Does everybody really love a rebel?

“Readers love a rebel, Harry.” – Rita Skeeter, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

We’ve probably heard that saying – “everybody loves a rebel.” Certainly, American culture is enamored of the rebel image. Look up James Dean in the dictionary. Smooth. Cool. Sexy.

And it is undeniable that rebellion results in some good things. The suffragette movement? Civil rights? The American Revolution (which gives me another great quote “Rebellion is always legal in the first person, our rebellion. It’s only the third person, their rebellion, that it’s illegal” – Ben Franklin, 1776). There are some times that you just have to stand up and say, “The status quo is no longer acceptable and I am against it.”

But. But…

There are times when rebellion is, shall we say, a less than optimal reaction. I am currently writing, for the third time, my query and synopsis for And Corruption for All (the book formerly known as Every Other Monday is Murder). I’m pretty sure that I could trot out another Internet meme here: “I love writing synopses” said no author ever.

But they are part of the process. You need a query and synopsis if you’re going to pursue traditional publication. Okay, there are a few agents out there who don’t request a synopsis. But a writer rebels against this tradition at her peril. I fervently wish I could simply send an email saying, “I’ve written this book. I think you’ll enjoy it. Read it and let me know.” The game doesn’t work that way. At best, my email would get sent to that circular file in cyberspace. At worst I’m branded as unprofessional and I get a reputation in the publishing industry (which is not nearly as big as some people think it is).

Stomping my feet and refusing to write a query and synopsis might be rebellious, but not sure it’s wise.

In fiction, rebels get a little more leeway. We like the characters who take a stand, fight against “The Man” and throw caution to the wind.

Sometimes.

Honestly, though. It can get a little tiresome. Let’s take my (least) favorite mystery police trope. The detective rebels against the system, his captain, or even the tenets of law in a pursuit to “bring the bad guys to justice.” It just doesn’t happen. A police officer who is suspended from duty, or removed from an investigation, does not start to play Joe Friday in his (or her) free time. Doing so might get results, but it’s a dangerous rebellion. Because even if he gets his man, there will be repercussions. Maybe the culprit won’t be able to be convicted because the cop went against the rules. Maybe there will be enormous backlash on social media from a public willing to villainize the police.

It’s a bad rebellion.

Another example are genre expectations. We all write mysteries here. Cozies, procedurals, thrillers. And there are certain expectations for each. Sure, people can get away with “edgier” cozies. Maybe the language is a little harsher, the romance a little steamier. But there’s a line that You Do Not Cross. Or that you cross at your peril. Because die-hard cozy fans might be turned off by repetitive harsh profanity and gore spread all of the page.

In another project I worked on with my critique group, I didn’t drop the body until Chapter 3 or so. Now, I’m not a believer in the “you must have a dead body in the first chapter” rule. I think there are plenty of mysteries where the murder comes a little later and they are fine books. You might say I’m perfectly willing to rebel against that truism.

However, my critique group was pretty adamant that I had to have some kind of crime in that first chapter. “Procedural readers expect the action to begin right off the bat,” they said. “You need police action of some sort.”

And they were right. Thrillers, suspense, procedurals – they start with a bang. Oh sure, John LeCarre got away with the slow build up, but he wrote in a different time period. Today is a much more frenetic time. Cozies need to take time to establish the world and the people. But procedurals? That comes later.

Again. Rebellion against this genre expectation can be dangerous.

By all means, I’m a fan of rebellion. I think everything could use a good shakeup now and then. That’s where the innovation comes. To borrow another saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” We could expand that to say “well-behaved people rarely make history.” Sometimes a little rebellion is necessary.

Just remember to rebel in a way that’s going to get the results you want.

Readers: How do you feel when a writer rebels against convention? Do you have a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

8 thoughts on “Does everybody really love a rebel?”

  1. Some of the best quotes are attributed to Franklin. I have no idea if he said in real life what he said in the movie, but it sure sounds like him.

  2. I read widely, so I don’t mind a little shakeup to writerly conventions every once in a while, but you are so right about the danger of rebelling against genre expectations! That’s when books get thrown against the wall.

  3. What an cool post, Mary! So many good examples and quotes here–love the Rita Skeeter and Franklin ones, especially. Sometimes a writer rebelling against conventions is the most interesting thing about a text; literary history is chock full of rebellious writers (and thank goodness for that)! 🙂

  4. I always amazes me that somebody will come in and solve the crime while the police are still trying to figure out if there is a crime. Imagine that doesn’t do much for their (fictional) self-esteem. A little rebellion is good – things would never change without it.

  5. Sue, yes. Shaking things up = good. Throwing books = bad.

    Cynthia, agreed. The question is how far you can rebel before you cross the line.

    Mary, the police’s fictional esteem? Yes, probably not too good for that. I prefer when all the characters are at least competent. Maybe one who is a total goof, but really, those people don’t last very long in authority out in the Real World ™. And yes, a little rebellion is a good thing. Done the right way and at the ripe time.

  6. Mary, this made me smile in memory of those writing students who say they like the italics or fancy font or they’re so brilliant they can ignore punctuation and plot. They’re not rebels, they’re wet behind the ears. But we were there once in some fashion or another.

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