What Genre is My Novel?

On Sunday I announced our new Sunday blog series, “Genres (and why we write them)” where this blog will be hosting authors who write a range of genres and talk about what drew them to the genres they write, what challenges they find because of their categorization, and other general thoughts about genres and marketing.

Before we fully get into the blog series, however, it seemed like a good time to talk about what genres are out there (and what genre your own writing might fall into for all the other authors out there).

Most plainly (as defined by Merriam Webster) a genre is “a particular type or category of literature or art.” Going a little deeper, when it comes to publishing, genre is a way of labeling a certain group of novels along shared subject matter. This makes it easier for authors to explain their books, publishers to market them, and readers to find things they are interested in reading.

Though there are dozens of genres and subgenres that are used when discussing novels, some of the most common you’ll likely come across (whether you’re looking for a novel to read or need a category for your novel) are:

  • Contemporary Fiction: One of the broader categories to place your novel in, Contemporary Fiction tends to cover novels that take place in a contemporary/modern-day setting and doesn’t fall into another genre (e.g. Urban Fantasy or Women’s Fiction).
  • Historical Fiction: Unsurprisingly, Historical Fiction covers books that take place in historical settings. Famous historical figures may become characters (even the main character such as Mary Bolyen being the protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Bolyen Girl) but the story can also center around a “normal” character living in a historical period (for example A Picture of Freedom following the life of a fictional slave girl in 1859 without her meeting Jefferson Davis or Harriet Beecher Stowe). Note: Historical Fiction tends to be applied to modern authors writing in historical settings versus Period Pieces with an author from an earlier time period writing what was then contemporary fiction, such as Jane Austen’s works.
  • Fantasy: Fantasy is a wide-ranging genre with a number of subgenres, namely because it is the label that is given to any book that has some sort of fantastical/magical element to it–be that magic powers, mythical creature, or just about anything else that can’t exist (or be explained) in the real world. Some subgenres you may come across include:
    • High Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery: What many people think of when they first hear the term “fantasy novel,” High Fantasy is The Lord of the Rings style fantasy, that takes place in an entirely fantastical world with fantasy races (Elves, Orcs…) and often includes big battles with good vs. evil (or at least people you mostly like vs. people you don’t really like, if you are going the George R. R. Martin/A Game of Thrones way of High Fantasy). It is also sometimes referred to as Sword and Sorcery since often the settings are vaguely medieval with swords as the primary form of weaponry outside of magic.
    • Historical FantasyHistorical Fantasy tends to be a mix of Historical Fiction and Fantasy where fantastical things happen in a historical setting (think vampires in Victorian London or there truly being witches in the middle of the Salem Witch Trials, such as Heather Eager’s Devil’s Playground
    • Urban Fantasy:  Urban Fantasy, as the name suggests, is technically fantasy that
      takes place in a city. Lately, though, the term has been expanded to generally mean “fantasy that takes place in a contemporary setting” even if that setting is primarily a school in the Scottish Highlands (a la J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) or a small Alaskan town (like Karissa Laurel’s Norse Chronicles).
    • Magical RealismSwinging the fantasy genre as close to Contemporary Fiction as possible, Magical Realism is a subgenre that uses magical elements in a way that seems perfectly normal in a realistic setting. For example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of SolitudeThe visions, ghosts, and prophecies are technically fantastical elements, but the book is otherwise closer to Contemporary Fiction than something like High Fantasy.
  • Science Fiction: Like the Fantasy genre, Science Fiction deals with things that don’t exist in the real world (time travel, aliens) but unlike fantasy, the things that are happening could (at least logically) be explained by science rather than magic. For example, rather than having a magical amulet or witch’s curse that allows for time travel, a scientist has developed an equation that folds time enough to be able to step through it. Science Fiction is sometimes divided into Hard Science Fiction, which is focused on making the science behind their robots, cloning, etc. highly developed, truly seem realistic and Soft Science Fiction, which is a little less interested the actual scientific explanations for what is happening (sometimes even straying into Science Fantasy where there starts to be vaguely scientific Hand Wave’em to explain technology in the story such as, arguably, BBC’s Doctor Who).
    • Steampunk: A popular subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk takes place in a world where steam is the dominant power source driving inventions. Because of that, the worlds tend to be vaguely Victorian in nature rather than futuristic.
  • Romance: As the name would suggest, the Romance genre covers stories where falling in love tends to be the driving force of the plot. Overall, plots tend to follow the same basic formula: Hero meets heroine (or hero meets hero, heroine meets heroine, etc.), they have some sort of attraction to each other, something keeps them apart (one finding the other annoying, conflicting opinions, evil outside parties), but in the end they end up together. Since the story tends to be character-driven, unique, engaging heroes/heroines are the force behind romance novels.
  • Horror: Another self-describing name, Horror novels are meant to scare (or at least
    cause dread) in the reader. They can join with fantasy to have the horror based around supernatural forces or monsters (such as Stephen King’s It) or stay more grounded in reality with the horror coming from potentially real threats like serial killers (such as in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs). Either way, Horror is supposed to leave the reader scared.
  • Mystery: Mystery novels are based around solving a crime or unraveling secrets throughout the story. Often times the protagonist is a detective (professional or amateur) who is picking up clues and trying to solve the crime along with the reader  (such as in the entirety of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books). Mystery novels can also be classified as Cozy Mysteries, or just “cozies,” if the tone of the book is lighter/more humorous. Cozy Mysteries tend to have female, amateur sleuths who have some sort of fun job outside their detective work (perhaps owning a novelty store or being a florist) rather than being connected to law enforcement. Cozies are meant to be “fun” mysteries rather than strongly suspenseful.
  • Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit: Women’s fiction (and it’s lighter, sometimes sillier cousin “Chick Lit”) covers novels that are specifically marketed to a female audience, dealing with women’s life experiences or problems that are highly relatable across a female audience. As women statistically tend to read more novels than men as a whole, it is a flourishing genre.
  • Thriller/Suspense: Thriller and Suspense novels in short deal with harm that is about to befall a person or group and characters who are trying to stop that from happening. For example, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels or Scott Bell’s Abel Yeager novels would classify in this genre with ex-military men trying to stop terrorists or bring down drug cartels.

Noticeably missing from the list above, perhaps, is “Young Adult” fiction. While sometimes listed as a genre in its own right, Young Adult fits into the category of age groups over genre, and thus can be added to any of the genres listed above (or any of the other genres not mentioned) such as YA Fantasy or YA contemporary fiction. When trying to decide which age group your writing falls into :

  • Children’s: Books aimed at an elementary school audience, approximately ages 7 to 10. They can be short chapter books, but still tend to be easier reads meant for those who are slowly becoming more proficient in their reading skills. Topic subjects tend to stay equivalent to a G rating in movies. 
  • Midgrade: Books aimed at a middle school audience, ages 11-13. The protagonist of
    the story tends to be around the same age as the audience, such as Harry Potter being 11 at the beginning of Book 1 of his series. Topic subjects reach PG.
  • Young Adult: An age grouping that has been expanding in recent years, with many adults also reading Young Adult (YA) these days, the target market of a YA book is high schoolers, age 14-17, often with a protagonist at the upper end of that spectrum dealing with problems high schoolers could reasonably have, such as first loves, finding a place in the world, school (in contemporary YA fiction), and anything that could be classified as “coming of age.” Topics can be more adult, but generally don’t breach PG-13 in how they’re presented.
  • New Adult: A relatively new classification, New Adult (NA) is generally aimed at ages 18-25 (with a protagonist about the same age) and covers topics relevant to college students or “young professionals.” Including novels such as 50 Shades of Gray it is also sometimes called “YA with sex” though sex is obviously not requirement.
  • Adult: Books aimed at the above 25 market.

As I’m sure we’ll see through the entirety of our upcoming “Genres (and why we write them)” series, many books span genres and age groups, so it sometimes isn’t possible to say you write only YA Romance or Adult Contemporary. Genres are a grouping tool. I’ll let the rest of my guest bloggers say if they find that a good or a bad thing over the next few Sundays.

2 thoughts on “What Genre is My Novel?

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Most dystopian novels are indeed Science Fiction. It would be possible to push it into Science Fantasy or the like depending on the particulars of the world building, but most of the well-known ones are science fiction with their “speculative” elements explained by science (1984 with its surveillance equipment; Brave New World’s pharmaceuticals; Hunger Games’s “Mutts”; etc.)

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