So Bad It’s Good: How To Write Terribly Incredible (Or Incredibly Terrible) Campy Fiction
Like all good aesthetics, camp is a lot more sophisticated than it looks and writing it well can be challenging. It’s not enough to dress your hero in spandex and have your villain cackling madly while the heroine runs around screaming for rescue in a fruit-topped hat. That’s just cliché, while good camp is a celebration of the exaggerated and excessive.
It’s not enough to say “I want this to be camp.” If you throw in every campy trope you can find then you’ll have a mess, with one excess undermining another. A campy science fiction story interrupted by an excessive moment of dark literary fiction will lose atmosphere faster than a colander-based spaceship.
Think about what you’re exploring, what you want to make camp, and push that thing to excess. Do you want to write a high fantasy of sweaty muscles, kidnapped slave girls and kingdoms defined by single concepts? Or are you after a delightful horror of shadowy streets, blood-spattered sheets, and dead jocks?
Whatever you’re camping up, identify its individual excesses and focus on those.
There are no half-measures in camp. If you approach the brink of absurdity only to hesitate and step back, then all you have is corniness and cliché. The pleasure of camp comes from its excess, so really push the boat out.
Reasonableness is the enemy of camp. It isn’t reasonable for your action hero to drive a monster truck, carry a bazooka on her back, and chug beer like she has the liver capacity of the whole U.S. Congress. But if she just drives a 4x4, carries a handgun, and finishes the day with a few too many whiskies then what you have isn’t camp, it’s the hero of 90% of the adventure stories out there. So go with Bazooka Betty, not Hetty Handgun.
All of this might sound like a rallying cry to mock the genre you’re working in. But again, that really misses the point. Camp isn’t about standing outside the tent pissing in, it’s about running around the inside of the tent celebrating just how much fun canvas is.
The edge of mockery, the knowing wink that implies “we’re better than this,” that’s the realm of satire. It has its place and it has its audience, but that audience isn’t the same one camp appeals to. Satire is about being negative, camp is about being positive. Satire is judgemental, camp is celebratory. Satire is about pointing out the foolishness of others, while camp is about knowing that what you’re doing is foolish but enjoying it anyway. You don’t point at the excess, you join in with it.
So if you want to do campy writing, make sure the subject and style are something that you love. Make sure that you can write that wild excess like you mean it. If you can make that happen then fans will love you for it. But if you step into satire, if you slip in a little mockery for fear of being mocked, then the joy will fade.
If you’re going to write campy then relish it. Focus on something that you sincerely love, and write it right to the extreme. Because anything less is just cliché, and the world has quite enough of that.
A.G. Wyatt is the author of the post-apocalyptic adventure series, MoonFall and is presently working on his second series. When he's not writing, he's reading, or looking for inspiration near his hometown in Northeastern PA.
Where you can find the author: