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Genres and Subgenres and Memes, Oh My!

I'm reprising here a blog I wrote on genres and subgenres for The Knight Agency site a few months ago with a tweak or two (hey, Crys!).  Hope it's useful!

Genres and Subgenres and Memes, Oh My!


Every convention I've been to in the past year has had at least one panel dedicated to the defining and blending of various genres and subgenres.  Where are the lines drawn between urban fantasy and paranormal romance?  Is it possible to have urban fantasy in a rural setting?  When does suspense become romantic suspense?   Can I get fries with that?  (The answer is yes, but this is somewhat trickier if you're writing historicals.)


My belief is that all fiction is more or less on a continuum…more than one really.  One graph might extend from love stories to novels completely lacking in romance, though it's hard (but not impossible), to find books in any genre completely without romance.  When determining what goes on the spine, what matters is the focus of the story.  Another continuum might be magic versus non-magic with magical realism falling somewhere in the middle.  Or maybe that same continuum extends into the science fiction field so that magic is on one end facing off with technology on the other.   In that case urban fantasy might be the median.  Anyway, without a bunch of charts and graphs, let me see if I can shed some light on various genres and subgenres and how they're defined.


Fantasy (epic fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy)

Epic fantasy: Epic implies sweeping in scope and epic fantasy surely is that.  The stakes are high – world-changing in fact.  The world-building is so detailed that the place actually exists for reader and writer alike.  The cast of characters is broad enough to deal with different aspects of what's going on and how to stop or facilitate it, even if it's sometimes told from a single point of view.  (Think Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Carol Berg, David B. Coe, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Melanie Rawn.)


Historical Fantasy: Much like epic fantasy, only set in our own history, though with magic, of course.  The novel might be set in a Roman Empire or ancient Egypt that never was.   (Think Marion Zimmer Bradley, Judith Tarr, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, Sarah A. Hoyt's Magical British Empire series.)


Urban Fantasy: Generally our modern world but at a slant.  Maybe vampires and werewolves really exit.  Maybe it's weather wardens or demons or shifters.  Whatever they are, they're here and we just have to deal with it (or a kick-butt hero or heroine and her Scooby gang do anyway).  And no, urban fantasy doesn't have to mean it's set in a city.  Look at Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series!  (Think Laurell K. Hamilton, Rachel Caine, Jim Butcher, Faith Hunter, Lilith Saintcrow, Charlaine Harris….)



I'm listing horror on its own here, because it's been called a lot of things – psychological or supernatural suspense, dark fantasy, etc. – it doesn't really have subgenres so much as multiple designations.  Part of the reason for this is that after the horror boom there was a serious crash of the market and for a while you couldn’t give horror away, though you could sometimes sell it as something else.  (Examples: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Thomas Disch.)


Science Fiction (social science fiction or space opera, hard science fiction, alternate history, cyberpunk)

Social Science Fiction or Space Opera: Star Wars is maybe the ultimate example of space opera.  There are worlds at stake and people willing to fight for them, whether it be with intrigue or weaponry.  It's generally pretty swashbuckling.  (Did I mention Star Wars?  How about Lois McMaster Bujold?)


Hard Science Fiction: This genre is very much about the technology and extrapolating problems and plots from the use, misuse or just generally cutting edge concepts that come along with it.  Sometimes this is set in a near-future earth, sometimes the distant future.  The main thing is these folks have their science down cold and can blow your mind with it.  (Examples: Peter Watts, Isaac Asimov, Robert Sawyer, Catherine Asaro, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.)


Alternate History: Take events from our history and postulate that something went differently that changed everything thereafter.  (Harry Turtledove is a prime example.)


Cyberpunk: You don't hear this one used very much any more, but it was typified by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Phillip K. Dick and others and involves the disenfranchised or underground portion of a dystopian society that we'd created through our own foibles or misuse of technology and in that way seems almost a part of hard sf.


Mystery (suspense/thrillers, cozies, traditional, police procedural)

Suspense/Thrillers: I can't tell you the difference exactly between suspense and thriller.  Is one more psychologically intense and the other more action-packed?  I sort of know it when I see it.  They're both page-turning, pulse-pounding, heart-in-your-throat sorts of books that tend to have some pretty high stakes and up them as the book goes on.  And within these genres, you've got some sub-subgenres, like legal thrillers (ex. Scott Turow) and medical thrillers (ex. Tess Gerritsen), international intrigue, and even, as mentioned above, supernatural suspense (think Douglas Preston and Lee Child).


Cozies:  One of my authors, Diana Orgain, just spent an entire blog post (http://varkat.livejournal.com/34449.html) trying to define cozies.  Basically, they're the kind of books you'd like to read curled up with a cup of tea and a cat.  (I may have borrowed that from someplace, but I can't think where at the moment.)  There's murder, of course, and mystery and suspense, but the violence is generally off stage…or anyway not terribly graphic.  The detective is almost without fail an amateur.  In other words, you're not going to find fingerprint analysis and trace evidence unless the hero, or more often heroine, has a friend on the force.  Historicals generally fit in here as well.  (Think: Diane Mott Davidson, Sarah Strohmeyer, Sarah D'Almeida's Three Musketeers mystery series, Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters series.)


Traditional: Your P.I.s and investigative reporters fit in nicely here.  Nero Wolf, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Kinky Friedman, Gideon Oliver (and on the noir side, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer) are all prime examples of traditional mystery heroes.  (For authors whose heroes have not already been referenced, see S.J. Rozan and T. Lynn Ocean.)


Police Proceedural: This genre depicts officers and other law enforcement agents conducting an investigation the way it would really be done (or, in the case of CSI, how it would be done if there really was a same-day turnaround on DNA evidence and a lot more money in the budget).  (Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh are prime examples.)


Romance (romantic suspense, paranormal, science fiction/speculative fiction/futuristic, historical, romantic comedy, contemporary)

Romantic Suspense: I find that this genre runs a continuum itself, from books where the designation truly applies, in which a romance is integral to the story, even if the main focus is on the suspense, to novels where there's very little romance really.   In the latter case, maybe romantic suspense seemed the closest designation or maybe the label was decided because the author started out writing romance and those who decide on marketing chose the designation for reader continuity.  (Think Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Suzanne Brockmann, Kay Hooper, Roxanne St. Claire.)


Paranormal Romance: Vampires, witches, shifters, skinwalkers, demons, sorcerers…what am I missing?  Romance involving paranormal elements of some kind, but still with the balance of the narrative tipped more than 50% toward the romance.  (If it's tipped less than 50%, you might have urban fantasy, though there are still some novels that fall through the cracks dividing the two.)  (Examples: Marjorie M. Liu, Susan Krinard, Nalini Singh, Gena Showalter, J.R. Ward.)


Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Futuristic Romance: Romances set on another planet or a future earth, often with very alpha heroes and heroines and great action.  (Think Linnea Sinclair, Patti O'Shea, Robin Owens.)


Historicals: Westerns, Regencies, Medievals, Victorians…they all take us back to another time (and generally another place) where the men might be arrogant, but the heroines were women enough to handle them.  (Mary Jo Putney, Roberta Gellis, Debra Mullins, Kathryn Caskie, Kasey Michaels.)


Romantic Comedy: Romance with laughs.  (Think Susan Andersen, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Jennifer Skully.)


Contemporary: I've never quite gotten the hang of what counts as single-title contemporary romance that doesn't fit into romantic comedy, paranormal or science fiction romance, or romantic suspense.   I put this up here because contemporary romance comes up a lot.  Anyone have any examples to give?

Erotic Romance/Romantica/Erotica: Erotica and erotic romance/romantica are forms of graphic sensual literature that entice and inspire.  Yes, as the name implies, they’re about sex, though not necessarily ALL about sex.  Both may involve multiple partners, location, props and positions, but the difference between them is that erotic romance/romantica is at its heart about a particular pairing with a happily-ever-after ending, while erotica is more about the journey…fun, discovery, personal growth, but probably not ultimately about a love match.  (Think Emma Holly, Jaid Black, Jasmine Haynes, Crystal Jordan.)

Women's Fiction (chicklit, lady lit, general women's fiction)

There's been some argument about whether or not women's fiction is a genre separate from romance.  I think it is.  The term women's fiction, like mainstream fiction, can be pretty all encompassing and therefore hard to define, but I'd describe it as a genre primarily for, by and about women.  Not necessarily their loves, though this might play into it, but their trials, their relationships with their families, with each other, how they encounter and overcome adversity and emerge stronger and generally differently than when they began.  Chicklit and Ladylit are both women's searches for self, at different times in their lives, and generally told with a wink and a nod.  Other women's fiction would be family sagas, Southern women's fiction, like that of Joshilyn Jackson, or simply mainstream fiction told with a feminine bent.  (Think Jodi Picoult and Rosamunde Pilcher.)


Whew, all that and I'm not even trying to tackle children's, middle-grade, young adult, non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, self-help.  The list could go on and on!


I hope my long and winding post has been helpful, and I look forward to hearing what y'all have to say.  (I've always said y'all, frankly, but now that I'm a Southerner…more or less…I have an excuse!)

In other news, I'll be up here on February 1st with a blog concerning the misconceptions about agents.  Then My Favorite Author will have a review of VAMPED on February 4th (it's so hard to type and bite my nails at the same time) and a Q&A with me on February 6th.  I have this urge to laugh maniacally and talk about how far you'll have to run to escape my reach, but I'm afraid someone might take me seriously.  (Which would ruin the element of surprise, so important in all plans for world domination,)

simple counter


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Wow! That took a lot of work. Thanks! It was helpful. I think I can now with confidence describe my work as epic fantasy/romance/women's fiction.

BTW- I thoroughly enjoyed reading Epic Fantasy Week. What a great group of authors!

Good Luck on your review.

And lastly, isn't ya'll a great word? And I'm not just saying that because I'm from Texas. Many other languages have a plural you form. Its useful particularly when I want to be sure both my kids understand I am addressing them. "Ya'll get up and do your homework." They can't pretend differently.
Jan. 29th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)
You're not going to want to describe it as all those things. Pick the one that fits best. If what you're writing would be published in a fantasy line, call it simply epic fantasy.
Jan. 29th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
thanks again!
Jan. 29th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for this, especially the Fantasy (helps me classify my manuscript) and Romance (I'm new to that genre and now have a better understanding of what's what).

A question about the Fantasy categories - has the "epic fantasy" label replaced the "sword & sorcery" label? Is something still "epic" if it has a small cast of characters and takes place in a single location\town?
Jan. 29th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
Yup, it pretty much has. Epic fantasy can take place in pretty much one location with an intimate cast of characters as long as the external issues are, well, epic. Big, earth-shattering, if-we-don't-fix-this-the-world-goes-to-hell-in-a-handbasket type issues. I can probably count on one hand the number of fantasies published where the stories are smaller in scope. They can be done, but the writing and the characters have to be incredibly compelling.
Jan. 29th, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Mystery Genres
This discussion is really interesting, because so many books cross genres and can't be easily "pigeonholed" into just one. For example, the great Agatha Christie wrote mysteries that could fit into the "traditional" genre and, in my opinion, the "cozy" genre (think Miss Marple).

I arguably cross genres, too. For instance, my novel, Publish or Perish (check it out at http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/PublishOrPerish.html), is traditional in the sense that it's a story of a suspicious death at a university, the suspects and their relationships and motives, and the detective who solves the crime. It's also, though, got some police procedure in it.

I think one reason mystery novels cross genres is that, in real life, mysteries do. So taking different perspectives on the same mystery gives a broader and more accurate perspective.
Jan. 29th, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Mystery Genres
Agatha Christie definitely wrote in more than one subgenre of mystery (and I love them all), but each series can be designated as one particular subgenre or another. Even when books cross, marketing departments have to know where they fit best so that they can target reviewers and readers. Ultimately, only one genre designation goes on a book's spine to help buyers decide, though within that, other factors might help guide the promotions trajectory. For example, a mystery with a strong female protagonist (with or without a romantic subplot) might also be marketed to women's magazines....
Jan. 29th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Mystery Genres
Must be the day for it. The above comment was me, posting without logging in.
Jan. 29th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
Where might one put Daniel Quinn, out of curiousity?
Jan. 29th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)
This is great!
I think this is great, Thanks Yarkat!
No only clear explanations but you include suggested authors.

"Dallas "

Jan. 29th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Very cool post, it's always nice to have something to direct authors too about how to define their writing style. Also I suppose it would help with the query letters if writers knew better how to define their work.
Jan. 29th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Mysteries now have a number of sub-sub-genres. Crossword puzzle mysteries, with crossword puzzles included. Culinary mysteries -- detective is a cook or caterer, and there are recipes. Knitting mysteries. Cat mysteries.
Jan. 29th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
Those all fall under the cozy category, but yes, there's been an explosion of crafting and other mysteries in the past few years!
Jan. 30th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)
My Google Alerts just pinged me to let me know I was mentioned over here. Yay! Glad to see you added the naughty romance to the subgenres ;-)
Jan. 30th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the genre help! I know it is so hard to categorize some stuff. What a comprehensive list!
Jan. 30th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC)
"(it's so hard to type and bite my nails at the same time)"

You are too cute! We are looking forward to featuring you next week!

For some reason open ID isn't working! It's me Aubrey over at MFA.
Feb. 2nd, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
Contemp romance
Jennifer Crusie for sure (not her recent collaborations). Not written to fit the guidelines of a specific publishing house re type of plot, type of hero/heroine, word count. And obviously, takes place in the present.
Matthew Bishop
Sep. 20th, 2011 06:02 am (UTC)
Subgenres of Fantasy
Hi Lucienne,

I'm a writer of five fantasy novels and am just beginning to seek representation. I am going through my query letters but find myself facing an issue: The best way to describe my books are "no-magic fantasies", and I am not sure if this is the closest thing I can come to a proper sub-genre of fantasy. Does such a sub-genre exist? I have been searching writers' forums but cannot find a name for this kind of work anywhere. The only thing keeping it from being historical fiction is the fact that the story is set in another world, complete with make-believe histories, societies, continents, etc.

If anyone else knows a name for this genre, I would be much obliged!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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