I Write Genre, or Do I?

A question that I always have problems answering is “what genre do you write?” This might seem like a really straightforward thing (and generally I just say “fantasy”), but there are so many different genres and sub-genres that it can get complicated very, very quickly. Plus, a lot of agents and publishers only want people to send in work that falls into a specific set of genres. So… what are all the genres out there, and what does each mean?

Obviously you have your first division, which is Fiction or Nonfiction. Really quickly, nonfiction genres can be biography/autobiography, essay(s), narrative nonfiction (which I won’t get into the sub-genres of), speech(es), textbook(s), or reference(s). To those who write nonfiction, good for you. My home is over in the fiction side of the pool though, so those are the genres and sub-genres I’m going to talk about today.

I think (and you’re perfectly welcome to disagree) that the next main split becomes Fiction versus Speculative Fiction; if we skip that split the categories are Action/Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction, and Women’s Fiction. There is some cross-over and mixing between these genres (like a Romantic Comedy –obviously it falls under both the Romance and Comedy headings), but for the most part I try to keep the distinct sub-genres separate.

  • Action/Adventure: generally fast paced, involving the protagonist taking risks, getting involved in fights, with some sort of high stakes quest.
    • Military/War: generally follows a specific soldier/warrior/fighter through the events of a war or other military endeavour.
    • Superhero: generally explores the adventure(s) of one or more costumed crime fighters as they face off against powerful villains and/or monsters.
    • Western: generally set in the American Old West and features gunfights, outlaws, and cowboys. When mixed with other genres, you often get stories of frontier style experiences in non-traditional settings.
    • Wuxia: an action/adventure story involving martial arts where the protagonist (or martial arts character) follows some code of honour.
  • Comedy: written to illicit a laugh, fairly open and often mixed with other genres.
    • Dark Comedy: uses disturbing elements, as well as morbid satire
    • Farce: improbable and exaggerated situations (above and beyond the normal exaggeration seen in generic comedy)
    • Parody: uses sarcasm, stereotypes, and satire to mock another work, characters, or genres.
    • Satire: uses irony and sarcasm to attack and/or expose.
    • Screwball: impulsive, whimsical, and foolish.
    • Slapstick: uses physical comedy.
  • Fantasy: has magical and/or supernatural forces in it, often instead of technology (but not always).
    • Dark Fantasy: mixes aspects normally found in “horror” with those of a fantasy story/setting.
    • Epic: generally utilizes highly developed and intricate storylines and characters. Lord of the Rings is often used as a benchmark for this genre.
    • Folklore: works that are based off of, or use the format of, traditional beliefs, customs, and stories passed down by word of mouth.
      • Fable: generally teach a lesson or moral, often using anthropomorphic animals as the characters.
      • Fairy Tale: generally uses magical creatures and events, mixed in with a quest or task of some sort.
      • Legend: a quasi-historical story that is sometimes thought to have taken place, but isn’t (or can’t be) confirmed.
      • Tall Tales: any of the above with extra exaggeration.
    • Heroic: uses an especially heroic main character, generally on some sort of big quest.
    • High: while this term is sometimes used interchangeably with “epic fantasy”, it can also be used to simply describe a story with a high level of magic and other such fantasy elements (basically the opposite of “low fantasy”).
    • Low: generally a story that downplays the fantasy elements, often because it’s set in the real world.
    • Medieval: a fantasy story set in the medieval era.
    • Modern: a fantasy story set in the modern era.
      • Urban: a fantasy story, usually modern (but not always), that is set in some sort of urban setting.
    • Prehistoric: a fantasy story set in the prehistoric era.
    • Science Fantasy: a blending of science fiction elements with an otherwise fantasy story.
      • Sword and Planet: generally has aspects of swashbuckling heroics with interplanetary travel and/or exploration (see Space Opera below).
    • Sword and Sorcery: the “traditional” genre, often differs from epic fantasy because it doesn’t always use black-and-white morality, and may not end with a “happily ever after”.
  • Fiction: the generic, catch-all genre. This refers to any story that is made-up.
    • Children’s: generally geared towards kids 12 and under; sometimes “young adult” is included as a sub-genre, which is geared towards 13-18 year olds.
      • Picture Book: generally for the youngest bracket of kids; uses pictures and patterns to tell a story.
    • Drama: generally serious and realistic settings and storylines, often portraying the conflict in a normal life.
    • Experimental: generally the format or subject matter is non-traditional; often a sub-genre of “literary fiction”.
    • Graphic Novel: a comic or illustrated story that is generally geared at adult audiences.
    • Historical: mixes a little to a lot of actual historical facts, settings, periods, and/or people in with other fictional elements.
    • Horror: generally uses common fears to frighten the reader, mixing suspense, violence and shock to achieve that end.
      • Dark Suspense: apparently this contains no supernatural elements, but there is also a constant threat from outside (the core characters).
      • Erotic Horror: combines sensually explicit content with other aspects of the horror genre.
      • Gothic: part setting, part thematic; generally involves hauntings, crypts, mansions, and similar things.
      • Noir: generally uses an urban setting and delves into immorality.
      • Psychological: utilizes elements to tap into more psychological fears than the generic, every day fears that horror in general uses.
      • Soft: uses mood and atmosphere more than blatant horror elements.
      • Supernatural: utilizes supernatural elements in addition to regular horror ones.
      • Surreal: has a distinct irrational and/or bizarre aspect to the horror.
    • Literary: generally uses more sophisticated techniques, is often driven by character over plot.
      • Bildungsroman: a coming of age story. Catcher in the Rye is a very iconic bildungsroman.
      • Bizarro Fiction: has a very high weirdness factor that is used to be thought-provoking. May take place in alternate realities, dreams, or similar strange setting. Often categorized under speculative fiction rather than literary.
      • Family Saga: generally chronicles the lives of a family across multiple generations.
      • Philosophical: generally the majority of the story is devoted to exploring traditional philosophical questions (e.g., point of life, morals, etc.)
    • Mainstream: generally used to refer to fiction that is aimed at the broadest possible audience, and contrasted against literary or genre in that it’s described as less than formulaic than either of those.
    • Mystery: obviously this includes some sort of mystery, often being a crime that has to be solved (but not always).
      • Amateur Detective: again, this is fairly straightforward in that the main character is an amateur detective rather than an actual police or other investigator.
      • Caper: these types focus on the committing of a crime rather than the solving of one.
      • Courtroom Drama: generally seen more in TV than in literature, but this is the sub-genre that focuses on the courtroom aspects as much as, or more than, the other aspects of investigation and prosecuting a crime/criminal.
      • Cozy: this is another of the Kobo categories that baffled me the first time I saw it. Basically, it uses quaint settings, minimal violence, and wraps everything up at the end. Often it is a sub-genre of the “amateur detective” genre.
      • Crime/Detective: generally follows a detective or other professional as they solve a crime; in the case of Sherlock (and all its variations) –esque stories, the main character will also have to explain how a seemingly impossible crime was committed.
      • Gentleman Thief: not sure if this a full sub-genre on its own, or simply one that is added to other mystery genres. But basically, the thieves or criminals are polite, “well-bred”, charismatic, and rarely use physical violence.
      • Hard-boiled: generally considered “gritty”, with a main character (often a detective type) who is gruff, tough, and cynical. Shares many elements with “noir” and “horror”.
      • Legal Thriller: similar to the courtroom drama in that the main characters are lawyers and the mystery is viewed through the legal aspects.
      • Murder Mystery: generally the “traditional” type of mystery. There is one or more murders, and they must be solved by the main character –often becoming a target of the killer during the investigation.
      • Police Procedural: like a “legal thriller”, this type of mystery views the genre from a specific view point. In this case, from that of a police officer. Often the crime/mystery is solved by using the resources and procedures of a police department.
      • Soft-boiled: this one was a little harder to define. It seems to be defined primarily on its relationship to cozy and/or hard-boiled mysteries. The best definition I found states that it’s the halfway point between the two, being less violent than hard-boiled but still having more than the cozy. Additionally it often includes humorous or optimistic elements.
      • Suspense: generally focuses on the anticipation; can share a lot of traits with the sub-genre “psychological”.
      • Thriller: generally intense and exciting, may not have a lot of suspense or delay (so can be fast-paced). Usually the audience is left in the dark, only figuring things out as (or after) the characters do, and generally leans more towards physical dangers than psychological ones.
    • Political: deals with some sort of political affair. Often used as a commentary on events, systems, and/or theories. Political aspects are frequently used in other genres (like dystopian, see below).
    • Realistic: fiction that aims to be as real as possible (obviously). Generally doesn’t have magic or advanced technology, but in speculative type realistic works the magic and/or technology will be created and/or used in such a way that it seems plausible and even logical within the story.
    • Religious: sometimes placed under a genre called “inspirational”, these works have a definite lean towards a specific faith and its teachings –often showing why/how that faith helps solve the main character’s problems.
      • Spiritual: like the religious sub-genre above, there are strong aspects of faith in the story, but no specific religion is called out, keeping the religious aspects neutral and/or universal.
      • New Age: once more, like the above two, but focussing on new age religions. May not be a distinct sub-genre.
    • Young Adult: there is a lot of debate over what counts as YA fiction. As I mentioned above under the “children’s” genre, it can be used to refer to the 13-18 year olds; some say YA is for 14+; and fairly recently it has had a “new adult” genre split off from it for the 18+ crowd. Which for some people just means it’s YA fiction with a bit of sex thrown in. I’m going to define YA as an off-shoot of the bildungsroman genre in that it’s about growing up, and is aimed at the 15-25 age bracket. (Because just ‘cause that’s who you aimed it at, doesn’t mean those are the only people reading it) Additionally, YA is generally added to another genre as it isn’t really a stand-alone.
  • Science Fiction: similar to fantasy, but instead of having magical aspects, it uses advanced, theoretical, and/or futuristic technology, science, and/or ideologies. Often it involves space (as in space travel, exploration, battles, etc.), robotics, genetic engineering, and/or time travel.
    • Alternate History: although there may not be advanced tech is this genre, it generally asks/shows what would have happened if some key historical event had happened differently. Often set in the modern world (but not always).
    • Dying Earth: based on the concept that the Earth is dying for some reason; can be similar to the post-apocalyptic genre (see below).
    • Military: often involves futuristic militaries, soldiers, and/or wars.
    • Post-Apocalyptic: about life after civilization has collapsed (often due to nuclear war, a plague, some environmental disaster, or other world-wide event that destroyed civilization). There are also “apocalyptic” stories about the event itself.
      • Dystopian: involves a society and/or government that is evil, corrupt, and/or dehumanizing. Generally used as some sort of social commentary, it is very popular in post-apocalyptic stories (at least in the post-apoc books that I’ve read).
    • Space Opera: generally melodramatic, romantic, and uses over-the-top settings and battles. Apparently it often draws on the tradition of sending a small group up against warring factions and large groups of powerful enemies.
    • Space Western: this genre has apparently been around since 1953, and combines elements of the typical “western” genre with those of the typical SF story (e.g., horses and blaster guns). Apparently there is some reluctance to self-identify as a space western due to the perceived campiness of the genre.
    • Steampunk: one of the results of mixing SF and fantasy; generally set in the Victorian era where the technology they have is more advanced (and can be comparable to modern tech in some instances), and is primarily steam based.
    • Superhuman: deals with humans who have (obviously) super human abilities. Often these are explained through quasi-scientific phenomena (genetic mutations, radioactive spiders, cosmic rays, etc.) Often focuses on the struggles of the superhuman characters to fit into society.
    • Time Travel: obviously, this involves travel through time. Can have strong fantasy and/or steampunk aspects.
  • Women’s Fiction: though I find this entire genre a little offensive (in that it’s “aimed at women”), the sub-genres could, and should (for the most part) exist. I just dislike that these are “women only” genres.
    • Regency Romance: often set in England, it uses the manners and society of the early 1800s in its telling of a romance. I don’t know if there is a non-romance regency genre out there, of if that would simply fall under “gentleman thief”, “steampunk”, or some other genre set in roughly the same time period, or using the manners, etc., of it.
    • Romantic Comedy: I think most people are familiar with what a rom-com is, as that’s pretty much the entirety of what “chick flick” movies are. But just in case you don’t, a rom-com involves a love story with a happy ending and humorous plot devices (generally misunderstandings that lead to strange situations).
    • Romantic Fantasy: fairly obviously, this is a love story with fantasy aspects.
    • Romantic Suspense: this can be a blending of the romance and mystery genres, or it can simply by a romantic story that is full of suspense and intrigue. Generally they are character driven rather than plot driven.
    • Chick Lit: I don’t see how it differs from the generic “women’s fiction”, but it is apparently a light-hearted story about a main character who is usually 25-35 years old. Often told in first person.
    • Romance: a story that is centered around the romantic relationship of the main characters (and especially in ones attempting to buck the traditional “happily ever after” ending, there are love triangles, and other multi-person romances that leave one or more person broken-hearted at the end).

(FYI –“speculative fiction” refers to fantasy, science fiction, and horror)

Now the above are pretty loose groupings, and depending on where you look they might not be grouped “correctly”. Plus there are even more sub-genres that I didn’t include (usually because they were very niche, or were too difficult to place in a single category).

The fun really comes when you start mixing-and-matching. Like “women’s fiction” and “action/adventure”, or “psychological” and “political”, or “dark comedy” and “family saga”. When you mix “horror” and “comedy” you can get sub-genres like Zombie Comedy, and when you mix “legal thriller” and “science fiction” you can get something rather philosophical about the legality of future technologies.

So, just because you write “fantasy” or “steampunk”, don’t let that limit what you create! Mixing it up can open up doors you might never have thought to explore before. And it might be completely awesome J

Oh, and one last note before I head out…

“Flash Fiction” refers to length (even though it’s a Kobo “genre”). Confused the heck out of me when I first saw it. The various story lengths each have their own name:

  • Flash Fiction: 100 – 2,000 words
  • Short Story: 2,000 – 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500 – 15,000 words
  • Novella: 15,000 – 40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 – 100,000 words
  • Epic Novel: 100,000 – 200,000 words



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