I’ve recently been watching The Border, a Canadian TV show about people policing the hundreds of miles connecting Canada and the USA. I’ve enjoyed its mix of police procedural and commentary on contemporary issues, and now approve of 100% of the Canadian TV I’ve ever watched (which is to say, this show). However, there was one thing I had to get over to take The Border seriously. It’s something that says far more about my attitudes than the competence of the show’s producers, but it also highlights a potential writing pitfall. That thing is best exemplified by the phrase ‘Canadian Commandos’.
I apologise right now to anyone from Canada who’s reading this. I’ve never been to your country, I hear that it’s awesome. However, I have a particular impression of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as a gentle, friendly, slightly quirky, slightly liberal nation smiling in exasperation at the antics of their neighbours to the south. This is not a place I associate with hardened special forces agents, deadly manipulative spies or anything else you might call bad-ass. Yes, this attitude is a sweeping generalisation. Yes, it’s not grounded in meaningful fact. But still, the first time somebody on The Border made reference to Canadian Commandoes I was hit by such a jolt of cultural dissonance that I burst out laughing. I pictured Fraser from Due South abseiling with a machine gun while wearing his mounty outfit. It just didn’t work. This dissonance happened again over several episodes, as I got used to the fact that Canada has all the serious, deadly institutions common to most functional first-world nations, from secret service agents to violent biker gangs. I wasn’t laughing at a flaw with the show, I was getting over my own preconceptions.
As a writer, you can’t bet on getting over the preconceptions of your audience. If your fantasy story involves a hobbit lynch mob then you’re going to have to go a long way to make anyone take it seriously, maybe so far that you’d be better off not including that scene. People have an impression of hobbits, and even if you see them as fickle, xenophobic midgets prone to outbursts of unexpected and deadly violence, others may not. You need to think about who your audience is and how the elements you’re combining will ressonate with them. Otherwise they may give up in bemusement during your touching love scene between an alien and a kangaroo on page fifteen, and then you’ve lost readers.