Sunday, September 7, 2014

Defining Genres in Fiction - #amwriting

I’m teaching a Fiction Writing class at the local college this fall, and the other day I set out to make a list of genres, with definitions and examples.  I ended up getting sucked into a black hole, spending hours trying to contrast and compare different lists that varied greatly from one source to another.  Some insisted one genre was actually a subset of another, another source declared the opposite.  Dozens of subgenres muddied the waters as well. 

Those of us who are writers know that most books don’t fit into one tidy genre anyway—there are blurred lines and overlapping traits.  But that doesn’t help the new writer with an assignment to pick their favorite genre and study it.  So this is MY attempt to classify some popular genres; I’m not claiming there are no other ways to do so, and if there’s one singular master list accepted by all, my hours of searching did not locate it.  One thing I noticed is that Erotica was rarely given its own genre—it was usually listed as a subgenre of Romance.  Maybe it’s because I’m a Romance author, but I think that’s wrong.  One key component of Romance is the HEA, and while some Erotica will incorporate that, it’s not a requirement.  At my press, we have two different websites to showcase our offerings: one for Romance, one for Erotica—and both genres have huge followings.  So I gave them each their own category.  Feel free to weigh in on how you organize and define the genres!  Keep in mind the word “usually” should always be implied, and that I didn’t think it feasible to list every subcategory.  OK, here we go!

The genre refers to the constructs of the story; things regularly done and expected in terms of technique, tone, and content.

A.   Mystery/Detective/Crime Fiction – focuses on the investigation and solution of a crime, the unraveling of secrets.

·        Cozy mystery usually involves a woman who is an amateur sleuth; these are fun reads with quirky and likeable characters in a small town setting; not very graphic in terms of violence and sex.  An example would be Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who…series.

·        Hardboiled detective fiction tends to involve a professional detective with a cynical attitude; more graphic and gritty; city setting with a focus on action.  An example is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.


B.    Thrillers/Suspense – incorporate twists and suspense along with fast-paced action; provides a rush of emotions; main character is often a man whose occupation or career leads into the plot.  An example is Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

·        Occupational Thrillers encompass subgenres such as Legal Thrillers (John Grisham), Medical Thrillers (Robin Cook), etc.

·        Many other subgenres, including Ecothrillers, Espionage, Paranormal, Political, Psychological, Technothrillers.


C.   Horror strives to evoke fear, dread, and shock; purpose is to frighten readers; often involves some supernatural elements.  Example is It by Stephen King.

Stephen King is my
favorite Horror author -
I love his Fantasy novels too

D.   Speculative Fiction – fairly difficult to define.  This genre revolves around real or imagined science or technology; the world (or society) tends to be different from ours in a fundamental way; laws are different; world-building very important.

·        Science Fiction deals with the more plausible make-believe scenarios; science that might exist in the future.

·        A few other subgenres are Dystopian, Apocalyptic, Post apocalyptic, Alternative History.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an example of Dystopian.


E.    Fantasy – almost always deals with something magical.  An imaginary world, animals or people with unexpected powers; world-building very important.  An example is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.


F.     Historical Fiction – aims to immerse the reader in a specific time period.  This genre is set in the past; the plot comes from the writer’s imagination, but the setting and details of the time period are accurately portrayed.  Sometimes includes real historical figures interacting with fictional characters.  This genre requires a great deal of research.  Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy is an example.


G.   Romance – fairly easy to define, as two key criteria must be met: the relationship between the 2 main characters must be central to the plot, and there must be a satisfying, happily ever after (HEA) ending, or at least happy for now.  The Romance genre is about two people overcoming significant challenges to be together; allows the reader to experience the crackling chemistry, the sexual tension, and the emotional roller coaster of falling in love.


·        Lots of subgenres, including Paranormal, Historical, Sweet, Christian, Romantic Suspense, Contemporary, Time Travel, etc.  Nora Roberts is a well-known and prolific Romance author.


H.   Erotica – features sexually explicit details designed to arouse the reader.  It is not pornography, there is a plot and developed characters.  The plot may or may not include a relationship; the characters may or may not have an HEA.  Captive in the Dark by C.J. Roberts is an example.


I.       Women’s Fiction – includes topics that are important to women, i.e. all types of relationships and friendships, love, careers, family, hopes, and dreams.


·        Chick Lit is a subgenre that promises a fun read with realistic, modern characters.  The covers tend to be bright and distinctive.  An example is Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.


J.      Young Adult (YA) Fiction – targets the 12-18 age group; protagonist falls within that age range.

·        “Edgy” YA deals with controversial or difficult issues.

·        Other than that, the same subgenres of adult fiction apply, i.e. Divine Fall by Kathryn Knight (me!) is a YA Paranormal Romance.

Young Adult
Paranormal Romance
is a popular genre
Finally, a note about Literary Fiction – this encompasses novels that are not genre fiction; stories that defy categorization in a genre; the emphasis is often on the prose itself.  An example is The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

There you have it, my attempt at defining genres in commercial fiction.  I hope it’s more interesting than confusing...I love comments, so weigh in with your opinion!

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