Javier Grillo–Marxuach recently wrote this fantastic analysis of science fiction on television. As JGM puts it: “Ironically, sci–fi, the genre that most often suffers from underdeveloped characters… probably demands more character from its characters than any other genre. Why? Because it is, at the core, a metaphorical exercise.”
While JGM is examining science fiction on television, the article’s relevance extends beyond both television and science fiction to storytelling of all shapes and sizes. JGM illustrates a philosophy I’ve been trying to develop in my own work. His theory deconstructs the false division between “genre” stories and “character-driven” stories. Some critics contend that serious films are character-driven while genre stories can never be serious because they prioritize spectacle and the conventions of genre over character. The truth, however, is that greatness occurs where character and genre converge, when characters drive our stories toward a deeper, metaphorical understanding of humanity. Because genres are fundamentally metaphors in and of themselves, one can argue that they allow for a deeper artistic exploration than stories driven by character alone. They allow an audience not only to empathize with characters but also to follow those characters on a metaphorical journey that, while not grounded in objective reality, can illuminate profound psychological realities. In truth, great metaphorical stories are not limited to art houses or excluded from television sets and multiplexes. They come in all shapes and sizes from Mulholland Drive to The Shining, Silent Light to Attack the Block, Raiders of the Lost Ark to Breaking the Waves, The X-Files to Top of the Lake. The one thing that all of these stories have in common is the ability to use metaphor to uncover deeper truths. Too often we waste our time judging stories based on arbitrary categories (tent-pole, indie, action, art house, horror, foreign) rather than looking toward the more important truth that great storytellers create their most compelling stories when they use metaphor to push beyond the limits of any category.