Most genre novels require external conflict

I was tooling around recently with an idea I had for a fantasy novel (a take on the Mahabharata that interrogates the caste system, and the way it sort of underpins the entire epic), when I had an epiphany. You know all that stuff I usually write about the action being driven by the main character’s desires and about how you’ve got to capture the heart of longing? It’s not really necessary for a fantasy novel, because in a fantasy novel the action isn’t usually driven by the protagonist: it’s driven by the bad guys.

In the kinds of novels I’ve been writing for the past five or six years, I’ve moved toward a model where all the conflict is internal. There are two opposing drives inside the main character, and they’re drawn in one direction and then in the other, and their actions complicate their own life, until everything comes to a head. I’ve written books this way because it’s true to life. In real life, there aren’t really bad guys. There is just the individual and their milieu; they can accept their fate or they can struggle against it, but if they choose to struggle, the opposition tends to come in such subtle ways, and over such a long period of time, and from so many different corners, that it’s a very hard feat, technically speaking, to dramatize that opposition in a novel.

That’s why with my realist novels I always try to find the right premise. I feel like a good premise–one that’s naturally full of a lot of inherent tension–is so valuable. hI never let go of a good premise

But in this fantasy novel, it’s not like that. Because I’ve got bad guys. And my main character wants stuff, sure, but ultimately if it wasn’t for the bad guys butting into his life, he wouldn’t have much trouble getting what he wants.

I think this is something I once knew, but I lost interest after a while in writing this kind of novel, because I felt it wasn’t true to life. Whereas right now, having just written and turned in a more ‘serious’ novel, I feel more comfortable playing around.

The conventional wisdom is that you should write in one genre and in one style and build an audience over time, but I’m not sure whether that wisdom makes sense anymore. It feels like publishers only want books with breakout potential, and if the book you’re pitching them is more or less the same as the books you’ve written in the past, then it’s hard to convince them it’ll break out. Whereas each time you write in a new genre, publishers see you as an untried quality. They think there is a chance, at least, that you’ll catch fire and turn into something.

Most authors I know are mostly interested in just one or two genres. Or they’re only interested in one or two markets. They can only see themselves writing young adult. Or only adult science fiction and fantasy. That’s all legit. But I feel like anything I like to read is something I wouldn’t mind writing, and I like to read all kinds of stuff. I’ll write a fantasy novel. I want to write a domestic thriller too. And a suspense novel. And a science fiction novel that has spaceships. And even a romance! And a bunch more things besides.

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