What is it that makes a truly exceptional genre novel? What can an author of a horror, science-fiction, fantasy or any kind of genre novel bring to their work that elevates it in some way, so that when reviewers write it up they describe it as ‘transcending its genre’?
That’s a phrase that used to annoy the hell out of me until I realised the essential distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction.
All fiction deals in conflict of one kind or another. It can be a moral conflict, perhaps the threat of war or the consequences of unreasoning prejudice. It might equally be the need to survive an invasion, or a plague, or the unintended consequences of an earth-shattering new technology.
My concern in this article has to do with the source of that conflict.
Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. It’s these internal conflicts, after all, that are the cause of so many of the great tragedies that characterise humanity. Wars of religion, of power, of survival. In Greek myth, the entire Trojan War took place because Paris fell in love with Helen of Troy and stole her away from her husband. A ten-year-long conflict is thereby triggered entirely by one person’s desire for another, regardless of the consequences.
Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on.
Fantasy at its most basic, generic level deals with the threat of a ‘dark power’ of some kind – with magic turned to evil purposes. A good deal of science fiction deals with the consequences, intended or otherwise, of sudden technological change or scientific discovery. Those consequences are external – created in a lab, or built in a workshop, rather than formed in a human mind.
Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict.
Some of the best examples are in film as much as in literature. In Star Wars, our internal conflict between what we know is right, and our own, darker capacity for evil, is externalised in ‘the Force’. The Force can be channelled for good, but it has a seductive side – one that can ultimately lead one to commit terrible acts of genocide or injustice, should one fall prey to darker emotions. The Force, then, is our own internal dialogue between what is morally right and wrong, objectified as a physical part of the universe into which we tap.
So why does this work? Because where that internal dialogue between good and bad is in the real world entirely subjective, Lucas, in his screenplay, makes it into a distinct, objective thing that can be tapped into and that can influence us. Externalising what is otherwise an entirely internal dialogue allows the reader – or in this case, the viewer – to see that internal conflict in an entirely different light.
Similarly, the plot of The Lord of the Rings revolves around a journey to carry a ring of enormous power back to the mountain where it was forged, in order to destroy it. The ring is our desire for power, objectified and made external, rather than internal. It’s this externalised internal conflict that in part makes this such a strong and overwhelmingly popular story.
It’s very often the case that budding fantasy writers will make the mistake of entirely externalising the conflict in their novels; the source of evil in this case is always a Rising Dark Power of some kind. The hero is always pure and true. And it’s boring.
The best way to write such fiction is instead to introduce internalised conflict, to balance the external.
Frodo in The Lord of the Rings struggles with his own internal desires, and the seductive power of the ring – all he must do is slip it onto his finger, to achieve power he can only dream of – and he struggles with this internal conflict (made flesh by the ring) all the way to Mount Doom. Gollum is a stand-in for the terrible price that the ring can exact on those too weak for its seductive power, and he also represents what can happen to us if we allow the worst parts of ourselves to override our conscience.
This internal conflict on Frodo’s part, then, balances the external conflict with Mordor’s armies, on the march to retrieve that very ring. It also elevates the story above one of simple good and evil by reminding us these conflicts exist within us, as well as outside us.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune, we at first appear to have a simple tale of a messianic figure, born to lead the Fremen to victory against an imperial occupying force. But Herbert quickly elevates the story by focusing the narrative around Paul of Atreides’ struggle with the path his life appears to be predestined to follow. By imbibing the spice of the worm, he can see the future, and his role in it; but as in the best Greek tragedies, it’s a path he rejects utterly, even while his attempts to resist fate cause the very events he foresees to take place with grim inevitability. The external conflict – between the dastardly Harkonnens and the Fremen led by Paul – is balanced by Paul’s own, equally gripping internal conflict.
In Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a policeman is working undercover, living with people whose lives revolve around a drug called Substance D. He’s so deep cover, even his bosses don’t actually know his identity; he wears a futuristic ‘scramble suit’ when he meets with his superiors, so they cannot find out who he is, thereby assuring him absolute anonymity as he searches for the source of the drug.
One day, he is given a new assignment; to investigate one of the people living in the same house as him. He has, in fact, been asked to investigate himself.
This creates a wonderful internal conflict that balances the external – the search for the source of the drug. Increasingly schizophrenic from his own use of Substance D, Dick’s character finds himself struggling with his own identity, as to whether he is a policeman, or the addict he is investigating.
If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages.
To sum up: the best sci-fi and fantasy fiction takes internal conflicts, and re-represents them as external conflicts in a way that creates a kind of ‘useful distance’, allowing readers a degree of objectivity on their own fears and desires they might not otherwise have. But even then, that conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue.
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