WHAT CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH IN FICTION?

Great question, easy answer: Anything.

In fact, the question itself is silly. You don’t have to feel you’re “getting away with” anything.

An epic fantasy novel featuring a gender-fluid protagonist? Why not? In fact, the only argument against is necessarily trans- and/or homophobic. If we, as fantasy readers, can accept that the hero of an epic fantasy is a hobbit, which is a sort of person who does not exist in the real world around us, how can any case be made that fantasy readers can’t accept a non-binary person, which is a sort of person who does exist in the real world around us?

I once wrote a post about why you shouldn’t swear in fantasy. Then I saw Game of Thrones and was like, oh, fuck, I guess we fucking can now, holy shit! I was trained at TSR in their Code of Ethics and I guess some of that (which was actually the old Comics Code) rubbed off on me, or sat inside me like some kind of mind-numbing tumor. I’m delighted to say I’m cured of that as thoroughly as any other sort of strictures as to what is and isn’t “appropriate” for this genre or that genre.

Okay, you might not want to throw f-bombs in your middle grade chapter book, but once you decide your audience is more than single digit years old, write your characters in your story in your voice from your experience. We, as readers, want—or we should want, anyway—to experience not just some idealized version of ourselves (though I freely admit that’s sometimes fun) but we can also, even primarily, read fiction to experience being some version of “the other” by walking a mile (or 90,000 words or so) in their shoes. In part of an excerpt from  Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, Mark McGurl lays it out like this:

Our interest in fiction is in part an interest in encountering different degrees of (albeit, properly formatted) otherness, the better to assimilate it to ourselves in the spirit of personal augmentation. It is the otherness of fictional characters and their experiences, most obviously, but also the otherness of the author’s gradually revealed intentions. To varying degrees, and notwithstanding the self-centeredness of literary self-care, our interest in the novel is an interest in encountering the author’s autonomy, which is the real difference—and addition—they bring to our existence, in however mediated a fashion.

If fiction is a form of “wish fulfilment,” fine—so instead of being careful what we wish for, let’s wish for the widest possible experience. In “& Other Stories,” Eloghosa Osunde wrote:

What does fiction do for me? It allows me to see what has been made, just as it is. It reminds me that if there are seven billion of us, there are seven billion ways to experience the world, seven billion valid iterations. The systems do what the systems do, and the kindest thing I can think to do for anyone I love is to follow them to the end of their desire, is to go with them to the beginning of their imagination—that place where  I wish  turns into  I want. I listen to my loved ones when they say:  I wish  this was a world in which I could decide not to have kids.  I wish  I could decide not to get married.  I wish  this world was kinder to queer people.  I wish  we’d all take friendships more seriously.  I wish  this world was fair to neurodivergent people. I wish. I wish.

As an author, don’t be afraid there isn’t a readership for this, that, or the other thing. To be honest, in America in 2021, there’s effectively no audience for any novel—not like there used to be in, say, the 1950s (or any point pre-TV, pre-video games, pre-Internet, pre… whatever else), so embrace that. Your book will find your audience, and that audience almost definitely wasn’t going to be millions of readers even if you followed the Comics Code and kept it light PG rated and your hero is definitely a straight white guy who only saves straight white princesses from bad guys who don’t have to be white or men. I love the old pulp stories and the whole pulp fiction experience, not because the genres had reached a state of perfection that must now be repeated over and over again forever, but because, or more accurately in spite of the fact that those authors, editors, and illustrators were flailing around trying to invent stuff within sets of strictures based on a general feeling of who they were selling magazines to, who they wanted to sell their magazines to, who their invariably conservative advertisers wanted to sell their products to, and that was a 1920s, 1930s systemically and legally racist and sexist society.

Anyone who thinks science fiction and fantasy—or any genre—should continue to play to hundred year old market forces… I just don’t know what to tell you.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to WHAT CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH IN FICTION?

  1. mcc1789 says:

    I look forward to seeing more diverse characters in fantasy myself. Perhaps some of the more recent ones have them, though I haven’t much. It does often seem more could be done though with the genre (on many fronts, not just that). Odd how in fantasy, despite it being so open to new ideas by definition, you so often get repetition. I guess it comes down to “follow the leader” in many cases.

  2. Karitamen says:

    You are looking through the mirror in only one direction. Here are some things you cannot do (or at least if you did you would not be writing anymore).

    1) Write a sc-fi novel in a near future setting from the point of view of an ethnicity you are not. You will be cancelled as appropriating.
    2) Write a fantasy novel using cultural elements that are African, Asian, or Latinx. You will be cancelled as exoticizing/appropriating.
    3) Write a novel with a lead character who is a mysoginist or commits an act that is mysoginistic. You will be canceled as a mysoginist.
    4) Write a novel in which there is a humanoid race that is inherently evil, unintelligent, or violent. You will be accused of covert racism.
    5) Write a story with the basic set up of Black Panther but swap the race from Black to White. You will be accused of White Supremacy.
    I could go on and could even link to examples of all of the above.

    K

    • Philip Athans says:

      This is precisely the fear mongering I was hoping to dispel. Let’s tackle these one at a time, but in the end it all comes down to this: Think things through, research as necessary, and write well.

      1) Write a sc-fi novel in a near future setting from the point of view of an ethnicity you are not. You will be cancelled as appropriating.

      Only if you portray those characters in an insensitive, condescending, or overly racist manner, in which case it’s not “cancelling,” it’s consequences.

      2) Write a fantasy novel using cultural elements that are African, Asian, or Latinx. You will be cancelled as exoticizing/appropriating.

      Only if you portray those cultures in an insensitive, condescending, or overly racist manner, in which case it’s not “cancelling,” it’s consequences.

      3) Write a novel with a lead character who is a mysoginist or commits an act that is mysoginistic. You will be canceled as a mysoginist.

      Only if you portray that character as admirable or heroic because of his misogynistic behavior.

      4) Write a novel in which there is a humanoid race that is inherently evil, unintelligent, or violent. You will be accused of covert racism.

      If it’s a “race” then you are guilty of (c)overt racism. If it’s a species, not obviously based on a real world race or culture, you’ll be fine, though I applaud the fact that readers in 2021 are looking for more nuanced villains and are rejecting the idea of racial evil. This one definitely falls under the headline of “don’t write badly and you’ll be fine.”

      5) Write a story with the basic set up of Black Panther but swap the race from Black to White. You will be accused of White Supremacy.

      I’m not sure I’m seeing your point here at all, since a cogent case could be made that an overwhelming majority of SF/F has been exactly that, going back as far as Homer.

      If you’re interested in exploring this subject in greater detail, I’d recommend this podcast:

      https://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-1278-canceled-comedy-w-kliph-nesteroff-and-david-bianculli

      …in which the idea that we live in some kind of anti-free speech era is examined in more detail and set aside.

      • Karitamen says:

        It’s consequence? Seriously? A mob of people descend on an author or a book until it is cancelled is consequence? How about this instead? The book is published and readers decide if they want to read it. If it is really offensive then it will fail in the market. Think F.A.T.A.L or Synabarr.

        So your article should really say, “you can do anything, as long as your writing and research meets the standards and perspectives of the modern woke mob. And you better be a very good writer because if you f* up, you’re done. Good luck you starry eyed amateur!”

        Here are a few examples of writers who were considered to be very talented and whose novels were highly anticipated who, apparently, weren’t good enough writers or failed to do the proper research.

        Laurie Forest: Attacked because characters who are depicted as bad, because they are racist against another fantasy race, say racist things. In other words, villains being villains.

        Kosoko Jackson: Black, gay writer who wrote a book about a black gay couple escaping Kosovo. Cancelled because his protagonists were Ameican and his villain Albanian. Ironically he himself stated that “Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by Black people. Stories about suffrage shouild be written by women. Ergo stories about boys during horrific life changing events such as the AIDS EPIDEMIC should be written by gay men.” Although he does not state it specifically, I would bet he would feel that fantasy stories that represent those struggles should be equally exclusively written. Ironic he fell victim to the same cancel mob.

        Amélie Zhao: Chinese American immigrant’s novel criticizing indentured servitude in her native country through the lense of a fantasy setting had her novel cancelled because one character was described as having “bronze skin” and “aquamarine eyes.” It was decided by the mob that this character was black and thus offensive.

        And, of course, Orc’s are now racist.

        K

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