Avoiding the Predictable

From the brief amount of study I’ve done regarding the topic of derivative fiction, I’ve come to believe that the real error a writer should avoid in any genre is predictability.

A dragon is not just a big snake, and a magic sword is not merely a very sharp piece of steel; at least, not unless an author fails to make anything more out of them. The stock elements of fantasy are only as dull as we allow them to be.
– “Quality in Epic Fantasy” by Alec Austin at Strange Horizons

I love that quote. It challenges me as a writer to go beyond the expected, to avoid the cliches, not only in language but in character and in plot.

When I was growing up and westerns were common, the classic character cliche was the bad guy wearing the black hat and the good guy wearing the white. The bad guy also often needed a shave, slouched, was cruel to women and children and animals, and spat a lot.

As far as predictable plots were concerned, common ones included the restless cowboy being “tamed” by the beautiful maiden in distress; the cavalry arriving in the nick of time to save the surrounded wagon train/settlement; against all odds and without the support of the fearful citizens, the skilled/cunning/brave lawman cleans up the crime-infested town.

I believe these character cliches and predictable plots nearly killed westerns. But along came Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and suddenly, no one cared that westerns weren’t done any more. We could debate what making outlaws into the protagonists said to or about our culture, but we can’t deny how much more interesting the story was than it would have been if the Pinkerton man was the hero.

I suspect much of the complaint against Christian fiction is actually a complaint about its predictability. After all, if a character is a Christian, there are Scriptural parameters that dictate how that person will behave. And if a character isn’t a Christian, there will be a set of beliefs or anti-beliefs that define that individual. Where are the surprises?

And how is a Christian to grow? Not by drifting from God. How is a non-Christian to grow? Not by remaining unrepentant. So the story seems laid out as soon as the players tip their hands regarding their worldview.

Must it be so? One solution some authors apparently have come upon is to ignore Christianity, at least when it comes to playing a significant part in the plot or character development. These are the books I’d like to see renamed as clean fiction.

But back to the subject of predictability. It seems to me, if a magic sword is only as dull as we allow it, then a Christian or a conversion is only as dull as we allow it.

2 Comments

  1. Even the quietest conversion is dramatic to the person converted, because his whole life is different — MUST be different — from that moment on. There is inherent conflict in that fact; friends, family, coworkers may not understand, may feel convicted themselves or be opposed to his conversion, and may even run him off or (in extreme cases, as in other parts of the world) try to kill him. If an author tells that story, she has all manner of choices for unpredictable events and outcomes.

    As for Christian characters, we know that even Christians are human and therefore imperfect. We can just plain mess up in our everyday lives, or we can run from God’s direct commands, twist His Word to justify our actions, ignore some part of Scripture that makes us uncomfortable, or argue Scripture with believers who have different views. We can share faith but be divided in politics or outreach methods or musical preferences. We can go out with good intentions to reach the lost, but end up bludgeoning them with the Word. Again, there is all manner of potential conflict / unpredictability / potential growth for Christian characters in fiction.

    Like you said, our stories are only as dull as we allow them to be.

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  2. Great thoughts, Elizabeth. You’ve shown how a story could possibly start the day after a conversion to faith in Christ rather than ending with such (and by implication suggesting that now all will be well).

    There really is plenty of material to mine, if we are willing to do the heavy lifting!

    Becky

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