I like to think I’m better than Lee Child, he who manages to write fourteen books starring Jack Reacher, without making a single painfully obvious Reacher-round joke. However, I geniunely felt a little admiration for him when I was pointed to this article in which Child quite wonderfully admits that anyone could knock up a literary classic, but he’s much more doubtful that the reverse could be true. So, the question I guess is this – can genre fiction be literary fiction?
I find it quite admirable that he’s saying these things, about not just story but character, example quote, “People don’t want a character to change. With a series like Reacher, people want to know what they’re getting – oh good, another Reacher.”
I don’t necessarily think this is true. I mean, I’m a massive comic book fan, and not just graphic novels or Indie books, I’m talking about real superhero comics. One of my favourite characters out there is Spiderman.
Now, I’m not about to start claming that Spiderman is any sort of literary classic. Of course, he’s a classic character, a brilliant creation, but the work on him is never going to considered in a pantheon that considers Lolita and War & Peace. That’s not the argument. What Spiderman does give us, is a perfect example of what editors think about the changeability of characters.
Let’s set the scene.
In the beginning, a mild mannered teenager became a superhero thanks to the bite of a radioactive spider. Everyone knows this part. He learned the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility, after the death of his Uncle Ben. He learned even harder, that when you let people into your life (as a superhero) you risk their lives, after his first love, Gwen Stacy died. These events, from way back in the 60’s have been affecting the character ever since.
Cut to the start of this decade. Peter Parker, now no longer a photographer, is married to Mary Jane Watson, is a college lecturer and…guess what…has grown and changed as a character. He’s moved on from these hangups from the 60’s. Yes they still haunt him, but it feels realistic that he’s moving past it.
Cut to 2007 and Spiderman reveals his identity to the world. Everyone knows he’s Peter Parker now. This is a massive change for the character, showing a logical step in the stories being told. This is Parker moving completely on from his worries and accepting that he has a strong family who can look after themselves.
This is all preamble to a few years ago. In a major storyline, Peter and Mary Jane essentially annull their marriage via a deal with the devil and as a (completely inexplicable) result, the world around them changes. Spiderman’s secret identity is under wraps again, Peter Parker is single, broke and a photographer (once more). This giant reset button undid everything that had been worked on with the character, and something that comics seem to rarely do these days is build character and develop them in stories like this.
So when Lee Child says people aren’t looking for character development, that they want the same thing. I think it can be misleading. I think people would like to see development, they want to see characters go somewhere, and not just be ciphers for plot and exposition. I for one, get much more enjoyment, even in genre fiction, when characters develop and learn.
Sitcom characters never learn as a rule, because once they start learning, once they start developing, the only option is drama, just look at Friends. Thrillers, horror and science fiction shouldn’t be afraid to take their characters somewhere emotionally, not least because its interesting for the reader, but mostly because it makes everything that little bit more dramatic.