Over time, each genre develops its own rules and customs. Identifying these rules and using them to your advantage can make your life as a writer much easier.
The rules and customs that govern a genre range from the subtle to the famously cliche. In the case of something like fantasy, readers have come to expect things like magic and adventure, and they will generally react positively to writers who can deliver those things. However, these rules and customs can also be restrictive. There is a reason that so many fantasy stories read very similarly. It is because too many stories adhere slavishly to the customs of the genre at the expense of telling a good story.
But what sort of rules and customs are there? If we look at how stories are written, we can divide a story into several components: plot, characters, settings, ideas/themes, and technical composition. Rules and customs can evolve in all of these areas, so let’s take a closer look at each of them in turn.
The plot of a story is one of the most important components. A thrilling and engaging plot can go a long way toward disguising shortcomings elsewhere (e.g., a genuinely thrilling plot can often hide the fact that the characters are fairly wooden or that the writing itself is quite basic). Each genre tends to favour plots that follow a certain pattern. In fantasy, there are several commonly occurring plot lines:
- Coming of age
- Hero’s journey
- Battle for a throne/objective
Stories that adopt one of these three plot lines tend to have a similar narrative structure, one that readers typically enjoy. Indeed, many popular fantasy stories either pursue one of these plot lines or combine them.
As a writer, these plot lines can be of great use. They can help you construct a plot by providing a rough scaffolding into which you can insert characters, settings, ideas/themes, and your own writing style. How many stories have you read in which the characters go off on some quest to retrieve a legendary artefact? Yet readers continue to enjoy such stories because the basic plot line is extremely sound and provides writers with ample opportunity to distinguish themselves.
Characters are another crucial part of a story. Good characters can make a boring plot seem interesting, and there are some stories that can only work because the characters themselves are so engaging. But a close examination of almost any genre will reveal that there are certain character archetypes that occur with great frequency. In the case of fantasy, here are a few:
- The wise, old man/mentor
- The reckless youth who must mature
- The grizzled veteran
- The naive child
- The wicked ruler
These character archetypes exist for a reason: they meet vital needs in a story. There must be a reason for the protagonist to leave their comfort zone. A wicked ruler often provides such impetus while a wise mentor or a grizzled veteran helps the protagonist find their feet. Yet these archetypes are not completely set in stone. The wise mentor may have a wicked sense of humour, a mischievous streak, or simply be a rather ornery person. Writers can make use of these archetypes to help develop their characters while still leaving adequate room to make each character unique.
The setting of a story is often key to its success. When a story has an intriguing setting, readers want to find out more. This is why many fantasy stories begin with exposition that sets out the lay of the land, complete with maps and references to places and times that the characters may not ever actually encounter. It is easier for readers to suspend their disbelief when an alternate world exists around the story.
In most genres, the settings for stories tend to share some similarities. In the case of fantasy, this may include some of the following:
- The existence of magic
- The existence of non-human races
- A medieval-type setting
Again, these conventions help writers by guiding their thoughts and freeing them of some of the (considerable) mental burden of creation. That isn’t to say that writers can’t distinguish themselves. Compare the worlds of Tolkien and Martin. Middle Earth and Westeros could not be more different despite sharing all three of the traits listed above.
The ideas and themes that run through a particular genre can be surprisingly consistent. A close survey of genres like science fiction, fantasy, political thrillers, and even Westerns reveals that each has several dominant themes that shape the genre as a whole and dominate for decades on end (see e.g., the massive trend of epic fantasy inspired by Tolkien versus the current zeitgeist toward darker, edgier fantasy). Understanding the ideas and themes that shape a genre aids a writer in establishing a rapport with their readers. Readers of a particular genre expect the stories they read to have meaning, and they often crave familiarity or a twist on a familiar idea.
Finally, the technical composition refers to the nuts and bolts of a story: the writing itself. A casual examination of a genre like fantasy will reveal that there are several different types of fantasy, and within each type, a certain vocabulary is often at work. For example, high fantasy tends to have a more florid vocabulary than something like urban fantasy. But perhaps the most notorious example of this effect is in Lovecraftian fiction, almost all of which shares Lovecraft’s verbose, often archaic, style and prose, regardless of whether a story was written shortly after Lovecraft or in the present day.
Using Rules And Customs To Your Advantage
Rules and customs can be used to your advantage in a number of ways. The most obvious is to do what I’ve described thus far: use them to scaffold your writing and ease the burden of creation. By adhering to the rough outlines provided by the rules and customs of a genre, you have ready access to powerful archetypical plots, characters, settings, ideas and themes, and technical composition. This significantly eases the mental burden of creation and allows you to work more efficiently by operating within a framework that still leaves room for you to distinguish yourself as a writer.
However, these rules and customs also serve another purpose. Readers develop expectations based on these rules and customs, and they will enjoy the work of writers who can tick all the boxes and deliver on all the expected fronts. Indeed, violations of these rules and customs can sometimes confuse or anger readers who believe that they are getting a particular kind of story, only to receive a very different one (see e.g., what would happen if a writer baited readers with a cheerful story only to turn it into something incredibly horrific and depressing – the readers would likely riot).
Yet there are times when breaking these rules and customs can be extremely rewarding. Just as readers often prize the familiar comfort that conforming stories provide, a story that takes a different road or twists a familiar theme can seem incredibly inventive and interesting. This has led to the evolution of things like the anti-hero as well as stories that deliberately (and often humorously) deconstruct the conventions that govern different genres. Once again, fantasy is a great genre for this because its rules and conventions are so widely understood that poking fun at them is possible.
When stories break the rules, they can win readers over because readers suddenly no longer know what is going to happen. This increases their interest. Likewise, when stories poke fun at the rules, readers will often laugh along because they understand that there are rules and that perhaps those rules can be a bit ridiculous sometimes. Take the commonly used idea of a magical weapon somehow solving everything in fantasy fiction. Having the weapon backfire or operate in an unexpected manner is funny precisely because readers know what it should be doing. It’s like watching a comedy of errors.
In any case, it should be clear that there are rules and customs in different genres. These rules can both help and hinder a writer, and there are times when adhering to them is good while at other times breaking them is ideal.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
I also write original fiction, which you can find here.