To begin, I will discuss hamburgers. What has this to do with formulae in books? Well not a lot, I just felt like playing some hunger games.
Your basic burger has a few essential elements that exist for it to be a burger. You have the meat patty, the cheese, the bread bun, the sauce and probably some salad. You can get a burger with these elements from many different places. You might go to McDonalds or a similar fast food place and get a general, mass produced burger. Yes, the sauce was more likely made in a chemistry lab than a kitchen, and the patty’s content of actual beef is questionable, and the cheese is processed, and you will get the very same quality burger at pretty much every single instance of that fast food place (they don’t call them mass produced for nothing), but fundamentally there is nothing essentially wrong with this. You can eat it and enjoy it, and there are times when it might be very welcome indeed.
Of course, you could go to a more serious restaurant and get a more serious type of burger with the same elements, but with a massive shift in quality. You could have a patty made of prime steak, locally sauced farmhouse cheese, and handmade sauce on a fresh baked bun. If you’re used to this gourmet type of burger, you will probably think less of the mass produced, fast food variety, for all you might still enjoy them for what they are.
Of course, not all burgers come with just cheese and sauce. Even in McDonalds, you might have one with bacon, different sorts of relish, chicken or fish instead of beef. Some burgers might take the concept to whacky levels with jerk sauce, pickles, cream, maple syrup, and goodness knows what. Usually, the more experimental, crazier combinations will come with better quality individual ingredients, though not necessarily always, and of course some experiments might or might not be successful.
As you might have guessed, all this talk about burgers is a metaphor. What’s a meta for? Making people think you’re being clever when you’re actually just lying badly. The fantasy genre has always been full of formulae and archetypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hopeless children with special powers, wizards with beards telling innocent peasants their destiny, or square jawed space captains rocketing into the unknown bravely travelling where nobody had previously travelled. Epic and high fantasy in particular is prey to such tropes and formulae, indeed pre-Tolkien most high fantasy was of the Conan the Barbarian, extremely mythological and archetypal sort. I have often thought in fact that aside from his amazing body of work Tolkien’s greatest gift to the fantasy genre as a whole was showing how an epic, high fantasy tale of good and evil, war and magic can also include human, flawed, and likeable characters.
To an extent, with the rise of role playing games these archetypes reappeared somewhat, since obviously for a role playing system people would need to choose a class or type of character to play, and such classes and types are now almost archetypes of their own from leather clad two weapon wielding rangers to effete, glass canon mages.
It’s not just in epic fantasy however that these character archetypes are used. Noire detectives chasing after a fem fatale, rogues with a heart of gold (and possibly the fastest ship in the galaxy), tough lady gunslingers or beautiful courtiers (of both genders) playing dangerous politics plus a host of others, indeed odds are if you can describe it coherently with a couple of adjectives and a noun and people know what you’re talking about, it’s a character archetype!
Neither do these archetypes have to be specifically character based either. An ending that returns to status quo, a huge battle in which the young protagonist’s family are slain leaving them free to journey into the wilds, a monster lurking in the dark, a young hero rescuing a beautiful and mysterious lady whom he falls instantly in love with, a magic MacGuffin which the evil forces are searching for to gain ultimate power, there are far too many of such tropes to list, indeed there is a large and extensive website devoted to just that endeavour.
I have often seen someone dismiss a book as “formulaic” or “just a typical example” but one question I have found myself wondering about is why is this a bad thing? After all, just as a person can enjoy a standard burger of the cheese and sauce and patty variety described above, surely a person can enjoy a formulaic book?
Some people directly equate formulae with sexist, racist, homophobic or other negative cultural stereotypes. This might be true for several formulae, although I believe myself the relationship between formulae and stereotypes is a little more complex (particularly since critics of this sort often concentrate on their favourite cultural stereotypes and completely forget many others) and unless a person really stretches the idea of harmful assumptions there are many formulae and tropes that fall outside them, particularly in a genre that can explore any and all other worlds, societies or circumstances. After all it’s a little difficult to claim how the idea of a school for teaching magic or an alien invasion is in itself racist or sexist.
For myself, the issue that really irritates me with formulae is very simply one of predictability, and how that predictability alienates me from the characters emotions and reactions to the plot.
It doesn’t matter how much Count Von Cloakenstache cackles as he ties Princess Pauline to the railway tracks if I know the actual chances of her being hit by the train are zero I feel no tension whatsoever. I have in fact been divorced from the action entirely.
This doesn’t even have to be about life or death situations, if I know two characters will end up together right from the boy sights girl moment, I have little investment in their growing romance because I can see where it will end. There is no use the boy thinking “does she love me” when I know simply from the fact their eyes have met across a crowded room that she does, and even if she is set to marry someone else that it will never actually happen and she’ll end up with the boy after all.
For some people this level of predictability makes for safety, but for me I prefer a world where characters are not safe, where bad things happen to good people, and where I simply do not know where the story will go, where what happens to the characters for the first time is also being read about for the first time by me.
Like the creators of the crazier types of burger mentioned above of course, some writers thrive on knocking formulae on their heads.
I’m pretty sure that not only would George R R Martin have Pauline squished by the train, but also he’d have Dan McDashing end up receiving a severe injury while trying to save her and then (just to mess with our minds even further) reveal that Pauline’s family had actually been involved in the bloody murder and torture of the Countess Von Cloakenstache, a fact Pauline was fully aware of.
However, I find it isn’t just a question of equating how good a book is with how much an author can divert from formulae, or indeed how nasty she/he can be to the characters in a book. Indeed some modern writers have made dark and depressing torment of their casts almost a formula in itself (I was greatly impressed when Patrick Rothfuss refused to follow this particular track in Name of the Wind).
After all, some experiments, like the above mentioned burgers with cream might simply not work, while on other occasions a book that is deeply formulaic and has a lot of standard tropes I might find I am completely emotionally invested in despite my ability to predict it’s plot.
This is because of the most major part of cooking or writing – ingredients! It doesn’t matter whether your cooking a classic burger or one that is wildly off track, if you start with low grade ingredients, however good your recipe or your idea, you’re not going to make it come out well. In the same way, if a book stands out in its writing style and the portrayal of its characters, if an author can make me feel that sense of connection, tension and emotional investment with the characters even though I am fully aware what turns the plot will take, then the book will succeed despite the fact that it contains tropes or formulae.
A perfect example of this is the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels from the sixties. Sexist as heck, jingoistic in parts, racist, homophobic in places. Villains with world dominating plans, gadgets, a hero who is close to invincible and who always gets the girl, indeed the books and the accompanying films have inspired a whole genre and countless tropes in themselves. The problem? Fleming writes so dam well. I defy anyone to read the centipede scene in Doctor No and not get a creep on the skin, to not get a little romantic at James’s courtship of Tatiana on the Orient Express in From Russia with love, or not cheer James on during the underwater battle in Live and Let Die. The writing is exotic, exacting and colourful, indeed even though I largely gave up on spy fiction and action thrillers after my mid teens and switched to fantasy and science fiction full time, the James Bond novels are the only things from that period of my reading life I have re-read since.
So, formulae are like anything else (burgers included), fine if done well, occasionally fun to experiment with, but ultimately it all comes down to the ingredients. If a person just slaps something together out of pre created, low grade materials, like McDonalds, you’re probably going to end up with something sweet, none too satisfying and mass produced – okay if your mildly hungry but probably not something that will stick with you once it’s passed through your system.
Likewise, be your formula ever so creative, if your ingredients are bad, you’re not going to impress. However, for someone who can source the best quality ingredients, prime characters, high quality dialogue, a full, satisfying plot with a well paced flow, it doesn’t matter if they’re working to a classic theme or experimenting wildly, it’ll still come out as most tasty.