Friday, August 17, 2012

Recently at Joseph Beth's YA Author Panel, I asked seven authors:  What can you get away with in fantasy that you can't in Contemporary (and vice versa)?

At first there wasn't an obvious answer because, as Christine Johnson pointed out, as long as you write consistently, there's not much difference in what you can get away with.  There are rules you have to follow no matter what genre.

So I prompted with "death" being a much deeper issue in Contemporary books.  For instance, in Kristina McBride's ONE MOMENT the entire book pivots on the death of one character (not a spoiler, it's on the jacket copy).  But in fantasy, like Rae Carson's THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS there are deaths in battle, deaths on the journey, death from injury and illness, etc.  You can't harp forever on these things or the books would be even longer!

I personally think that "body count" is something you can't "get away with" in Contemporary.  Everything pivots so much on the emotional arc of characters that death is too big to be brushed over (as in a fantasy battle scene).

Julia Karr seemed to agree.  She said that in Contemporary, the "emotional reaction, it must fit, go with what the real world is."  It's a limitation of sorts.

Similarly, Rae Carson said that fantasy "takes real world concepts" and "puts them in a fun atmosphere" to examine issues such as government, environment, economics, politics, etc.  In doing so, fantasy oftentimes gets away with things that just wouldn't fly in real life.  And isn't that why we love it so much?  It allows a space for escape so that serious issues--even death--can be examined.

But sometimes real life is depicted so well--even the horrors--that Contemporary informs us of those simple and basic themes of human nature.  For me, personally, this is an advantage rather than a limitation.  And a way in which both Contemporary and Fantasy inform each other as genres.

Of course there are exceptions.  And you might not agree with me.  So what do you think?  Do fantasy writers get away with murder? Do Contemporary authors harp on too much over issues?

To Be Clear:  This is not pitting one genre against another, but rather a comparison that, I think, highlights the strengths of both genres.  xx


Sara (of the Page Sage) said...

I don't think that death affects fantasy characters more or less than contemporary characters- it's more that they have to push on despite their pain, typically to fulfill a prophecy/fight a war/etc. Contemporary characters, meanwhile, don't have that kind of pressure on them, which allows the story to have a more emotions-centered arc.

Kristan said...

I loved this question when you asked it, and I'm glad that Kristina, Rae, Julia, and Christine had such great answers for us. I only wish we'd had more time to discuss in-depth!

But hey, that's what this blog is for. ;)

I do think there are a lot of things that each genre can "get away with" that others can't; we could do a whole series on it. So I'll stick with the theme of death for my thoughts now.

- In contemporary stories -- just like in real life -- death is not going to be as common as it might in historical, paranormal, or fantasy/scifi. So its rarity, by default, gives it impact.

- However, as the authors (and Sara!) have said, death has an impact no matter what the setting or genre. The characters have to reflect that.

- Love Sara's point that there tends to be bigger stakes (war, prophecy, etc.) to contend with in fantasy, so there just isn't as much space to reflect on death. (Think: Harry Potter. Particularly the last movie.)

- Also love your point that this can be considered a plus: we can escape death to a certain degree in fiction, even while examining it.

- Agreed: there's no "better or worse"; this isn't a competition between genres. Just observations!

- In closing, I remember watching the Disney movie Atlantis, in which 2,000 or so crew members die within the first 20 min, and no one mentions it, NO ONE BATS AN EYE. Except me, of course. I was all, o_O.

// end post-length comment (sorry!!)

Ashley @ Book Labyrinth said...

I definitely agreed with what Sara and Kristan have said.

I think my first reaction to this is just the difference in plot construct. I feel like death in contemporary stories is usually more of a main theme. If a contemp involves death it's usually about the process of death (e.g. watching a loved one suffer through cancer) or about the after process of grieving (how the protagonist is dealing with a death of someone they loved).

In fantasy death tends to be part of a larger picture, such as war like Sara mentioned. Deaths in fantasy or dystopian books tend to either be part of those wars or fights with some type of enemy, or perhaps because of illness and lack of supplies. There seems to be a survival element to most of these stories, so even when the character is dealing with death just like a contemp protagonist would they have to keep moving -- the book is about something greater (and by that I mean larger) than just the character's feelings and reactions, so they have to power on.

Definitely an interesting thing to think about... I wonder what other types of themes might have large differences between these (or other) genres?

Ingrid Palmer said...

Excellent post, Sarah. I agree that fantasy novels get away with all those deaths b/c the MC is literally 'saving the world' whereas in contemporary, the MC is usually dealing with a specific issue or personal experience. It's like a macro v. a micro lens.

kaye (paper reader) said...

I just woke up, so I apologise if my brain is a little foggy. But I think it's unfair to say that it's easier in either setting. Death means the same thing in either place, you just come about it a different way. That said, death by magic or something paranormal may seem more removed in a fantasy setting and thus not as close to the reader would as perhaps a murder in a contemporary book.

People tend to die more in fantasy novels because of that perceived distance which sometimes perplexes me because people tend to die in the real world, too - it's just that in the majority of contemporary books we don't address it straight on. It's thematic unless it affects a character specifically. So maybe the issue I think my brain is getting at is that I wish there were more contemps that addressed larger real world issues rather than the closer, micro ones.

Andria Buchanan said...

I have to agree with everyone else. I think death has the same connotation in fantasy as in contemporary but the stakes are so much more physically fantastical in a fantasy (world domination/war/ect.) that the reaction to death almost has to be put on hold rather than processed immediately.

Unknown said...

Hello! Thanks SO MUCH for all the insightful comments.

Okay, so I'm in agreement with y' don't get away with anything--especially death--it's just dealt with differently.

What about stakes? I'm always hearing about high stakes this and high stakes that...don't you think if there's one genre who gets away with this it's Contemporary?

Kristan said...

I have 2 answers to that, Sarah.

1. I think that's why so many contemp books deal with "issues" (death, sex, drugs, disorders, etc.). Because those feel high stakes enough to compete with the high stakes of fantasy, paranormal, scifi, etc.

HOWEVER, I think that's silly because...

2. Stakes, like problems, are all relative. We can't compare what's high stakes for one character to what's high stakes for another. Getting into Harvard might be the biggest deal for a high school overachiever, whereas defeating an evil warlord might be the biggest deal for a fantasy princess. It's okay that they're on different scales -- because they aren't in the same story!! So they only need to be high stakes for the book that they're in. But if that fantasy princess is only worried about baking a pie, or the high school student needs a perfect dress for prom, you're going to lose readers because those stakes are pretty darn low.

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