The Art of Genres

Genres are the answer to our nagging need to categorize everything. Of course, not everything is easily categorized. But let’s have a look at how it could work for novels.

What are genres?

When humanity was young, there were only stories told around caves and campfires. However, as we exited our caves and started forming societies, our needs evolved. Putting a story in a category helps with preventing false expectations. Imagine you go visit a play, thinking it a comedy. Then, when you sit down and it starts, it turns out, it’s a tragedy. That’s not going to make for a great evening out.

So, genres were introduced as far back as ancient Greek times. Maybe even earlier. Genres put stories into different categories to help readers/listeners/viewers know what they are getting into. They also help create guidelines and help to write well for certain genres — with the caveat that there is no proper formula for writing a story.

That does lead to the question: how do we differentiate categories?

Genres FTW

To create a category, you need to differentiate between works. That means you need to look at shared, and non-shared characteristics. That quickly brings you to stylistic categories. That still leaves lots of room for interpretation, though.

You can differentiate on perspective (first-person, third-person, etc.). Those are valid categories, but too broad to be useful. You can also differentiate on setting, theme, type of story, etc. As a handhold for that, I like the MICE quotient, coined by Orson Scott Card. He differentiates Milieu (setting), Ideas, Characters, and Events. That’s not to say Card meant his MICE quotient to be used this way, but I’m doing it anyway.

Now, I won’t give an exhaustive list, go look at Wikipedia for that. I just want to share some of the ways you can look at this.

Genres by Setting

Some stories are set in the current world (contemporary fiction), while others feature strange fantastical worlds (fantasy), or a space-faring future (science fiction). You could also put a story in historical China, or Ancient Greece. Some are set in our world, but with magical elements (magical realism).

Setting allows you to differentiate based on those different worlds. These different settings have repercussions for the stories. Fantasy stories are usually long. That is not surprising. Those stories have to explain an entire world to the reader. That’s actually part of the fun, because those worlds say something about our own.

The same goes for science fiction, if to a lesser extent, because magic requires more explanation than a future based on extrapolating current-day science. On a side note, that’s one of the reasons why Star Wars is in some ways more fantasy than science fiction.

A historical setting allows you as a reader to explore the past, and learn something about our forebearers. And so on, and so forth.

Genres by Idea

Some stories are about ideas. They try to convey a way of looking at the world, or life, or anything really.

Allegories tell a story about one thing, but they are stand-ins for other things, often political. (Post-)apocalyptic stories say something about what awaits us humans if the worst happens.

Then there are the stories about wars, usually meant to teach us something about the horrors of war in general, like Slaughterhouse Five, for example.

With idea stories you can go a lot of ways, but the basis is always an idea, or theme, which is explored in the story.

Genres by Character

I already mentioned comedies and tragedies. A tragedy is a pretty specific concept from the Ancient Greek world, and it had to do with a very specific character arc.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of character arcs: positive (the character grows), negative (the character fails), and the no-arc (the character stays the same).

Most superhero origin stories fall in the positive arc stories, while tragedies such a End of Days fall in the negative arc spectrum. James Bond is the character who doesn’t change, although recent movies have tried to push him into positive growth arcs (a mistake, perhaps, or a fresh new take on the movie series, time will tell).

There is much more to explore here, character studies abound. A look into the mind of a serial killer, or a story about a paranoid schizophrenic like A Beautiful Mind. Categorizing them this way, though, is not a simple task.

Genres by Events

The first thing to spring to my mind is the horror genre. Horror is not so much a setting, or an idea, and it is not about certain character arcs. No, horror is about gruesome (horrible) events.

Another category here is the spy thriller, which also hinge on very specific events, usually propelling a hero into a dangerous situation.

You could put war stories here as well, especially those dealing with very specific historical events. I’ve also read the Demetrios Askiates trilogy about the first crusade, which deals with some very specific historical events. Although, again, you could file this under the ‘historical fiction’ setting genre as well.

Okay, so now what?

Categorizing stories is always a good exercise. It helps you form ideas about what you like and what you don’t like.

I myself, for example, am a fan of fantasy and science fiction, but not so much of hard science fiction, or magical realism. I have found a growing love for urban fantasy, and have always enjoyed space operas. Learning what you like really helps get joy from reading — or watching movies, or listening to music.

However, one thing I must stress, do not confuse categorization by genre with categorization by quality. There is this hard-to-root-out idea that certain works transcend genres and fall in the so called ‘literary fiction’ category. A kind of quality metric regarding the value for the human race as a whole. I personally think this elitist and snobby, but that’s me.

This idea of literary fiction becomes problematic when people confuse it with genres. There are numerous people who will say ‘fantasy is not literary fiction’, and that is just comparing apples and oranges. The Dutch school system is rife with this madness, meaning children are forced to abandon whole genres because they are not ‘literary’ enough. Fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers should be shunned, instead children should read ‘proper’ contemporary stories about nasty people, stories about World War II, or people coming to grips with religion.

Personally, I hated all those genres, and I have touched only a handful of Dutch books since my high school graduation. Because high school forced them on me, but also because those are the only genres that seem to thrive here. Interestingly, young people are more and more turning away from books and turning to movies. And guess what popular genres still exist there?

Don’t mistake genre for quality.


Go read, be merry, and figure out what you like.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands