Facing grief and trauma in genre fiction

I’m a fan of adventure stories and genre fiction. Genre fiction covers a lot of ground, but you can probably guess what I’m talking about: fantasy adventures, intrigue, sci-fi thrillers, that sort of thing. Not, generally, the stories that literary critics make happy noises about and call “art” or “good literature.”

I don’t think genre writers should mould themselves to the expectations of literary critics. The personal tastes of many of those critics don’t match mine very well. They have too little appreciation for plot, for things happening, to really fit my tastes. But there are a few places where I think the general approach of genre fiction feels… emotionally dishonest, stunted, or like it (sometimes) does us as readers a disservice.

This puts me at risk of agreeing with those literary critics on a few points, which makes me (as a long-time ardent genre fiction fan) a little nervous. 

As you might guess from the title, my quibble revolves around characters’ experiences of grief and trauma in genre fiction. The pattern I see is that genre fiction doesn’t deal deeply or honestly with the impact of the traumatic experiences it puts its characters through. It prioritizes the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the problem solving… and leaves healing from one’s wounds—or picking up the pieces of one’s emotional and social life, or facing one’s lasting pain—entirely out of the picture. Facing trauma and grief, to put too-small a name to it.

A general caveat: I think the patterns I’m discussing here have changed somewhat since I was a kid. It is easier now to find exceptions to the pattern I talk about here, and the pattern may be shifting. But the pattern is still visible, and will probably be recognizable to anyone who’s read certain sub-genres (mil-fic is an easy example).

Where this kind of genre fiction does deal with that trauma and grief, it frequently responds with the blaring one-note horn of limited (toxic) masculinity: anger, revenge, and action, with no time set aside for reflection or any other emotional experience (generally regardless of the gender of the characters involved). I’m not surprised, really: I see in this the parallel discomfort modern American society has had with any discussion of emotional experience, or any need for psychological aid, spiritual counseling, meditative practice, or anything else meant to soothe and heal (maybe excepting the use of drugs or sex as an escape).

I don’t want all of my adventure stories to fixate on the main characters’ desperate need for therapy. That’s not the solution I’m looking for. But it would be nice for more of our genre fiction to, as I’ve seen more examples of recently, deal honestly with the impact of going through all of these exciting, interesting times. How is it that our heroes learn to cope? How are they breaking under the pressure of being heroic? Who’s supporting them, and how? Where are the quiet little moments of Frodo leaning on Sam in the face of terrible odds and endless danger?

I want to read stories where the heroes’ struggles in the face of unyielding badness are more palpably human, less opaquely stoic. And if our heroes are stoic, I want to see the work they put into maintaining that stoicism, holding that balance, despite the exceptional lives they live. It’s the failure to show this side of our heroes that feels like a disservice to us as readers.

That’s especially true in anything that isn’t epic or mythological. What I mean by that is, the further from the banalities of life the focus of the story falls, the more leeway I give it—if you’re writing about characters who are more-than-human or even forces of nature, I don’t have beef. But I’ll add that exploring the emotional depth of those characters (even off-handedly, I don’t need whole chapters about someone’s anguish unless that’s what the book is about) nearly always builds more connection for me and gives me a better sense of the character as a person. And I like that. The more I know what characters care about, and the more ways I have of exploring that, the better as far as I’m concerned. Especially if it’s done with a deft hand and subtly incorporated.

I hope that this old pattern will change. I can see ways that it already has, in the books I’ve enjoyed most recently. You can probably see me writing about those books, those stories, elsewhere on here. Let’s see more of that change.

Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.

Arisia 2020 is next week!

I’ll be at Arisia next weekend, from Jan 17th-20th (Friday through Monday). I’m going to be on seven panels, and will be moderating three of them! Here’s my schedule, and a quick overview of *some* of the material for each panel.

The GM-less Game; Lewis, Friday 7pm: discussing the growing genre of GM-less games, what makes them work, and how to dig into them.

Cooperative Games (mod); Marina 4, Saturday 4pm: discussing cooperative and semi-cooperative board and video games, barriers to entry, how to pick the right ones for your group, and how to navigate their traps and pitfalls.

Feet of Clay, Mind of Light; Marina 2, Saturday 5:30pm: discussing sentient life in non-organic bodies, with plenty of robots, AIs, and conversation about gender, immortality, bodies, dysphoria, and the soul.

Harassment, Missing Stairs, and Safety in LARP; Faneuil, Saturday 7pm: discussing do’s and don’ts of writing and enforcing codes of conduct, dealing with malicious actors in your social groups, and maintaining a healthy and welcoming community that is less vulnerable to abusive behavior.

Death and Funerary Practices in Science Fiction (mod); Marina 4, Sunday 1pm: discussing how genre fiction has dealt with (and failed to deal with) death, how this informs our understanding of the cultures inside those stories, and how our own culture has shaped death and funerary practices in our fiction.

Bringing Horror Into Other Genres (mod); Otis, Sunday 7pm: discussing what horror actually is, the effect of horror’s dread and frisson, what purposes horror may serve (both in horror and elsewhere), and how horror and its elements can expand and improve other genres.

The Hacker’s Guide to D&D; Marina 2, Sunday 8:30pm: discussing D&D 5th edition, how (un)important it is to use the rules as they’re written, and how we as storytellers can use rules and systems from elsewhere to create the experiences we want for our players inside the constraints of D&D’s 5th edition.