WRESTLING WITH GENRE: FANTASY LITERATURE VS. WAR FICTION

2 07 2012

I consider the Raingun series to be a war story set in a fantasy world. Therefore, it’s war fiction first, fantasy second.

Of course, there is a lot of overlap between fantasy literature and war fiction. But I think there’s less overlap than most people believe. (I’ve heard some people say that the Battle of Helm’s Deep qualifies Lord of the Rings as “war fiction”, or even that the mere presence of Boromir — a warrior — is sufficient qualification. I disagree, respectfully and heartily, on both counts.) I feel I have a responsibility to explain the difference, the way I see it. Here goes:

I fervently believe that a story with a fantasy setting does not become a “war story” by merely throwing in a few battles. My personal definition of a “war story” is one that describes the effects of war on ordinary people, from whose flawed and fragile ranks its protagonists must spring.

a) Most people who identify as “fantasy fans” want a pace that starts slow and gradually increases throughout the story, to a climax: ideally, the outcome of the climax is unpredictable, but everyone pretty much knows what’s at stake and when/where it will happen.

Conversely, someone very smart once described war as “boredom, punctuated by bursts of sheer terror”. Sometimes, during sieges or lulls in the fighting, nothing happens for a long time, and seems like it never will again. When fighting starts again, many times it happens suddenly with surprise (or attempted surprise). I think fans of “war fiction” accept this, and appreciate stories where the pace shifts from fast to slow and back again without warning.

b) Fantasy fans want their protag to be fairly sure of what is going on in the “big picture”, and to make command decisions (or failing that, to influence them, or at least witness them being made).

Both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have great conflicts that bear some comparison to the real-life struggles of World War II. But I don’t think they’re “war fiction”. These conflicts are seen through larger-than-life, unique characters who plainly outshine the rest of their world’s populations. War fiction is about ordinary people, dealing with extraordinary challenges and extraordinary horror.

I think readers of war fiction accept that most army personnel, throughout history, were assigned specific jobs and were not privy to high-level command decisions; that rumors ran so rampant that they became very skeptical of any news. A man in a WWI trench who suddenly heard cheering that “The war is over!” was less likely to jump for joy than to roll his eyes in jaded disbelief. He’s less concerned with the Kaiser than he is with worrying whether he’s going to get trench foot. Readers of war fiction are more interested in seeing how the man in the trench deals with the stresses and trials of what he’s going through, and whether he will survive to the war’s end, than grand political designs of who will be President, or who will be King.

c) Both fantasy and “war fiction” tend to have lots of combat.  Fantasy stories often have a lot of variety for its own sake: a single book may contain battles that take place underground, by seashores, and miles above the ground on dragonback. The protag may travel long distances across many varieties of terrain; they might fight unique monsters; they might gain access to special items, magic, or allies that bring unique and unforeseen effects or hindrances to specific fights. The rationale behind this is sound: if the battles are all different from each other, it should be harder for the reader to guess which side will win the battle he is currently reading about. This will, in turn, create tension/suspense.

The suspense in war fiction isn’t so much about “Who’s winning — good or evil?” as it is about “Will the characters I care about get through this okay?”

If you read a lot of Bernard Cornwell, you will see that the battles in “war fiction” have less variety per story. Richard Sharpe’s battles will have lots of muskets. Horatio Hornblower’s battles will have lots of cannon fire. Wounds and death, when they occur, generally occur in ways similar to the way they did in the last battle. The battle might be a “hurdle” that the characters must survive to get to the next stage of the story’s development (or their own) — therefore, the reader must be highly invested in what will happen to the characters, so that every battle is a brand-new mortal threat, regardless of how outwardly similar it may be to all the other battles in the character’s military career. If the reader’s invested in the plot, that’s okay too of course, but it’s unlikely to be enough by itself, since war minus the element of characterization will tend to resemble a strategic exercise more than a story.

d) Few fantasy fans will accept their beloved Aragorn, Buffy, or Raistlin being maimed in an explosion, or catching dysentery, or suffering some form of PTSD. In the event that a classic “fantasy” character does suffer such things, their suffering will be uniquely theirs — perhaps deliberately chosen as an act of sacrifice, or perhaps resulting from some attack specifically targeted at them in particular (because classic fantasy protags are such unique individuals).

Readers of war fiction are much more willing to tolerate human frailty among their characters. They will accept flaws and tribulations on a hero.  They are prepared to sympathetically accept bad things happening to their protags, even when they are the tragic result of dumb luck — and even if the protag is only one of thousands suffering in the exact same way.

Of course, a story doesn’t have to qualify as “war fiction” to be a great story. Not according to me, anyway . . .

To sum up: in writing a “war story set in a fantasy world”, I seem to have all the characteristics that will be rejected by fantasy fans wherever they part company with fans of “war fiction”. On the other hand, a significant portion of “war fiction” fans have a deep love of real-world history and eschew fantasy altogether.

In attempting to write something “unique”, I may have perhaps gone too far and charted an unnecessarily difficult course for myself (and my readers). What do you think?

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