile, only sparingly uses his powers, and deploys special tactics and tools to overcome villains far more dangerous than he is. Babylon Blues fuses cyberpunk, military science fiction and actual Lovecraftian horrors crossed with archdemons. Singularity Sunrise is post-cyberpunk with a strong spiritual core. My next series is science fantasy cultivation, with strong elements of cyberpunk.
That they do not cleanly fall into any one genre convention. They appeal to cross-genre readers like me, but readers like these are rare today, especially in an industry that exclusively targets whales and single-genre readers. It’s gotten to the point where authors have separate pen names to maintain multiple brands that target different kinds of single-genre readers.
Tropes are not bad. They are the building blocks of fiction. But they are not the be-all and end-all of a story. They are stepping stones, they are not the journey. Yet there are countless readers who read not for awe and wonder, but for tropes and a steady dopamine drip, and to ignore them is to leave huge amounts of money on the table.
I could try my hand at writing single-genre stories, but that would undermine the very thing I’d built my brand upon. I could try formulaic fiction, but I do not think my brain will allow me to do it. My gift, and my curse, may keep me from changing what I write.
This doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.
Suppose, then, I write in genres that are more tolerant of—or even welcome—cross-genre influences. Or I write stories that stick mainly to genre conventions, but incorporate just one element from outside that genre. It’s something I want to explore in future series, in a year or two from now.
Would it lead to success this time? Would it suggest that I would need to do something else to break out? I don’t know. But I do know this:
I would rather be a Howard Roark than a Peter Keating.
The most conventional story I have is BABYLON BLUES: cyberpunk meets military science fiction and religious horror. Check it out here!