Greetings once again. Today, I want to discuss an aspect of writing that can prove both a blessing and a curse- being different. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to popular writing; you can follow the trends, or you can do something against it. In general, it’s considered better to be different, as the large number of failed Harry Potter knockoff adaptations has shown in the last few years. But if you do want to be different, there are certain concepts that must be understood and observed; including one central rule- being different is not the same as being good.
Being different can have many meanings. The most identifiable one might be going against a popular trend, which can have positive and negative results. Being different will make you stand out, and may please an audience that is unhappy with the current trend. But it also means you must work harder to get your work out, since it is unlikely to please the masses at first. This was generally the approach I took with Lightrider- despite advice from others, I had no desire to write another young-adult fantasy story or supernatural romance; I desired to write something that might be enjoyed by those audiences, but more adult sensibilities (for example, an unknowing adult hero instead of a child ‘messiah’ figure). That question of what should be different is vital, as it will decide the tone, feel, and general ‘being’ of your book.
As to what they can be, it can be anything from character roles to tone. For example, horror comedies such as Tremors or Arachnophobia stand out because even though they are scary, they have several humorous moments to balance them out. Gremlins especially took advantage of this by having several frightening Gremlins that still managed to be funny through their behavior, or the classic movie theatre scene where they sing along to “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White. Characters can also benefit from being different- a classic example would be Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock as a villainous Jew is accurate for the time period. However, Shakespeare also has Shylock comment on his status, bemoaning that his actions are only what people expect of him, and that he has little choice but to follow society’s beliefs. Indeed, his forced conversion at the end makes it hard not to feel sympathetic to his plight. A more modern example would be The Dude from The Big Lebowski– a character that has no purpose, skills, or direction, but is the central character due to his innate coolness, lackadaisical attitude, and wit. This is a character that should be a side character at best, but the film focuses on him with hilarious and even dramatic results.
With all that said, there are two things that link these varied tones and characters- purpose and logic. Simply having these differences to simply to just make them different, even if it doesn’t need it, destroys any real meaning those differences might have caused. One example could be Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland. This version removes the ‘wild road trip’ element and replaces it with a traditional ‘chosen one’ story. While this does make the film stand out, it also takes a more fluid and unpredictable story, and replaces it with a more standard one, which despite the oddcap moments, simply feels rehashed and tired. I have also had the character concept explored by my ongoing personal arguments with friends over Disney’s Frozen (which I promise to stop citing).
In this argument, I took the stance that Elsa, the antagonist of the story (but not the villain), is a sympathetic character until the point where she lets her fear prevent her from even trying to undo the damage she caused. My friend’s point was how this made her different from previous Disney heroines in that she was not the perky princess that was gung-ho about solving problems (a role filled by her sister). I concede that point, but by giving her that difference, Elsa ironically embodies the worst trait of Disney Princesses- the ‘locked in a tower’ syndrome. By not wanting to even try to help, Elsa is now someone sitting in a room alone, waiting for someone else to solve her problem for her. Her difference makes her less of a character and more of an obstacle to overcome, while giving the audience a character they should avoid becoming rather then someone they should emulate. So in trying to be different, they created a character that not only loses audience sympathy but creates a negative role model in the Twilight mold of a girl that must BE helped because she will never do so on her own.
Being different can be a tremendous boon to writers. It allows them to come up with ideas and concepts that allow for their own freedoms. However, it can make them work harder to push their ideas, and being different can be mistaken for being good. Writers need to remember that if they have a different idea, they need to flesh it out and make sure that it brings something that works because of clear, well thought out ideas. Being different only works if it brings us something good- a broccoli-crème donut is different, but how many people would really want it?
This week, I was intending to continue with my Publishing series, but this particularly entry has required some additional information by an associate with greater experience. Therefore, today I will continue with my Genre Top 5, focusing on a current trend in writing- zombies. While I generally prefer zombie tales to the vampire and werewolf tales of the last few years (I’m looking at you Twilight), this doesn’t mean every zombie story is perfect. Some are little more than rip offs of classic films like Night of the Living Dead, with more gore and splatter then storytelling. What’s worse, many authors don’t try to take the idea of the zombie and infuse it with new ideas, like different settings or even humor. So I’ve list the best of the zombie novels I’ve read, which succeed because of the different takes they give the undead.
5. Hebert West, ReAnimator– H.P. Lovecraft
4. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies– Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
This was the first zombie novel I picked up, and I can say all my interest in the books come from this one tale. For literary buffs, it is an adaption of the classic Jane Austen tale, but places the Victorian characters into a minor zombie apocalypse, which has forced the five sisters to undergo intense self-defense training in the far East. However, the story never loses its Victorian feel or manner (the zombies are even referred to as ‘hungry ones’ to make things more civilized) and while Elizabeth Bennett is now resolved to slaughter the zombies of England, the book keeps intact her family’s dilemmas and her complicated courtship of Mr. Darcy. An excellent adaption that makes the classic novel easier to swallow for those not romantically inclined.
3. Night of the Living Trekkies– Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
A zombie story for the sci-fi crowd, this novel makes the zombie plague the result of alien parasites, who rapidly infect the crowd of a Star Trek convention in a Houston hotel. The story is filled with plenty of references for fans (the main character is named Jim Pike, an anagram of two Enterprise captains, and the chapters are named after classic and appropriate Trek episodes), and moves at a quick pace. But what truly makes it work is not just how well the references work, but also the surprising depth behind it. Pike is a Iraq War veteran dealing with severe fears from his time in war; he is terrified of taking responsibility for the lives of others, but is forced to do so (and reignite his Trekkie past) to save his sister and the few human guests left in the hotels. It is a story of personal growth mixed with phasers and brain-eating, and every aspect works brilliantly.
2. Deck Z– Chris Paulson and Matt Solomon
A historical zombie thriller, this takes the undead aboard the most tragic ship in recent history, the RMS Titanic. Thankfully, this is not a parody of the popular movie, but the tale of a post WWI German scientist who discovers a zombie creating substance that he hides above the ship to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, an assassin causes the substance to leak and spread about the ship, just as the iceberg comes into view. While the concept alone will likely attract those hoping zombies will eat Celine Dion at some point, the story works because it doesn’t allow itself to delve into parody. The ship and events surrounding it are simply the background for a fast-paced story with enough historical accuracy mixed with zombie plague. Taking real figures like Captain Edward Smith and making them zombie hunters is effective, while the main characters hope to use the substance to cure disease makes him sympathetic and understandable. An excellent seafaring horror tale that James Camereon might’ve wanted to look at.
1. Apocalypse Cow– Michael Logan
An award winning zombie tale (it is the first recipient of the Terry Pratchett Prize), it focuses on cows and other animals in the UK being infected with a zombie-esque disease that also resembles mad-cow disease. While the premise is certainly silly sounding, the story works because the author expands the idea by having other animals infected (imagine every animal in America suddenly going mad and hungering for flesh). The human characters also work wonderfully, as each one has some relation to the outbreak- a slaughterhouse worker, a rebellious vegan teenager, and a reporter looking for the next big story. Their story mixes in both humor and heartbreak as they attempt to escape to safety while saving and losing members of their families and friends. It feels like a story that’s ready to be turned into a film, and I would eagerly pay money to see that happen.