Tuesday, November 12, 2013

TTYU Retro: Wrestling with reader expectations and cliché

I like to turn things on their heads.

It's fun. When you've been reading science fiction and fantasy for a long time, you see patterns in it, and you start to see common models that everyone uses - these are things like "abducted by aliens!" or "evil king!" or "getting in over their heads!"

These are the kinds of things that start to become cliché.

They also are lots and lots of fun to subvert, or turn on their heads. When I come up with a story idea, I like to try to turn as many of the reader's expectations on their heads as possible. Every time a piece of the story has a familiar ring to it, I try to say, "What can I do to make this turn out in a way that people won't quite expect?"

It's an interesting task, and a tricky one, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it's really hard to avoid the patterns entirely. The longer the story, the more likely that some familiar situation is going to creep in. I suppose it's a bit like the "All roads lead to Rome" phenomenon. You can be going toward Rome, or away from Rome, but you're still on that road. Getting off the road is really difficult, and a slog, as you can imagine. Creating a new smooth road in a place no one has ever been before is amazing and cool if you can do it, but it's a huge challenge.

For another thing, if you do like to subvert patterns, you may discover that people don't notice. This has happened to me at least once (probably more, since I don't know everyone who reads my work). I dig into a story, try to make each character distinct with history and cultural background etc., try to play out the way that these identities and distinctions cause the expected pattern to twist back on itself and end up in an unfamiliar place. But sometimes readers will recognize the pattern early and decide, "I know what she's doing," relax their attention and miss the differences.

I don't blame anyone for this. Readers will read as they will, and research shows that a great deal of what we understand from what we read comes out of our own mind and experience. It does, however, inspire me to dig deeper, to push further, to make the subversion just that bit more obvious.

If you are working on something like this, and you are interested in creating distinctions and differences, my best piece of advice is this: put a strong piece of evidence for the difference you're creating right up front. If you're dealing with a historical-style social system but you're putting it in a futuristic world, make sure the old and new features co-occur as early as possible in the story. If you have an evil king but he's not just evil, he's got special issues, make that clear as soon as you can. If you're working with a character who is sexist, but you want readers to examine that sexism instead of thinking you are in on it as an author, then deliberately work against the misconception - strengthen the non-sexist characters, put a character in a position to do something unexpected, let characters have misconceptions and learn their way out of them, etc. I've heard the expression "hang a light on it" or "hang a flag on it" - don't be afraid to let people know that a feature of your world is there, and different from what they expected. Or even if it is like what they expected, make a point of poking the reader and pushing them off the ramifications of that expectation in whatever way you can.

It's something to think about.