I recently shared an article on Facebook by a local writing instructor who describes literary fiction as follows: “‘Literary fiction boils down to: ‘Stories that are not obvious conflicts between Good and Evil’ and/or ‘Stories With Unpredictable Endings.’” I liked this succinct description as I often struggle with how to explain literary versus genre fiction other than “it’s deeper, not as black and white…it’s hard to explain.” But this explanation is very suitable and I found myself thinking about it as I watched “Sofia the First” last night with my children before bed. It’s one of the few Disney Jr shows I don’t mind paying attention to: there’s always a clear conflict with a few obstacles thrown in the way, and a neat resolution reached by the end of the thirty minute show – definitely more genre then literary. But last night I listened to my kids talk about one of the characters (a friend of Cedric’s, the Sorcerer) who they described as “a little bit good and bad.” Even Cedric – who usually appears hellbent on stealing Sofia’s magical amulet so he can have power over the kingdom – always makes the right choice in the end; he can’t bring himself to go all the way with his evil intentions. Though he craves prestige and power, he is ultimately not willing to sell his soul for all of that. In this episode, his friend appears generally naughty, stirring up trouble with spells, but by the end, both magicians are working together, under the orders of Baileywick, the Castle Steward (a total archetypal martyr character), to save many members of the royal family from sailing into a large rock.
“See, see,” my daughter said, “he’s not really bad.” In this case, she didn’t want him to be bad, she was looking for signs of good, but I couldn’t help to think of this murky line between good and evil. Through a child’s eyes, the world is still mostly seen as black and white; they are not mature enough to understand the idea of nuance or shades of gray in character. Though they may be unknowingly grappling with some of the tenets of literary fiction, their minds slant towards genre and formulaic plots.
As they learn to become readers who write, they are also – of course – initially instructed towards a basic, formulaic approach. This is one of the handouts that came home in my daughter’s homework folder last year:
I came across it today while trying to get rid of some of the clutter….but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Sure, “Sofia” episodes fall neatly into this formula. And while I usually turn my nose up at genre fiction, I think I could learn something from this one-sheeter as I struggle with the direction of my own manuscript. When I’m feeling lost in the web of time periods and multiple protagonists I’ve created, something as simple as this feels somewhat freeing. What is each character’s problem? What is her beginning, middle, and end? How will each problem be resolved? Even if the endings are somewhat unpredictable, what will they be? I began my novel with a basic understanding of the arc that each character would go through, and now that I am in it, and know how each will end, I’m having a hard time getting there. Perhaps it’s my fear of confrontation (as one writing instructor suggested plagues many writers), or maybe I’m starting to consider these characters from a reader’s perspective and wondering how they’ll be read. How will they measure up? Where does each fall on the continuum of good and evil? I know the only way to answer these questions is to keep writing. What I’m finding, though, is that both the media that my children consume and their elementary introduction to the art of fiction can both serve me well on my own advanced journey…
At the end of the “Sofia”, I asked, “do you think a person can be good and bad?”
But as always, I wondered as their little minds drifted off to sleep, did this little nugget begin to plant itself somewhere? Children are also slow processors. Ideas need to marinate, to fester before taking off.