Jaye Wells

Genre Conventions

Every now and then, I’ll hear someone talking about urban fantasy novels. Specifically, how certain authors “didn’t bring anything new to the genre.” They’ll talk about the tough heroines, the sidekicks, the Big Bads, and other common elements in the genre. 

Now, keep in mind, I’m not trying to call anyone out here. After all, everyone has their opinion, so who am I to say they’re not valid? Well, for one, I write urban fantasy. I read urban fantasy. And I spend a heck of a lot of time thinking about how to write good urban fantasies. 

Here’s the thing, every genre has conventions. Mysteries have murders and people trying to solve them. Romances explore a budding relationship between two people that general ends in a happily ever after (yes, I know there are exceptions–there are always exceptions). Science Fiction generally happens in space. You see where I’m going with this?

One of the reasons I was drawn to write urban fantasy is because I like to read it. I enjoy reading about strong heroines, quirky sidekicks and the struggle to overcome Big Bads. As an author, I don’t see my job as trying to buck this trend. Instead, my job is tell a compelling story within this framework. I accomplish this by being creative with other aspects–world building, intriguing conflict, compelling characters. Whether I accomplish these goals is up to the reader. Everything I write isn’t going to work for every reader. I’ve made peace with that. Perfection isn’t possible. That doesn’t stop me from trying to improve with every book I write, but I also understand that reading is totally subjective and some people just won’t like the stories I tell. 

However, it’s frustrating when someone uses the old “she used a tough chick” argument to pan a specific UF novel. To me, this seems more an indictment of the entire genre. Empirically, many, many readers do like tough chicks in leather, as Lilith Saintcrow calls them. Just like suspense fans like spies or mystery fans like detectives. To put it another way, it’s kind of like saying, “That lazy author used three act structure. There’s a protagonist and an antagonist! Where’s the ingenuity?” 

I’ll repeat, conventions are a framework for our stories. They’re expectations a reader brings to each genre. No, they’re not a formula so much as common traits. Loyal readers stick with their favorite genres because they enjoy stories told within that genre’s framework. 

On the other hand, I certainly applaud my colleagues who are pushing boundaries. I love new ideas and risk taking. But if you’re only criticism of a book is that it contains some genre conventions, maybe you need to question whether that specific book doesn’t do it for you or whether, just maybe, the genre isn’t doing it for you. 

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?

7 Thoughts on “Genre Conventions

  1. I’m finding that pushing against genre conventions, or even making fun of them, is counter productive to my wallet. People like urban fantasy the way it is. There’s a big distinction between people who are reading these books for entertainment and those reading them with a critical eye.

  2. I wouldn’t necesarrily say that people don’t bring anything new to the genre, what I think is probably closer to the mark is something along the lines of that the viewer thinks that the author has been a little lazy on something be it world building or be it adapting the characterisation to the level that they’ve come to expect.

  3. JayeWells on April 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm said:

    Mark, this is true, however a lot of general readers are now becoming reviewers with so many blogs out there. I wonder if it’s changing the way readers read too. Might be a discussion for another day. But I love how you push against the conventions. But you’re right, there is risk in that.

    Hi Gareth! World building is one place where an author can really distinguish themselves in the genre and bring in some innovation. But anyone wondering shouldn’t expect me to make Sabina warm and cuddly anytime soon just to be different. Glad you stopped by!

  4. Tom Gallier on April 8, 2009 at 6:33 pm said:

    Chicks in leather is passe. Chicks in LATEX, now that’s hot. I may have to watch Underworld again this weekend. Hmmmm.

    All I have to say to people who complain about any aspect of any genre — Fine, now YOU write something and get it published. Enough said. Haters hate, writers write.

    You can quote me. :p

  5. I think readers prefer uniqueness rather than originality. Uniqueness is a newfangled way of doing something fresh within the tastes of the reader. Originality is writing a 1,000-page book with no paragraph breaks for artistic merit. Screw that.

  6. I think a lot of the moaning about urban fantasy flaws is coming from writers/readers irritated with the success of the genre. I read outside of the genre, but it remains my favorite. I think the haters can’t grasp that for the lovers, urban fantasy is not a trend.

  7. Hey, just wanted you to know that I am FINALLY holding my copy of Red-Headed Stepchild in my hands (Borders takes a long time ship even though I pre-ordered). I’m just giddy to read it and see what all your hard work has produced.

    I feel cool just being associated with you.

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