Don’t Be Afraid to Break Genre When Creating

I’ll be using the terms ‘genre’ and ‘medium’ interchangeably, so just treat them as the same thing. Also, there will be mild spoilers for the following visual novels: Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate.

Most of the preliminary work necessary to write a Light Novel or Manga can be done by simply filling in the expected blanks of your chosen genre.

However, many forms of Otaku media have fallen short of greatness by doing this. They were well aware of what their work should look like and what their readers expected of it. And they delivered.

Why then, did they fall short? If they played by the rules and gave readers what they want, how could they fail?

Because perfectly following a genre’s rules or trying to meet every expectation of your readers can be a double-edged sword.

Doing both may be beneficial (there are plenty who’ve succeeded), but more often than not, your work will suffer at least one of the following.

  1. It will be seen as generic or boring for ‘playing it safe’.
  2. You will include elements you know don’t fit with your story, but you feel must be included to fit with your genre or readers’ expectations.
  3. You fear certain elements won’t fit your genre, so you leave them out even though they would’ve benefitted your story.

On the flipside, you can break too many rules and your work will no longer be seen as fitting with your initial genre. As a result, you’ll lose a potential group of readers such as those who only read fantasy, for example.

Ok, so why don’t I just find the middle ground? If it’s dangerous to follow or break too many rules, why don’t I just follow a few? If my readers expect certain elements, can’t I just include enough to satisfy them without detracting from my work?

Indeed. But where is that middle ground? Can you truly know how many rules to follow and how many expectations to meet in order to capture the greatest amount of readers?

That’s why we use genres in the first place, right? Rather than appeal to everyone (which is the same as appealing to no one), we appeal to those who enjoy a certain genre. Yet, not everyone who enjoys your chosen genre will enjoy your work.

I hate to say it, but even if you were to find this magic middle ground, there will always be readers to whom your work doesn’t appeal.

That said, while appealing to the greatest number of readers by finding that middle ground may be difficult, it’s not impossible. You can get close. And while I can’t give you an exact formula, I can show you what not to do.

Let’s go back to the above consequences of not finding that middle ground.

#1 and #3 are easy to avoid.

In the case of #1, you need only to break a few rules or present generic elements in an interesting way.

As for #3, if you’re positive something will benefit your story, include it. Even if it doesn’t fit your genre, readers will sooner appreciate a good story than get angry that there are elves in your space opera.

So, for the rest of the article, I’ll be focusing on #2. I’ve seen this happen far more than the other two. Otaku media is one of the worst offenders. Due to the myriad of tropes and trends Creators feel they need to follow, many a work has suffered.

The following may not seem beneficial to Authors working in other mediums, but it is. I’m going to discuss how a couple famous Visual Novels (VNs) suffer from trying to adhere to the genre’s rigorous rulebook and strict expectations of its readers.

Once you see their mistakes, it will be easy for you to avoid them in your own work.

Love is a Difficult Ingredient

There exists a trend in VNs you’ve likely heard of in some form or fashion. They’re a combination of romance (pick a girl and go down her route) and science fiction (SF). This started sometime in the 90’s and didn’t really catch on until the now-famous Science Adventure Series hit the shelves.

These are the VNs with a semicolon stuck in the middle. Chaos;Head (CH), Steins;Gate (SG), and Robotics;Notes (RN) being the original three. Each are great titles which have changed the way VNs are treated.

No longer are they seen as inferior art, but that which can present a compelling story without relying on cheap tricks (i.e. heavy fanservice).

For this article, I’ll be focusing on CH and SG. I can already see the torches and pitchforks in the distance, but hear me out. Despite their great critical success and veritable army of fans, I feel they could’ve been much better.

Why? Because they followed the rules of their genre too closely. Even though they were right to do so considering the medium, they shouldn’t have crammed as much Romance as they did into both titles.

Before we look into what they did wrong, you should know a few of the ‘rules’ of a standard visual novel aimed at a male audience (which both CH and SG are).

  1. The protagonist must be surrounded by attractive women.
  2. Said women must be in love with him despite him having close to zero attractive qualities.
  3. Each girl must have a ‘route’ and ending in which her and the protagonist become lovers.
  4. The player must be able to choose which girl they want to pursue via a branching story made possible by in-game choices.

Following these rules makes sense if the core story is focused on romance, but not if the story is focused on Hard SF, mental illness, time travel, conspiracies, and other serious sounding things that would be jarring if suddenly presented on a date at the amusement park.

So, with those in mind, let’s get started.

Immersion Breaker: Chaos;Head

The following is a critique of the original game. Most of my criticisms are remedied in the director’s cut version – Chaos;Head Noah.

Despite what I’m about to critique, CH does a great job of breaking the above rules without going too far.

  • Rule 1: The women are indeed attractive, but each have glaring personality flaws or are borderline schizophrenic.
  • Rule 2: The protagonist is an anti-social otaku hikkikomori who suffers from paranoia and delusions. Thus, most of the girls don’t treat him as a love interest.
  • Rule 3: There are no individual routes for each girl. The story is presented linearly with your choices unable to change the main story except for which of the two endings you get.

However, it is Rule 3 that they somehow manage to follow too closely despite not having individual routes.

Instead of having individual routes for each girl, CH’s Author decided to write them anyway and cram them into the main story. About 75% into the VN, there is a severe shift away from the main story to each girl’s character arc.

While it’s important to learn about each girl so that readers will understand their purpose in the story and grow to like them, it only really works if they’re spaced out evenly.

This works well when the player has control over which girl he wants to pursue. He can go down each route and return to the main story at his leisure. This can (and often does) ruin the overall pacing, but it’s much better than what CH did.

Rather than allowing the player to choose which girl he wants to learn about in whatever order he likes, CH forces him to sit through every girl’s route (some of whom he might not even care about).

Even worse, it presents their arcs all in a row instead of evenly spacing them throughout the main story. This destroys all the brilliant pacing built up to that point. And, needless to say, it also obliterates the player’s immersion.

The Author was well aware of CH’s status as a VN. So, he knew he had to play by some of the genre’s rules and give each girl a unique route. And even though the way he broke several rules was interesting, he should’ve followed Rule 3 more closely.

Despite it not being presented as such, each girl did have her own route. However, the player had no control over which of those routes he could pursue.

I don’t think they should be removed entirely. Doing so would cause more damage by leaving those characters underdeveloped. But they should have stuck to Rule 3 and given each their own route separate from the main story.

However, this in itself can also be dangerous as we’ll see in the following example.

Going Off the Rails: Steins;Gate

SG does have unique routes for each girl that are separate from the main story. And each of them tie into the main story as they should.

After all, the benefit of having unique routes in a half-romance/half-SF VN is that the player can learn about each girl in addition to plot points that tie into the main story. Each route is an opportunity to reveal bits of truth regarding the true route’s mystery.

While SG did do this (going down every route is necessary for the protagonist to solve the original problem), they failed to make a couple of those sub-routes engaging or in-line with the rest of the story’s themes.

Why? Because they introduced romance where there shouldn’t have been any.

Three of the routes (Suzuha’s, Moeka’s, and Mayuri’s) succeed in developing their characters and revealing a bit of what’s happening behind the scenes. There is no overt romance in either and it in no way detracts from the overall experience.

The other two (Luka’s and Farris’s), however, fail in three ways.

  • They don’t develop their characters in any meaningful way (The common route does a good enough job without requiring so much extra development).
  • They are not in the same tone as the rest of the VN (One features a card game tournament which was as boring as it is unmemorable).
  • They could’ve been incorporated into the main story without losing anything of value.

Both are great characters and useful as plot devices, but there was no need for each to have their own route. SG forces its players to sit through several extra hours of text that did little to benefit the story as a whole simply because that’s what the genre told the Author to do.

The problem lies in SG’s refusal to break Rule 3: there are girls, each of them must have a route.

The Author’s previous method of cramming them into the main story all at once didn’t work in CH, so he decided to space them out. The player is still forced to go down each one in order to finish the main story, but it’s not as immersion breaking as CH’s method.

My primary issue is that he felt the need to force romance into two of those routes.

It’s perfectly fine to include romance in this variety of VN if it makes sense (the romance between Okabe and Makise is well executed and totally believable within the context of the greater plot), but there’s no benefit to forcing it into the story simply because that’s what’s supposed to be in a VN. Most of the girls didn’t have a romantic subplot, why should two of them?

Had they left these routes out entirely, incorporated them into the main story, or simply removed the romantic elements, SG could have been so much better.

Nothing is lost in the protagonist being romantically involved with only one girl if the rest of the story is as interesting and engaging as SG’s really is.

Don’t Be Afraid to Push Genre Out of Your Way

The greatest danger of genre is that it forces Creators into thinking they need to follow its rules or meet its readers’ myriad of expectations. This is what makes it into a double-edged sword.

Playing by all the rules or trying to please every reader will always be detrimental to your work as a whole.

Rules are sometimes better broken, but many are there for your benefit. Get as close to that magic middle ground as you can, but don’t fret if you can’t. Not everyone who reads your LN will love it, but don’t give them a reason to hate it.

I don’t care if you follow the rules or break them. However, you should never adhere to them if they harm your work in any way.

Don’t treat your genre as a rulebook, but a guideline. No matter what, write what you want to write. A story told from the heart will always shine brighter than one too afraid to leave the safety of its medium.


Hey, my name's Azuma. I first dove deep into Otaku culture in 2010 and never quite grew out of it. After a million different anime, light novels, manga, and visual novels, I learned a lot about each art form. Knowledge I want to share with you from writing advice to drawing tips. I'm also the Author of two light novels series, Garden of PSI and On Creating the Ultimate Weapon. Happy creating!

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