From the Desk of Lucienne Diver: 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
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
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,
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.)
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,
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.
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
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,
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
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?
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!)
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