Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Your Fiction Have A Comfort Zone?

Some years ago, I was petsitting a cat, Ricky, who had all of his teeth removed. He had been a stray and suffered from malnutrition. The pain from his rotting teeth bothered him so much that he refused to eat.

I was happy to do the favor...until the day I had to get Ricky into the pet carrier for his follow-up appointment at the vet.

A cat + a pet carrier = crazytown

I've never been a very good salesman, and the honest pitch about why Ricky should get into the cramped little carrier wasn't working. I tried to lure him in with treats. I tried to coax him in with a loving nudge. I eventually had to force him in, which resulted in a lot of hissing and plenty of scratches on my forearms.

I got Ricky to the vet and waited anxiously for the nurse to call his name. I figured I'd be facing another struggle, this time getting Ricky back into the carrier after his check up in the presence of a vet who probably expected me to be much better at the task then I actually was.

The time came. The doctor opened the carrier and lifted Ricky out by the scruff of his neck. She looked into his mouth. She weighed him. Then she put him back on the examining table, where Ricky slinked back into the carrier of his own accord.

I was a bit stunned. I looked at the doctor wide-eyed.

"He's behaving like a good, scared little kitty is supposed to behave," the doctor said.

Suddenly, what had been an instrument of torture at home became a place of comfort at the vet. It really made me understand that the idea of a safe haven was relative.

* * *

As a writer, being original is often something I try to accomplish, and I think it's something that readers appreciate to some extent. At the same time, I'm aware that the reader in me often seeks something that falls into my comfort zone. That's why I read some books over and over again. I like to re-explore familiar places and relive enjoyable times, something that seems even more desirable as the problems of the world press down on us.

For a fictional story to be successful then, it seems to require components of newness integrated with more familiar material. I think a reader is more willing to explore something new if they also feel the security of something familiar at the same time.

Originality is probably something we all think about. But, what about the familiarity?

For me as a reader, comfort zones come in many forms. Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road might not seem like it should have any comforting elements in it. But, I found that the consistent beauty of the prose style created that warm blanket that wrapped around me while I looked out at the desolation of the story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical One Hundred Years Of Solitude created comfort by describing emotions that I could relate to, even when the characters and the setting were foreign to me.

Most recently, I became aware of the creation of comfort zones while I was reading Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This book is TOTALLY bizarre. I was scratching my head for the first 500 pages of the book, and it's only about 600 pages long. The story was so fragmented, so fantastical, so quirky--for much of the time I couldn't figure out why I stuck with it for as long as I did.

But, as I went on, I realized that Murakami had created comfort zones in a really odd way. He made me comfortable by repeating the same bizarre elements over and over again. Through the repetition, the newness became familiar and comforting. I started to crave it.

I've often thought that some writers have to first "train" their readers to read them. In a way, Murakami did that in this book by returning to story elements that seemed bizarre at first but that grew more familiar each time I re-encountered it. From the beginning of the book to the middle, he had trained me how to read him.

This idea of originality mixed with newness isn't specific to writing. I'm guessing that's why covers are successful in music, and why fusion food is in, and why some production companies are so willing to remake the same movies. People want something new, but they don't want it to be too new.

Where does that leave us?

It may be a requirement to mix the old with the new in our writing, but how we choose to create that hybrid is completely up to us. I've found comfort in many books, and often that comfort is created with elements. In my own work, I try to create comfort by describing the mundane. I mix that with some dark elements and some magical elements, and as a whole I think it holds together.

However you choose to do it--and whether you choose to do it at all--will come from your own personality and your own views.


  1. I agree with this -I think readers come to certain authors for a reason. And while fresh stories are important...there shoudbe a familiarity to it as well

  2. Christine, that's a good point about returning to certain writers. I realize that I am drawn to some writers partly because I know they won't surprise me too much. I want to go back into the dream world they created in their previous books. I think that's also why series work.

  3. Catherine Fisher's INCARCERON and SAPPHIQUE had me scratching my head sometimes because the story and descriptions were often so abstract that I wasn't totally sure what she was talking about. But like you talked about, she offered the reader some comfort in the characters' familiar emotions - I could really relate to some of the feelings the MCs went through. It was like what tethered me down amidst the weirdness.

  4. KM, "tether" is a fantastic word for what I'm talking about. Thank you. Yes, I think often a reader wants to be tethered while also reaching into new realms.

  5. I'll have to ponder this 'un. My immediate reaction is that there's a difference between being comfortable and being relateable.

    I want readers to relate to the content of my stories, and I want them to be confident in my writing.

    But I'm not sure I want them to be comfortable or to be able to predict too many elements.

    Hmm. Thinkin' here.

  6. Nevets, "Predict" is an interesting word. When I just read it, my initial response was that this wasn't what I was talking about. But, I see now there is a level of predictability involved. And, I guess I should also say that my feelings on this matter are more practical rather than idealistic. In an ideal world, I think it would be great if readers were willing to really leap out there and try to connect with something very new to them. But, when I'm most honest with myself, I often crave the familiar.

  7. Loved the story of Ricky the toothless cat. He behaved exactly as Theodorable does (I've learnt to sneak up on her when she's sleeping...)

    Interesting post on comfort zones mixing with originality. Hmmm. Nevets makes a good point about relatability rather than comfort. But I think Domey's right too; the comfort zone Domey's talking about strikes me as being a kind of underlying rhythm, a cadence in an author's words that lulls the reader into a comfort zone, so that whatever the author does in terms of originality or unpredicability, the reader feels "safe" enough to stay with the story.

    Does this make sense? Maybe I'm confused. (or just more confused than normal!):)
    Judy (South Africa)

  8. Judy, I don't think you're confused. I think you are I are on the same wavelength. Everyone is picking words that are much better than the ones I used today. Yes, I think this comfort makes a reader feel safe. And, I think if one feels safe, they're more likely to follow a writer down a longer path of newness.

  9. Love this post, Domey. I've never thought about comfort zones as a device before. And I really think you've got something there, about writers needing to train their readers on reading their books.

    One of the things I want to do this year, is to read "difficult" books, books that may make me scratch my head or keep me confused, so that I can see what the book is about.

  10. Yat-Yee, Do you already have books in mind? If so, I'd love to hear what they are.

  11. Domey: I am embarrassed to put these out in public because most literary people would have read them already, but I will anyway:

    Brothers Karamazov
    To The Lighthouse (this is per your recommendation)

    Okay, now that it's out there, I can't be lazy and not read them. Accountability, a beautiful and frightful thing.

  12. Ha ha! Well, don't be embarrassed. I actually haven't read that Dostoevsky either. Let me know when you get to To The Lighthouse. That book is exquisite. :)

  13. A great way to look at it.

    I mix old and new by using story elements and spinning them in a new way.


  14. I've been thinking a lot in these terms lately, because I'm reading Beckett and he's forcing me to think about stories in new and different ways. Last night I was telling Mighty Reader that Beckett is having some sort of significant influence on my writing; I can feel my attitudes and goals shifting about even now. Alas, since everything is all in flux, I'm totally incoherant as to what those changes in my craft are going to be and what my new ideas actually are. But it has to do with comfort zones and ways of presenting familiar ideas and emotions. It's connected to your idea of describing the mundane, too.

  15. Misha, I guess I didn't always view it this way, but I'm finding it to be the case when I ask myself why I like the books I do.

    Scott, Sometimes I think that your writing will become like my writing and my writing will become like your writing, and somehow the intersection of our stories will form a black hole through which over-ripe fruit and taxpayer money will be sucked up.

  16. Big Daddy, that would be the coolest! Will there be jet packs?

  17. When I read this I thought about the film, Airplane! which I have probably watched about half-a-dozen times. And every time I see something I missed before. Beckett is like that for me. No matter how many times I look at one of his texts or see one of his plays performed there’s always something new and yet they are also very comfortable places to be.

  18. There will only be one jet pack. That's conflict. I have gotten my characters up a tree (in this case a black hole) and now we're throwing rocks at it (in this case whatever force it is that sucks things into black holes) and then we'll get at least one of them down (with a jet pack).

  19. I don't think I particularly crave the familiar as a reader. For me, I need to trust the author to take me by the hand and then get me through the scary new stuff.

    Sometimes when I think about the reading process I think think of the author as a comforting parent and the reader as a timid child. The book is a new, somewhat scary situation.

    Maybe the parent will be able to say, "Look, see, honey, there's Uncle Bobo, you know Uncle Bobo," or "See, sweetie, there's a llama -- you like llamas."

    But sometimes the parent will be able to do nothing more than hold the child's hand and say, "It's going to be okay, honey. When we get home tonight you're going to ask if we can do this again."

  20. Nevets: I think it's more like the author saying, "Come on! Be brave! Follow me! Look at that! Never seen anything like that before, have you?" I don't want an author to coddle me. I want to be brave enough to follow them. Of course, they have to be an able guide first or the trip won't be worth it. I'll leave halfway through and go to the mall or whatever.

  21. Scott: I like the way you put it: come with me, trust me, it'll be good even though it seems different now.

  22. Hmm.
    I think I deliberately played with the elements of "comfort" in my last novel but contradicting them.
    "American" is now a derogatory term. The North has slaves and South is free. Renewable energy is frowned on and people seek fossil fuels.

    And then after all that, I had the guys with German accents as the bad guys and people were like, "pfft. Stereotypical!"

    You can't win. Too much comfort and it's a stereotype. Too little and you lose the reader.

  23. Brilliant post, Davin. I love writing about the mundane and twisting it with a lot of other elements. That's comfortable to me when I see it in other writing. I love what you say here:

    He made me comfortable by repeating the same bizarre elements over and over again. Through the repetition, the newness became familiar and comforting. I started to crave it.

    I think music is the same way. Sometimes I'll hate a song at first, but if I listen to it over and over on the radio it "grows on me" and I become comfortable with certain elements. After awhile I want to buy the entire album to get newness, but familiarity at the same time. That's exactly what fiction can do for us, as well. I think if we see this as writers in our own work we can weave different elements together in ways we hadn't seen were possible before.

  24. Comfort zones. Well, here's what happened last Saturday. A friend and I ventured north a ways to the Skagit Valley (Washington state) to look for Snow Geese. We found them, and were having such a grand time with the birds that we just kept going hither and yon all over the valley and along the waterfront bays and peninsulas exploring all day long. Late in the day we wound up on top of a cliff looking over a bay. We saw a narrow, steep, gravel path leading down to the beach. I asked my friend, who is a photographer, if she wanted to go down there. "It looks a little dangerous," I said, noting how the wind had whipped up and there were no railings and only a few spindly trees off the path to hold onto.

    "Yes," she replied, "but the light on the water is *fantastic*."

    So down we went. It was short, at least, just one sharp turn to the path, maybe 100 feet down to the beach. Still, I've had injuries from three bad falls in two years and am at an age where one doesn't recover quickly from these things. So I worried, but I still went, because the light was fantastic.

    We made it down to the beach. My friend took photos and so did I while we got blown about and we froze our fingers off (30 degrees with a bitter wind chill). The waves crashed against the rocks, the afternoon sun turned half the bay a brilliant aqua as it curved around the peninsula while leaving the shadowed half a deep blue-gray. Black-and-white bufflehead ducks bobbed on the water and mergansers dove beneath the waves. We were all alone there with the wind and the water and the light, and the utter wildness of the place.

    As we headed back up the path, I stopped to grab a spindly tree for balance. I suddenly let out a triumphant laugh.

    My friend paused to look back at me. "What?"

    "This is completely crazy!" I yelled. "And I LOVE it!"

    It was not comfortable. Yet it was exhilarating.

    Though in all honesty, I cannot say that I felt quite the same sense of wild joy when my friend, who had parked a foot from the cliff edge, mistakenly put her car into drive instead of reverse and we went forward 10 inches before she corrected it.

    Be careful out there. Just don't be too careful, and know when to go forward and when to go back.

    -Alex MacKenzie
    Wild snow geese photos viewable at:

  25. "all alone there with the wind and the water and the light, and the utter wildness of the place"

    That's exactly what I want from the reading experience. And the writing experience. Well, that and a jet pack.

  26. Scott: Had we driven the car off the cliff edge, I would definitely want that jet pack!

  27. Actually, I think I'd prefer big, mechanical owl wings. That would be cool, and I'd always remember not to fly too close to the sun.

  28. Very interesting post. I'm a huge re-reader, and much of that comes from pure love of certain stories, but maybe it's also the connection I have with the piece -- that it's familiar, and that the author has created these "comfort zones" so that I don't run away.

  29. Interesting perspective. I tend to focus all on conflict in my writing, and writing a comfortable situation is a bit of a challenge. I write adventure/thrillers where the MC feels particularly out of his/her league--vulnerable, maybe weak. I do have "comfort zones" in between the action, but they're usually just a device to set up more tension for the MC.
    Good post! I'll have to think on this.

  30. I think its very often true that "people want something new, but they don't want it to be too new." This is one reason I suspect Murakami has such a wide readership. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," is probably the best of his books that I've read so far. My "comfort zone" has not included science fiction or horror for a very long time, but Murakami can appeal to readers of so-called literary fiction, like me, while incorporating surreal elements that many would classify as science fiction or even horror. Some of the reasons I enjoyed "Oryx and Crake" (Margaret Atwood) are similar.


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