By Amy Lane
So, after teaching literature for a lot of years and writing for a lot of years, I’ve developed some theories about how people respond to what they read.
Anybody wanna hear?
Think of genre as a series of concentric circles around the reader.
The center of the circle, is, of course, the reader’s own experiences.
For readers at the beginning of their reading journey, stories closest to their own experiences are often the easiest and the most comforting—it doesn’t ask too much of us to read about people just like us who have the same values and the same dilemmas, and damn, sometimes we just really need the ease of “talking to a friend” literature, right? The literature closest to that center is usually autobiographical literature written by people in a similar circumstance, which is why, when the internet made it possible, blogs, FaceBook posts, Tweets—these things all became enormously popular.
Written in first person, with our pick of the speaker, this literature is the easiest to comprehend and the most comforting to our world view–*happy sigh* Let’s blog!
Stepping out a little further from our comfort zones is contemporary fiction—set in our time, often with people from our education level, social class, experience level, contemporary fiction offers, again, that comforting narrative. Genre fiction has rules that, if not consistently obeyed resort in sort of a reader’s revolt, so there’s that promise too. Yes, this work is fictional, but we might know these people in real life. How well we’d know them often depends on how much we share the author’s values and interests as a whole. And unlike real life, there will be no unexpected tragedy, no plot twist that separates our lovers (or reunites them if that’s your flavor) or makes sure the bad guys win.
Written in first or third person, this literature can be slightly less comfortable. If the protagonists make decisions the reader isn’t comfortable with, the reader gets upset. If there is humor that doesn’t tap into a reader’s specific knowledge base, the reader won’t get the joke. If there’s an unfamiliar set of values or social rules at work, the reader won’t like the characters—the step one literature can be a little dicier in terms of satisfaction. It sells a little less well.
One step out from contemporary fiction is historical fiction. Yes, this is a time and place that is possibly unfamiliar to the reader, but most adults have a rudimentary education in the dominant culture’s history—if the writer can smoothly add some unfamiliar details, the learning a reader must do to connect to the heroes or heroines becomes fun instead of burdensome, and the unfamiliarity of the conflict can add a dash of spice to a genre that might have been growing tiresome. Tired of contemporary romance? Try historical—choose your time period! Tired of thrillers that could happen in your backyard? Look for an author who deals in thrillers that could have happened in your great-grandmother’s.
But there is extra work to read an historical. There is extra learning, extra accommodating, extra effort. So when someone is looking for an escape, there’s some resistance—mm… I just want to read for fun… it takes a little bit of work to connect with someone in another time… am I up for it?
Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no—but it does factor into a reader’s choice right there.
And the ripples continue. Every new subgenre adds a circle from the center, more effort to read, more effort to understand. Suspense, horror, science fiction, fantasy—the more of these that are combined, the less the might have in common with the center of the circle. An average, everyday sort of person might know an IT worker or a teacher or a policeman or a detective—someone they know might actually do the things that happen in the story. But I bet that most of us would be hard pressed to know a sorceress, an angel, a demon, or a witch’s familiar, right?
If you’re looking at our concentric circles by now, like ripples from a stone in a pond, the stone that we threw is submerged in the water by now, and the ripples are getting weaker and less connected to it with every new subgenre. The connection to the reader is getting sort of thin—
So what keeps readers engaged?
Well, first of all I have to say that according to my publisher, the one exception to my concentric circle theory is werewolves. Frickin’ werewolves almost never fail to sell.
And that right there is the key. (At least in Amy’s theory world 😉
Werewolves are usually written in a contemporary setting. Back a few ripples up—you’re closer to the center. Very often the werewolf construct is used as an excuse to throw back to the very old, Neanderthal romances of the mid 1900’s, where the men were possessive and “beastly” and constantly at war with their better selves to treat their mates with respect. A lot of people know those old romances—they’re very familiar.
Back up a few more ripples.
The fantasy construct of the shape-shifter is one embedded deeply in our consciousness—First Nation peoples tell many stories about shape-shifters dealing cheekily with humans, and the Greek and Roman gods did quite a bit of fur-and-feather fornication as well. Back up a few more ripples.
And suddenly, what seemed to be a story very far from the center is a lot closer than we think.
Because human behavior hasn’t changed so very much from those days, and some of the same themes and archetypes from the stories told at the very beginning of language are very much alive today: man still needs to fight his animal nature to be his better self. Mates still need to arrive at some common ground if their partnership is going to succeed.
And that right there is why romance authors like to write in alternative universes, and why romance readers will wander into those universes, sometimes never to return.
Because no matter how many ripples a story goes out from the center—no matter how far from “every day contemporary living” a story is from the person reading it—the fact is, human behavior, human experience, is still very much what it has been from the very beginning.
No matter how far out those ripples go, they are still in the human pond.
And romance writers know that. They want to build different worlds—or variations of this one. They want to create fantastic creatures—or borrow some from lore. And then they want to see how human all lovers still are, no matter how different the world, no matter how fantastic the creature.
In fact, by showing a fantastic creature in an alternative world, they often find what is the most human and noble in all of us, and show hope that it is these qualities that will triumph.
By writing in that outer circle, we want the center to see what’s best in themselves.
It’s a difficult task—and we’re not always successful.
But it’s like skipping rocks.
You practice and practice and practice, and if you finally get that rock to skip to the center of the pond, look how many lovely ripples you’ve made.
And look how far from home your center is.
And how different the view is from there.
Coming oct 20th from Dreamspinner Press
One hundred and forty years ago, Harry, Edward, and Francis met an angel, a demon, and a sorceress while escaping imprisonment and worse! They emerged with a new family—and shapeshifting powers beyond their wildest dreams.
Now Harry and his brothers use their sorcery to rescue those enslaved in human trafficking—but Harry’s not doing so well. Pining for Suriel the angel has driven him to take more and more risks until his family desperately asks Suriel for an intervention.
In order for Suriel to escape the bindings of heaven, he needs to be sure enough of his love to fight to be with Harry. Back when they first met, Harry was feral and angry, and he didn’t know enough about love for Suriel to justify that risk. Can Suriel trust in Harry enough now to break his bonds of service for the boy who has loved his Familiar Angel for nearly a century and a half?