What Fullmetal Alchemist and del Toro Taught Me

I used to believe firmly in genres, and in the idea that a author could only write one of them at a time. Either a book was high fantasy or it was science fiction. Occasionally you could blend two of the together and write, say, a historical steampunk novel, but there were strict rules to follow and a long list of Dos and Do Nots for each genre.

This hampered my writing for a few years for a handful of reasons. I would start a novel and realize I had a character or a theme or an idea that  didn’t fit the genre. I would then create a new story to fit the misplaced idea from the last book, and so I found myself in an endless series of distractions as I fought to find homes for ideas that never stopped coming.

I still wrote books I was proud of, but it was much harder than it had to be, and at the end of each book I had at least half a dozen other story ideas, and from those came more. I was in a never ending slew of ideas I knew I’d never be able to write – not all of them, not if they kept multiplying.

Two things happened that changed the way I viewed genre. The first was Fullmetal Alchemist. The anime (and its sister-anime, FMA: Brotherhood) became my favorite to date, and the status has never been challenged. Now, anyone who has ever seen a good anime will probably tell you something like, “Yeah, anime’s weird. It kind of does whatever it wants.” They may say this in a negative or a positive light, because it’s true no matter how you slice it. Anime does what it wants.

I was amazed as I watched the story unfold – a vast, far-reaching, deeply personal story about love, loss, betrayal, friendship, mystery, self-sacrifice, heroism, and consequences. But not only were the themes of the anime exactly what I wanted, but the anime itself defied genre. Fantasy, yes, but what kind? We have a volatile political climate in several fictional countries that feel very real, we have tension between ethnicities, we have the soul of a young boy attached to a giant suit of armor, we have philosopher’s stones and the seven deadly sins personified in Homunculi, we have soldiers and comradeship and humans turning into Chimera, we have martial arts and subterfuge and false gods and dictators and none of it fit neatly into a little genre box.

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It was flawless. I was starry-eyed, and I realized – I wanted to write like this. I wanted this huge cast of characters, but I wanted them all three-dimensional and personalized. I wanted to focus not on what did and didn’t fit in a genre, I wanted to focus on story. I wanted to write dark, deep, beautiful, painful, fun, dangerous stories, and I didn’t want to stop every three minutes to wonder whether or not something fit the genre.

‘When you live, your life will end sooner or later… The body will return to the earth. Grass and flowers will grow on top of it. The soul will nourish the hearts… and it will live on in the hearts of other people. Everything in this world flows around and circulates. That goes for human lives too.’

Not long after this, I spent the night at a friend’s house. On the way there, she asked, “You’ve seen Hellboy, right?” “No,” I said. “I’ve never really been interested.” “Oh, man. You’re watching Hellboy with me. You’re going to love it.” And so, not really knowing what to expect, we got pizza and watched Hellboy. I’d already been in a long-standing love affair with Guillermo del Toro’s storytelling, and as I watched Hellboy it was like the heavens opened and lowered a large sign saying, DON’T EVER GO BACK TO WORRYING ABOUT GENRE. We finished the first movie and, completely in love, I told her we were also watching the second movie, to which she obligingly acquiesced.

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Del Toro’s movies, much like Fullmetal Alchemist, do what they want. If he feels like interjecting a terrifying monster or two, he does. If he feels like adding an intelligent blue aquatic man-creature with no real explanation, he does. If he feels like giving a giant alien-killing robot a sword, he does. He creates deep, twisted, long-lasting themes with such unique flavors and visuals that we don’t easily forget them, and he doesn’t stop to wonder whether the flavors might not fit the rest of the dish. If he likes it, he puts it on the plate and you either love it or you don’t. His movies aren’t ‘strictly’ anything. They’re horror fairy-tales, they’re urban fantasy allegories, they’re robot-monster movies about interpersonal relationships.

I see horror as part of legitimate film. I don’t see it as an independent genre that has nothing to do with the rest of cinema.

— Guillermo del Toro

It’s writing like this that inspires me. Writing that doesn’t care what people think, writing that doesn’t micromanage itself. Now, I’m not suggesting you go write an urban fantasy novel and call it ‘paranormal chick-lit,’ although you could go write a paranormal chick-lit novel and I might read it. (Arielle over at Intuitive Writing Guide is doing a series on genre and you should totally check it out, because while I’m fan of breaking the rules, you should have a solid knowledge of those rules first.) What I AM suggesting is that you take a long, hard look at your writing, and you do me a favor:


Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my futuristic samurai science-fantasy retelling of Robin Hood, because I need to finish it before I can write my space-fantasy rock opera retelling of King Arthur.

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