What Fantasy Authors Can Learn from Marvel Studios

This week I’m excited to bring you a guest post from writer, English teacher and Marvel fan Josiah DeGraaf, who blends the fantasy and superhero genres in his writing. He takes a look at what fantasy authors might learn from the successes of genre-mixing in superhero fiction:

If you aren’t much of a superhero movie fan (or even if you are), the upcoming slate of movies Marvel alone is trying to push out may seem rather exhausting. 10 more films in the next three years with plans through 2027? It’s no wonder you have people like Spielberg predicting superhero films will go the way of the Western and burn out in the near future.

Yet, despite all the films churned out by Marvel and DC, moviegoers keep purchasing tickets without any signs of stopping. Superhero stories are a (relatively) narrow genre—and yet many viewers (such as myself) regularly see two to four superhero films a year, despite the criticisms Marvel’s received for weak villains and paint-by-number three-act stories.

How has Marvel been able to keep selling tickets without running into genre fatigue? There are multiple reasons, but there’s one I’d like to focus on: Marvel keeps the genre feeling fresh by mixing it with other genres. This is a skill that not only budding novelists can be taking advantage of—but a skill some of the best fantasy authors today are using to craft unique and brilliant stories.

How Marvel Mixes Genres

Almost since the beginning, Marvel has been mixing the superhero genres with other genres, starting with monster movie tropes in the Incredible Hulk, Shakespearean influences in Thor (it helps when you get Kenneth Branagh to direct your film), or war movie tropes in the first Captain America film. The mixing, however, has become more pronounced in later films, making them helpful case studies for this experiment.

Movie Poster: Guardians of the GalaxyTake Guardians of the Galaxy. This movie is most-often differentiated from other Marvel films for its quirky sense of humor, but it also mixes the superhero genre with space opera. How does it mix these genres? It deviates from most superhero films by (a) setting it in space, (b) emphasizing technology over superpowers with its heroes and (c) using much more of a journey/quest motif for the film. However, it also deviates from most space opera by (a) having a more fast-paced-action take on the genre, (b) showcasing heroes who can take a lot more hits than your average space-opera hero, and (c) having less of an emphasis on political intrigue.

Movie Poster: Ant-ManAnt-Man also exemplifies this by mixing superhero and heist films. In contrast to most superhero films, the story (a) has a strong espionage element, (b) utilizes an ensemble cast with a team of normal people helping the super-powered protagonist, and (c) has a hero circumventing the law in order to do the right thing. But it isn’t a standard heist film either. Instead, the story (a) gives its protagonist superhuman abilities to accomplish his task, (b) tends to put a larger spotlight on the protagonist than most ensemble-focused heist films, and (c) has a narrative that is less-focused on the heist, and more-focused on action sequences.

What’s the result of this? Both films offer audiences something unique and different—something that keeps audiences from feeling “superhero fatigue” and leaving the genre. Not only that, but some of the combinations become surprisingly effective. When the heroes can take more damage without being incapacitated, the space opera genre has potential for more exciting action scenes. When a hero is given an ensemble cast, he has more opportunities to bounce off his teammates and reveal more aspects of his personality. The strengths of both genres help each other and their weaknesses are diluted.

How Fantasy Authors Mix Genres

But it isn’t just Marvel who’s mixing genres to tell new, engaging stories to their audiences. Modern fantasy authors are doing the same. This may seem surprising. After all, one of the strengths about fantasy is its ability to be constantly new through different worlds, races, and magic systems. Superhero films may need to mix genres to keep audiences, given the narrowness of the genre. But does fantasy really need to do the same?

Book Cover: The Alloy of Law (Mistborn #4, Wax and Wayne #1)Brandon Sanderson, one of the most popular fantasy authors today, is well-known for his unique magic systems and worldbuilding. But he also mixes genres. In his “Wax and Wayne” series, he combines epic fantasy with the Western by setting the world in a Western-esque era and focusing less on cataclysmic/world-ending threats. His initial breakout, Mistborn, likewise combos epic fantasy with heist stories with heroes trying to steal something valuable from the evil overlord figure instead of trying to beat him in battle.

Even genres like fantasy with huge capacities for diverse settings, plots and characters can begin to feel routine. Mixing genres gives Sanderson the opportunity to play with unusual plots and characters that give his stories a different flair than many others in the genre.

Book Cover: Storm FrontJim Butcher, another popular fantasy author, is most well-known for his “Dresden Files,” which mixes urban fantasy with noir fiction. Many of the characters feel like characters out of the film noir genre, with settings to match. But in this series, magic and fantastic creatures are common-place.

The fact that there are seventeen books and counting in Butcher’s series points to how much of a demand there can be for genre mixing. It also means the books have wider appeal. Butcher isn’t just reaching readers who love fantasy; he’s also able to reach people who love detective noir fiction as well.

The Fantasy Genre Was Built on Genre-Mixing

The fact that genre-mixing does well in modern fantasy shouldn’t be a surprise—the fantasy genre itself was built on genre-mixing.

Book Cover: Conan the BarbarianWhile fantasy existed before the 1940s in the form of Conan the Barbarian pulp-fiction novels and stories like The Wood Beyond the World, the modern fantasy genre didn’t come into its own until Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. As L. Sprague de Camp, a contemporary of Tolkien, writes in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: “In 1941 [before Tolkien], I cannot think of a single fantasy or science-fiction novel or collection of stories which traversed the enormous gulf then separating the science-fiction pulp magazine world from the prestigious world of hard-bound book publishing.” The Lord of the Rings catapulted the genre from a niche genre for nerds into an accepted mainstream genre and had a tremendous influence on future fantasy authors.

Why did Tolkien have this much of an impact? Given the topic of this article, it may come as no surprise to learn that one of the major reasons is that he mixed genres.

Book Cover: The Lord of the RingsTolkien mixed the then-campy fantasy genre with the classical tradition of Western literature by doing three things. First, he married the standard quest fantasy to epic myths by introducing world-shattering consequences to the hero’s actions. Second, he replaced the stereotypical “strong barbarian” or “skilled mage” hero of the fantasy genre with the stereotypical “common man” protagonist of Germanic fairytales. Finally, he brought the literary gravitas of classic works of literature with him and elevated the fantasy genre to a genre that critics had to begrudgingly respect.

Tolkien didn’t invent the fantasy genre. But he greatly-expanded the fantasy genre’s reader base and laid a foundation for many of today’s common fantasy trope by mixing genres. In many ways, mixing genres isn’t optional for fantasy authors. Rather, it forms the basis of the genre as we know it today.

How Writers Can Mix Genres Effectively

Let’s move from the theoretical to the practical. If you’re a writer, how can you do this effectively?

This is a challenge I’ve had to tackle in the short stories I write, where I mix the superhero genre with the heroic fantasy genre, and sometimes throw a third genre in there as well like mystery noir. Here are three lessons I’ve learned about mixing genres:

  1. Find genres that complement the type of story you want to tell. Don’t just choose random genres to mix in your story. Think about what type of genres have tropes or story elements that will not only complement each other, but will also complement the type of story you want to tell. Then, when you do find two genres that have complementary story aspects, take advantage of those aspects to tell a compelling story. This is one of the reasons Sanderson’s “Wax and Wayne” series works so well. Both fantasy and Westerns have similar focuses on action and adventure which synthesize nicely in the series.
  2. Consider the emotional impact of the two genres you’re mixing. Most avid readers of a genre read that genre because of the emotions the genre evokes, whether feelings of love in romance novels, the discovery of a new world in speculative fiction, or feelings of dread in horror fiction. It’s not enough to mix genres’ cosmetic differences. While that may make your story unique, it won’t appeal as much to readers if you don’t capture the core emotions of both genres.
  3. Make sure your story has a primary genre. Let’s face it: branding is a huge part of the modern writing market. Even if your book is really a mix of, say, the romance and horror genres, the local bookstore isn’t going to create a section just for romantic horrors. They’re going to want to market it as simple “horror” or “romance.” The average reader won’t be searching for horror-romances either. Whether you’re pitching to a publisher or an audience, choose a primary genre for your story so you can market it effectively.

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Mixing genres isn’t just useful for blockbuster movie studios. It’s been a core of the fantasy genre for a while—and it’s something modern fantasy authors should consider using in their own writing.

I’ve covered several different works and authors in this post, but I know there are many genre-mixing works I’ve missed. What are some of your favorite stories that mix genres in original and effective ways? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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Image: Josiah DeGraafJosiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since. Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Kingdom Pen and writes fantasy short stories with superheroes at http://josiahdegraaf.com/. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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24 thoughts on “What Fantasy Authors Can Learn from Marvel Studios

  1. Solid post! This definitely seems to be a grounding element in the Rick and Morty series as well. While the show’s earned a reputation from some of its… less constrained fans, it also makes expert use of Dan Harmon’s love of film and TV tropes. I think it goes a long way towards helping the reader anticipate where the story is going generally, allowing the writer to better communicate that which is particularly fantastical about their setting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Looking at how genre affects a reader’s/viewer’s plot expectations is a great point! Haven’t seen Rick & Morty, but that certainly peaks my interest in the show. It’s fascinating to see how expert storytellers are able to play with an audience’s expectations in order to tell compelling stories.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting post, Josiah! I feel I just got some newfound appreciation for both superhero movies and fantasy books 🙂 I certainly hope authors learn this trick as it could make their stories exponentially better and more attractive to all readers.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Always glad to hear I’ve been able to bring more appreciation to some of my favorite genres. 😉 Glad you found it helpful! I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out if this trend continues.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. Super interesting post! Provided that the always wonderful Lord of the Rings is a mixed genre book, I would have to say it’s my favourite (as it is my favourite book of all time). One of my favourite ways of mixing genres is the urban fantasy settings that place every day modern problems in a supernatural setting or vice versa. Definitely makes for an interesting read!

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  5. Wow- Austen’s character arcs and Dostoevsky’s ideas- those are some lofty goals- I wish you the best of luck with that, cos I would happily read something in that vein. And yeah, I did used to love superhero movies, but I can’t get psyched over a lot of them anymore- there are just too many (even though just two years ago I promised I would *never* get bored of them- that no longer seems to be the case) I do like the idea of blending genres though, and can see why this works to stave off the worst of superhero fatigue. And yes, the birth of the modern fantasy genre certainly came from blending older genres. I don’t know why, but all that’s coming to mind of a mash up of genres is Picture of Dorian Gray, because Wilde employs his typically comic style, with a strong dose of realism in the character design, whilst being very much rooted in the traditional gothic genre (hence it’s primarily being labelled as such). I think a lot of true works of art employ more genre mash-ups than we care to admit. Very interesting post- definitely made me think!

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    • I actually just finished teaching Picture of Dorian Gray to my high schoolers this past Friday, so the book’s quite fresh in my mind and I really like those insights there! I agree. Past authors didn’t seem to be limited by genre as much (partially since I think the idea of genre is a bit of a modern concept), which meant they had a lot of great creativity on that front!

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  6. Lots of food for thought, so glad to have been able to host this post! Just wanted to say that I’ve also been suffering from superhero fatigue, particularly when it comes to TV shows, but the two films you mentioned were ones I loved anyway – at the time I thought it was just because they were ‘different’ and ‘better’ but I now realise a big part of their appeal was their genre mixing. I think Jessica Jones also mixed genres (with noir and psycho thriller) because it felt different too – more dark and disturbing than I’m used to in superhero fiction. It’s one of my favourites!

    I think I also gravitate more to fantasy books that offer new ideas or blend genres. A favourite recent example is Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. It’s a mix of the fantasy and heist genres (I’d say even more strongly so than in Mistborn) and the blend definitely gives it a fresh feeling. It’s also just a brilliant, well-written, suspenseful story with great characters, so the combo is perfect.

    Anyway, I will definitely be more aware of genre mixing now when reading, and in my own writing. Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! I was glad to be able to write this for you. Six of Crows has been on my to-read list for a long time now but I haven’t been able to get around to it yet… I’ll have to see if I can hit that sometime around the Christmas season. A stronger mix of fantasy-and-heist than Mistborn was sounds really enticing.

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  7. Hmmmmmmm! A very inspiring post….I need to take a look at my WIP and see if I can bring out some other genres at play.

    And as to your bio….a worthy quest, sir!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad to hear it’s inspired you to do more genre-mixing in your WIP. And yes–my goal is to set quests so difficult to attain, I’ll always have more room for growth!

      Like

  8. Well said. It’s definitely interesting how stories are marketed as fantasy, horror, or science fiction, but for fans of those genres there’s still so much to distinguish between stories. In some ways I’m reminded of another article I read that discussed how “What a story is really about has nothing to do with setting,” citing how Shakespearean plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Taming of the Shrew can be set in a high school, corporation, or outer space, with a scope as large as the fate of the world, or as small as one circle of friends, but we can still recognize the underlying familiar pattern.
    In many ways whether a story is fantasy or science fiction is more about the trappings and details than the underlying experience.
    There are so many layers/levels to good storytelling. Fortunately we have computers and the internet to help us to find our answers, if we can recognize what question we’re really asking.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a great point with regards to Shakespeare. While changing up settings can change the story and make it feel different, it can still be a faithful re-telling if it has the same core narrative, which is why I think many modern renditions of Shakespeare do try to change the setting.

      Liked by 1 person

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