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Blending the Familiar and the Strange

This post originally appeared at Borders’ Babel Clash blog.

Most stories are a blending of a familiar element and an unfamiliar element. One important element of a successful story, in my armchair estimation, is the ability to do this the right way.

When we, as readers, pick up a new book off of the shelf, we generally are looking for something new, yet old, at the same time. The ratio of new versus old varies drastically depending on the person and the genre. (Romance readers, in general, seem to be looking for a lot of the familiar while SF readers, in general, strike me as seeking far more of the original.)

In a way, this is why we have genres in the first place. It gives us a place where, in bookstores and libraries, we can lump similar kinds of books. That way, readers can seek out the ‘familiar’ aspect first. We know we like fantasy. We are looking for a good fantasy. We want a great fantasy that gives us the same feelings as the fantasy books we’ve read before, but one that is original at the same time.

As a writer, that can be a tall order to fulfill.

I’ve thought a lot about this concept. How much original do I, as a reader, want with my fantasy novels? How much familiar? It used to bother me when I pick up a fantasy book and there’s gunpowder. I felt that just wasn’t something fantasy should have. (I’ve since changed my mind.) As a writer, how much can I stray from what people expect ‘Fantasy’ to be and still maintain my readership? Do I even let this direct me? (So far, I’ve just written what I’ve wanted and hoped that the readership will come.)

As I’ve grown older, my thirst for the original has increased, and my tolerance for too much familiar has diminished. I’m not the only one. Eragon is an excellent example. Many established fantasy readers like myself didn’t care for the book, as it felt like too much of a re-tread of the same stories we’d already read. And yet younger readers, to whom that type of story was still fresh, loved it.

Still, there is something in me that thirsts for the old classic feel of fantasy. The Name of the Wind didn’t have anything earth-shatteringly original in it. Neither did the Harry Potter books. And yet, I loved these books with a passion—because of their excellent, classic fantasy ideas mixed with enough originality to make them shine. (Really, if you haven’t read The Name of the Wind, you should check it out.)

So where is this balance for you? Which authors do you think are walking this line the best, blending what you’ve seen with what you haven’t seen into books you love?

(And for further reading on the familiar/strange idea, check out Terry Rossio’s essay about the “Strange attractor” in writing screenplays. A slightly different take on the same idea.)

Also, just a quick shameless plug—Warbreaker, my standalone epic fantasy novel, came out today. Huzzah! Find it at your favorite Borders bookstore, where they’ve kindly placed the book at the front of every store.

|   Castellano