Genre. There, I said it. I actually said fiction’s “dirty word”. Honestly, the way some people treat discussions of genre, you’d think we were talking about You-Know-Who. I’ve read blog entries in which aspiring writers are cautioned never to follow generic conventions and to strive towards literary perfection, in much the same way that I’ve read articles haranguing writers to within an inch of their lives for working in more than one genre. Let me reassure you now – genre fiction is no better or any worse than literary fiction. They’re both just ways of telling a story, and it’s perfectly alright to work within the conventions that characterise a given genre in order to get your tale told.
Personally, I like to dabble in different genres. I watch different genres of film, I read different genres of fiction, I listen to different genres of music, so why should I pigeonhole my writing? Oh I understand the marketing arguments behind it. After all, it’s easier to position yourself if people know what to expect from you, and that goes for choosing your branding and setting up your online presence. For example, if you write gritty noir thrillers, you’re not going to choose a blog template and font that screams “paranormal romance”, are you? People need to know what to expect from you, although I would imagine that most writers who write in multiple genres choose those genres from within the same “family” – i.e. they might write both horror and urban fantasy, but they’re not likely to write a family comedy about a zany dog. The crossover between genres prevents a reader from being too surprised by a writer’s output.
Having said that, while I might write the odd Friday flash in a contemporary setting, I’ve noticed myself opting more and more for historical fiction. This is a fairly large banner, which includes most genres albeit in a historical setting, but I tend to opt for Victoriana, steampunk and Westerns. Westerns in particular are a perfect case study for how genre works, and I’m more than a little biased since my first book, The Guns of Retribution, just came out through Pulp Press – and it’s a Western.
If you see tumbleweeds, timber-built towns, cowboys, shoot outs, rail travel and saloon girls then chances are, you’re looking at a Western. The visual iconography is so firmly entrenched in the collective unconscious that we know what we’re dealing with instinctively. The themes are also very typical, usually involving revenge, the conquest of the wilderness, law vs lawlessness, or the distinction between civilisation and so-called savagery. Central protagonists are, more often that not, drifters – gunfighters, cowboys, outlaws and bounty hunters usually figure prominently in the stories.
Thing is, while these things comprise the Western as a genre, they’re still not set in stone. Writers and filmmakers frequently combine these elements with snippets of other genres, and nobody thinks twice about it. The most recent cinematic version of The Wild Wild West was quite steampunk in places, while both Cowboys & Aliens and Back to the Future III are a mixture of Western and science fiction. 3:10 to Yuma is part Western, part road movie, and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was an early horror-Western. My point? If you understand the conventions of your chosen genre, then you don’t have to slavishly follow them. You can introduce other elements. The Western is quite a special example since its iconography is so firmly rooted in a historical period, while its themes are really quite universal. It’s easy to slot conventions from other genres into place and as long as the world you’ve created will accommodate them, the Western will absorb the new elements and give you a hybrid genre in which to set your story.
So next time you’re writing your romance story and part of you wants to make the dreamy male protagonist a swamp man from the vegetable planet of Botan-Y, don’t immediately write off the new change of genre. Go with it and see what happens.