ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.


  • Intriguing post. I’m solidly a genre writer (near-future science fiction), but very much character oriented. So the novel I’m working out right now has shifted drastically over the last few months. It was intended to be about a possible late 21st C. society based on extrapolation from current trends in politics, economics, climate change, etc. But that’s all now just the framework for the characters and their development over time. It’s a very difficult balance. Personally, I can hardly bear to pick up a literary novel these days. But I find very little to read in science fiction that isn’t either pure escapism or apocalyptic doom and gloom.

    We’re in a major transitional period, in almost every way possible, and I expect that literature is suffering the pangs of dealing with that.

    • I hear you. “Pure” genre stuff can be boring as hell – and damned tedious if it’s trying to be old-school sf in terms of scientific plausibility. The best genre work I encounter tends to be what I’m describing – there’s more attention to character, and there’s more concern with thematic relevance of some sort or another. Current sf/SpecFic, for instance, is warning us about climate or biotech run amok, for instance, and those kinds of works can certainly be very literary in important ways.

      Hopefully we’re reaching a point where we’re getting past that polarization I describe. It’s no fun reading half a novel….

      • Half a novel — yes, sometimes I’m left feeling that way. Even something as long and well-developed as Windup Girl. It’s so packed with technology and environmental drama that the characters can’t do much more than swim around, trying to keep their heads above the chaos. I felt that way myself, trying to stay with it. As a contrast, I just read On the Beach for the first time. It doesn’t hold up that well overall, but its depiction of the characters’ denial and gradual coming to terms with the inevitable is a model of how it can be done. But what we usually get these days is the overloaded-with-tech (as in Windup Girl) or the end of the world scenario where all the bad stuff has already happened, and the few survivors are grimly hanging on.

      • I think you have put an explanation to what had bothered me about Windup Girl. The world Bacigalupi creates had plenty in the way of consistency and plausibility, but it still felt flatter than I’d have liked.

  • Lack of focus, for me.

  • Samuel, my first novel is a fence-straddler, I’m afraid; I call it “up-market” women’s fiction, for whatever that’s worth, so it’s not clearly a genre work and leans toward the literary. That’s the problem with it, I think. The second is literary, although it does have a relatively strong plot line. I’m not a fan of genre fiction, and yet the *most* literary novels, those that hardly venture outside the characters’ brains, don’t do much for me, either. Thanks for this insightful, helpful article; a keeper. It’s my first read here; I’ll be back.

  • I wrote a long comment here that looked at the history of CW programs and their influence (mostly negative) on our understanding and appreciation of genre. I noted that Twain, Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper could all be considered genre writers for at least some of their work. And nobody is ever going to accuse that group of failing to create characters that readers find engaging and memorable.

    And I noted that the prejudices of English departments – who privilege language and form experimentation (out of proportion, sadly) over story telling and communication – have done real harm to our understanding of and appreciation for genre writing. This because CW programs, having been born in and controlled by English departments, and often dismissive of genre writing as formulaic and “prole,” have artificially separated genre writing from “literature.”

    But my damned computer somehow ate the comment, so let me say simply this: what I think you’re trying to get at is that maybe it’s time for us to let those prejudices go – and identify the good writing we see wherever we see it.

    But first, I suppose, we’ll have to find some agreement on what constitutes “good writing.” (Sigh)

    • Well put, Jim. It’s that whole prejudice, that preconceived certainty that X is proper and Y isn’t, that bothers me (and as you well know, it always has). So whatever it is that I think I may be seeing, let’s hope it’s real. Characters and plots go together and when you separate them the reader suffers.

  • Sammy

    Just reread Dash Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and had a conversation with an agent about Mickey Spillane. He would argue you’re right. That increasingly genre fiction has moved toward real characters. The cardboard characterizations and un-nuanced emotional posturings of last mid-century work have given way to far more sophisticaed character development.

    However, is the same true of literarty fiction? When I bring myself to read it, as often as not I find the character arc is a circle, and the central question the book asks is: Why did I read this book? (OK, I admit that was just a stick across the bars of Booth’s cage. :))

    Since I am the friend cited in the first graf, I’d guess, let me also tell a funny story. I had two conversations last week with big-timers–one a critic and the other an agent. Both said the same thing, “You’re not a genre guy. You’re a pop fic guy.” But neither could say why. Interesting that however murky the definitions, people seem to be able to feel the difference even if they can’t articulate the criteria.


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