02 September 2013

are you victor frankenstein or professor utonium?

Victor Frankenstein's story is a tale well known. He collected corpses which suited his purposes. Then he dissected them, picked out all the good bits, and reassembled them into his modern Prometheus.

The resulting monster became more famous than its creator, both within the fictional story and in the enduring layers of meta­narrative, going so far as to steal his name.

Professor Utonium is perhaps not as widely known, but to be fair Frankenstein had a two-century head start on him. He's the father figure from The Powerpuff Girls, who decided he was going to create the perfect little girls from laboratory chemistry. (Apparently he skipped health class on the important days back in high school). He mixed sugar, spice, everything nice... but he accidentally added CHEMICAL X.


And it seems to me that both of these are good metaphors for the process of writing. They don't near cover all the major process types, but from where I'm standing they're two distinct processes which get confused a lot.

They're both analytical processes, in that you figure out what the guts are first and then work from there. But there's a difference.

The Victor Frankenstein writer is the sort of creator who's very comfortable talking about "beats" and plot points. They probably would be very comfortable writing for television. Just like Frankenstein was comfortable with grave-robbing at night to get his raw materials, they're perfectly fine with pulling from older known works and fashioning them into something new. Good examples of this kind of writing are... just about any kind of classic TV sitcom for starters, but also anyone who writes "classics" of any genre fiction (and when I say "genre", that includes "literary fiction*". There, I said it.).

The Professor Utonium writer does things a bit differently. They gather up all their basic elements and then see what happens when they drop in some Chemical X (or, as Erin Morgenstern put it, add ninjas).

I know I'm more of a Professor Utonium. I usually start with characters and a basic reason for them all to be together, and then figure out what's going on (the reason for the lab explosion) later.

Like most writing things, there's no "good" or "bad" way to be, so long as you get things done successfully. Frankenstein, Utonium, or someone else altogether, while it's useful to have some self-awareness about one's process, in the end it's whatever works.

*"Literary fiction" encompasses so much science fiction, historical fiction, and romance fiction that really it should be renamed something like "critically acclaimed fiction". Honestly, I've got a four-year bachelor's degree in this and I still don't see what's so special about it. We never talked about "literary fiction" when I was in university. Most of what we studied would count as "slice of life" or "psychological" fiction, with some historical (like Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year) or romance thrown in. And don't tell me "popular fiction" or "pulp" doesn't get counted, because Dickens and Cervantes among others are both canonical, and they were both pop fiction in their time. We used to joke serious fiction was pop fiction that had been around for a long, long time.

5 comments:

  1. And here I thought you were going to write about responsibility and paternalism among scientists. Victor and Utonium are opposites there, too.

    I tend to be the guy adding ninjas, or gremlin sky cities and dinosaurs. That's just the way my head works.

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  2. Good point -- that's why I can never have much sympathy for Victor. He never thought through what he'd do if his process was successful. But Utonium was specifically in the lab to be successful.

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  3. I'm not sure i'm either or these. I think I'm more of a crock-pot stew maker. I throw a bunch of stuff in there and let it simmer. Sometimes what comes out is the tastiest belnd of ingredients that just happened to cook perfectly, sometimes it's a big bowl of slop. The cooker part- my brain- isn't always consistent. Sometimes it's on too high, sometimes too low. Sometimes I don't let it simmer long enough, other times too long. I'm not saying that getting it right is magic, but there is certaintly an elemanet of luck to it. Things have to combine just right.

    And I agree- "serious fiction" is pop fiction that's been around a long while. Dickens is a great example, as are Austen and even Mark Twain.

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    1. Austen and Mark Twain are great examples! The prof had some fun taking down the snobs in the class when I studied Austen.

      I love the crockpot metaphor! It also sounds like what happens when I use an actual crockpot (okay, the applesauce always turns out, but...).

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  4. I wrote my first novel using the Frankenstein method, and I'm trying to write my second novel using the Utonium method. I wanted to try both to see which one I prefer. The jury's still out...

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