Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Defining the Genres

By Jennifer Crispin
© 2004,
Jennifer Crispin 

Readers like genres because they know what to expect when they seek out their favorite sections in bookstores and libraries.   Writing genre novels is not a lesser form of writing than writing mainstream or literary novels -- which are also genre forms, but not often referred to in that way.

The rules of specific genres are not shackles, and brave writers can stretch the boundaries.  Genres can provide steady work for a prolific writer who might even produce work in more than one genre, although the writer sometimes changes his pen names. 

This is a basic overview of some of the most popular genres.

Romance:  Traditional romance novels focus on the relationship between the female main character and a male love interest.  They usually have scenes from both characters’ points of view.  A romance can take place in the present, inthe past, or in the future.  The most important thing for a romance writer to keep in mind is that no other part of the plot can overshadow the romance.  The book should have a happy or optimistic ending and the usual goal is marriage or engagement.

The romance category has dozens of sub-groups, including Regency Romances, which take place in the early 1800s, when the Prince Regent ruled Britain.  There are also Victorian romances.  Some historical romances take place in America’s Old West.  There are markets for historical romances set in medieval times, as well as historical romances featuring pirates or pre-historic people. 

Women’s Fiction: Women's fiction, also known as "Chick Lit," is sometimes considered a sub-genre of romance.  It borrows some elements of romance, yet does not necessarily focus on the pursuit of one relationship or the happily ever after ending.  Chick Lit tends to feature sophisticated, savvy women in their 20s and 30s, although characters can be older or younger.  The characters might bounce from man to man in search of the perfect relationship, or they might focus more on their friends and jobs.  They are generally looking for a perfect something, whether it’s a perfect man, a perfect figure, a perfect job, or a perfect pair of shoes. 

"Mommy Lit" is a spin off from Chick Lit.  As the name suggests, Mommy Lit focuses on women dealing with new motherhood.  Chick Lit and Mommy Lit tend to be humorous and irreverent.  They often focus on ordinary details of women’s lives in a way that other woman-focused genres might not.  These are not yet official genres, but there are certain publishing houses that have imprints specifically for publishing Chick Lit and Mommy Lit.  The most famous example of Chick Lit is Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

Science Fiction, abbreviated sf:  Science fiction generally focuses on technological advances and their impact on characters and civilizations.  The science in these books is expected to follow existing scientific theories and principles or to deviate from them logically.  A scientific system that is different from what we know is still expected to be consistent and logical.

In science fiction, science is the star, but it's still important to have interesting characters.  A classic science fiction writer is Isaac Asimov.  S.L. Viehl's Stardoc series is an example of current science fiction.

SciFi is a term generally used for science fiction stories based on television shows or movies.  The popular series of Star Trek novels is an example.

Fantasy:  Fantasy can be set in any time period.  Most fantasies start with the assumption that magic exists and work from there.  The magic can be an active element or can be incidental to the plot.  J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of a fantasy.  The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is a modern fantasy.  Holly Lisle's World Gates series is also fantasy.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are often categorized together.

Mysteries:  Mysteries often focus on a crime, usually a murder.  The main character is generally a police officer, an amateur detective, or a private eye, although some stories feature journalists or other civilians .  A genre mystery must be solved by the end of the book. 

Readers expect to be able to solve the mystery along with the main character.  False clues are common, but true clues must be mixed in and logically clear by the end of the book.  A good mystery is like a puzzle.  Violence levels can range from explicit to entirely in the background.   Classic mysteries include Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, while more modern takes on mystery include Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries.

Horror: Horror plays on the fear of the unknown, the supernatural, the monsters that we still secretly believe hide under our beds.  This genre can also include the supernatural thriller.  Medical thrillers can also be included in this genre, especially if they focus on horrors created by medical intervention or tampering.  Stephen King is the master of the horror genre.  John Saul and Robin Cook are two other stars of the genre.

Literary: Some readers and writers believe “literary” and “mainstream” are interchangeable, but there is a difference when it comes to marketing a novel.  Literary novels do not necessarily have to be lucrative.  At one time publishing houses published literary novels because they added class to the catalog.  Literary novels are usually published in smaller numbers.  They sometimes focus on word usage over plot.  Sometimes literary novels do not have an active, obvious plot.  They tend to be “informed” by previously acknowledged classics, or they self-consciously try to break the mold and create their own literary form.

Mainstream:  Any genre has the potential of producing a mainstream novel, just as any genre has the potential of producing a literary novel.  Mainstream novels have a wide audience.  Stephen King can be considered a mainstream novelist, as people who don’t read horror by any other author will read any book King puts out.  Danielle Steel can be considered mainstream since people who don't read genre romances will buy her books. 

Many bestsellers can be considered mainstream novels.  Mainstream novels can have strong plots and tension, but might not have the specific focus common to the genres.  Mainstream novels can be set in the future, can involve crimes, or can involve romances, but their focus might be broader than what is required for a genre novel.  The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and its sequels by Alexander McCall Smith are examples of mainstream novels with a mystery feel.

Any list of genres will leave some out, since there are many different genres and sub-genres.  Such a list will also have controversial definitions.  The best way to absorb the nuances of the genre for which you want to write is to read widely in your genre.  It can be a challenge to find the genre that fits your style and strength.  Many writers find they are most successful in the genre they know best from wide reading.  However, there are writers who write well in a genre they don't read very often.  You can learn your genre by writing books like the ones you like to read or by reading more books like the ones you like to write.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding (ISBN 014028009X) Penguin USA

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (ISBN 1400034779) Anchor