Authors are pretty amazing, aren’t they? The creativity, the ambition it takes to create the stories we love. Especially in the realm of speculative fiction, where entire worlds – maybe even galaxies – are created and filled with creatures, civilisations with their own cultures, architecture, beliefs, nations and landscapes, magic systems and fields of studies, technology and artifacts, and the talent it takes to tie all these things together into a package shaped like a book. This is the reason I’ll always focus on fantasy, science fiction and horror in the essays I post to this blog.
And yet, there’s something in the realm of speculative fiction I find missing as well. See, despite all the fantastical races available to their creator, the protagonists kind of tend to be the same person. Regular, 20 or 30 year old humans. Now, some may be wizards, or demon hunters, or space explorers, or who knows what else. But they’re still kind of always the same regular, 20 or 30 year old humans. You know?
This is of course an oversimplification. You might even say a massive oversimplification. There is obviously a lot of variety in the pantheon of protagonists, and no one is out there confusing Wendy Torrance with Victor Frankenstein. But… Well, do you ever read a book and realise suddenly that stories could be even more ambitious, even more creative in a certain area?
This happened for me last year when, having previously only been familiar with its mostly forgettable movie adaptation, I read Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room.’
For all intents and purposes, the book is just another crime thriller – a boy and his mom trapped in a single room by sociopath Old Nick (notable for being one of the Devil’s many nicknames). But what makes the book really stand out so much higher than that is the book’s narrator, Jack. A five year old child.
I want to keep these essays focused on my genre, so I won’t be writing an analysis of ‘Room.’ Sorry if that was what you were hoping for – although I do have a regular review of the book over on Goodreads if you want to find that. There’ll be a link at the bottom of this post. There is still something I want to do with ‘Room’ in the realm of one of my analysis essays, though. Instead of a more typical write-up, I’m going to use the book as a style model to discuss one way in which speculative fiction can improve.
Firstly (and hopefully briefly) why is ‘Room’ so good?
Well, as I pointed out above, and this is also why the movie was comparably lacking in something for me, it was the book’s narrator that made the story stand out so much. Even that choice in and of itself – a book narrated by a five year old – is really interesting. Because on the surface that sounds like it would be awful to read. And truthfully, for a lot of readers it is – this book just doesn’t resonate for some people, and that’s fine. But personally, I love the ambition, and the author’s devotion to it.
Significantly though, even if you don’t enjoy the book itself, you have to respect the ambition, and I think either way there’s a lot to learn from this one.
So, the book has a five year old narrator. Why should we care?
Well, the first main point is the way this decision affects the book’s genre. See, ‘Room’ is a thriller. But experiencing it from a child’s point of view has two effects that should cancel each other out but actually enhance each other.
The first is that Jack really doesn’t understand how terrible his situation is. He was born in this room, it’s his normal. Why is Ma so upset? Why doesn’t she want me to stay in this room? Why is Old Nick scary?
He’s a kid born into a horrible situation. But he doesn’t know that. This is normal to him. And we know this because it’s written from his point of view.
But the second effect is interesting too. See, we do know how horrible this situation is. And so, experiencing a horrific story happening to a child is terrifying to us the readers. It’s heartbreaking to us the readers. Because of the protagonist’s innocence and naivety – two qualities we’re experiencing firsthand.
Combine the two effects and there’s a sort of back and forth, indecisive uncanny valley feeling where the narration is scary, but funny. Upsetting, but kind of cute.
It feels very off most of the time.
In short, ‘Room’ is impressive because of its ambition, and the effect this ambition has on its genre.
To me the implications this should have had on the horror genre are obvious. First of all, more books ‘written by kids,’ so to speak. When the purpose of your genre is to explore frightening scenarios and, ideally, to elicit fear itself, making the character more vulnerable is writing 101 – and choosing a very young protagonist is an abundantly clear way of doing that. This is something Stephen King has understood for decades, and made use of in books like ‘The Shining’ and ‘It,’ and it has brought him massive success in the genre.
But apparently people aren’t taking notice – because it’s still rare to see horror novels from a child’s point of view, and it’s virtually unheard of for a book to actually feel like the child wrote it. Unheard of, that is, except for ‘Room.’
I’m going to leave Emma Donoghue and her novel alone for now, because it’s not really the focal point of this essay. As fascinating to me as the book, and particularly its perspective character, is, it’s not just children I want to see as POV characters in books. That’s ambitious yes, but it doesn’t really speak to the kind of scope speculative fiction could truly have with regards to its eyes and ears.
To illustrate that point, answer me this – when I say fantasy, what comes into your head?
It’s probably not humans.
Like, am I alone in this? There are so many books in the fantasy genre with the likes of dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, giant spiders and horned demons, half-animal hybrids and reanimated spirits. Their world is filled with awe-inspiring magic and gods. And we get to experience this from the perspective of… ourselves?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this happens. Authors want to form a point of relatability with the main character, and want to give us a sort of escapism where we can sit back and think, hell yeah I could go somewhere like this.
But ‘Room’ proves to us that readers don’t need a regular, adult human in order for this point of connection to exist.
Tolkien understood this in the middle of the last century when he wrote ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ crafting a group of perspective protagonists made up of humans, elves, dwarves and of course, hobbits.
But for all the fantasy genre is inspired by Tolkien with every release, somehow the greater fantasy element falls by the wayside, and it’s through the eyes of a human protagonist we observe this fictional landscape. The majesty of the dwarf kingdoms, the grace of elf civilisation, the terror of orc armies. All shown through a regular old human. And again, I get the reason why – point of identification, empathy, putting ourselves in their shoes, maybe even putting them in our shoes.
But if the fantasy genre has one unique thing going for it, it’s… well, the fantasy.
I want a fantasy book written from the dragon’s perspective, getting us to really feel the way a dragon feels as it glides over a kingdom and scorches it to the ground. I want a fantasy book where we experience the class system of a goblin underworld firsthand.
And it’s not just fantasy.
Give me a science fiction book from the perspective of the rogue AI. Or a science fiction book from the perspective of a single fungal spore in the world-destroying hivemind.
Give me a horror book that really delves into the horror of being a zombie, or one that explores how a sadistic serial killer thinks as they torture their victims.
And I don’t just mean to write a book with X, Y or Z as the main character – that’s already kinda out there, and it isn’t quite as far as I want writers to push their ambition. Follow in the footsteps of ‘Room’ and go the whole mile. Really pull yourself into the dragon’s head and daydream about burning down that pitiable village of people. Really think about how the dragon thinks, how it feels both in terms of senses and inner thoughts*. Hell, does an AI have feelings? Who knows? You do! Write the book from their perspective!
(*Just, uh, don’t get too invested, okay?)
It starts with tropes, it ends with a really unique approach to genres and themes we’ve seen hundreds of times before, but never in the way that you could write it. These genres are drowning in ‘regular guys,’ and to be clear, I don’t necessarily want those books to stop being written. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and which genres have more variety of potential characters than fantasy, sci fi and horror?
It starts with books like ‘Room,’ and could and should inspire all kinds of other unique perspectives in fiction.
Oh, and if anyone knows any books out there attempting the kinds of stories I’ve talked about in this essay – I’m very happy to know that I might be wrong! Please give me any recommendations you’ve got. But I guarantee there aren’t many, and that they don’t go as far out there as I’m talking about here. Furthermore, there could always be more books with even more ambition and creativity than we’ve already seen these kinds of stories and writers being capable of.
I strongly believe in uniqueness and creativity being the most important part of the creative process, and I strongly believe in writers as people being endlessly capable of writing original, surprising stories.
Go out there and write something different. I believe in you!
Link to my Goodreads review of 'Room' for those who want it: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3892880391