Understanding the Secrets of Genre

As a writer, one of the biggest challenges I face is explaining why I write what I do. This often comes up because of what I call the secrets of genre.

I write speculative fiction, but if I sit down to read I almost always choose literary fiction. Some of that comes down to my massive reading list and working through suggestions. But it’s also a preference. I don’t enjoy writing the stuff I enjoy reading, though I do enjoy reading speculative fiction.

Explaining that to people is difficult, but I think it makes more sense if you understand the distinctions between the genres we have in modern fiction.

I’m going to break fiction down to five genres. These aren’t a “magic five” or anything like that. They’re just modern styles that I find useful enough to use as a category.

And these are:

  • Literary fiction
  • Speculative fiction (which encompasses both science fiction and fantasy)
  • Romance fiction
  • Mystery fiction
  • Young adult fiction

These are broad categories. They can overlap, of course (for instance, Altered Carbon, which is both a speculative and a mystery novel).

Secrets of Genre #1: The Central Message

Each genre has a distinctive type of central message.

Literary fiction almost always involves learning a life lesson through a character’s shoes. Sometimes it’s more abstract than others. As I Lay Dying or The Unbearable Lightness of Being are difficult to get everything from, but Grapes of Wrath is more straightforward. The depth of conceptual exploration in the story is a marker of quality.

Speculative fiction is about exploring a world with rules different from ours. This can include major cosmological differences, a glance into the future, or even just a modification to the timeline of history. The point is to create something new that raises questions about how we act in our own world (either through allegory or “what if?” questions).

Romance fiction is about watching a relationship develop. It is about how two or more characters come to understand each other.

While sometimes this involves steamy scenes with lots of action, as an outside observer I believe this is more of a stereotype than a truthful assessment of the genre. It’s really about vicarious social dynamics and relationships.

Mystery fiction focuses on uncovering secrets, usually of the past. It can be relatively benign or focus heavily on dark parts of human psychology (think about Sherlock Holmes versus Silence of the Lambs). I’d actually argue that many thrillers might fall in this category, though there are distinctive features and they are more focused on characters changing ongoing events.

Young adult fiction is an odd case because it hybridizes with other genres, but it focuses on the matter of growing up. Writers often combine this with an allegorical element in speculative fiction (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia), for instance.

Secrets of Genre #2: The Protagonist

In literary fiction, development almost always focuses on the virtues or vices of a character. Sometimes it merely looks at them and catalogs them (e.g. Notes from the Underground), especially if the character is tragic or anti-heroic.

Speculative fiction prefers development more clearly aligned with the protagonist’s competence and power.

This does not mean that there is no focus on characters’ inner traits, but an emphasis on the external is common–it is usually this part of a character that interacts with the speculative questions in the setting.

Romance fiction has protagonists that serve as vicarious stand-ins. Relationship development and the sort of personal loss and triumph that occurs during the journey to meet a “soul mate” or compatible partner serves as barriers or stepping stones to the protagonist’s happiness.

Mystery fiction provides a focus on characters who have a compulsion to know. Writers usually focus on the psychological or experiential backgrounds of these characters.

The goal is to show how they relate to us, but also how they handle the stress of the worst parts of the world.

Young adult protagonists are growing up. Their role as a protagonist is to learn and take in everything they can, but they are also thrust into situations that are often more frightening and confusing for them than the protagonists of other genres’ fiction.

Secrets of Genre #3: The Antagonist

Literary fiction has antagonists that are an antithesis of the protagonist. They are counterweights. Jay Gatsby loves so deeply that it consumes him, but Thomas Buchanan is a fiend who doesn’t display any capacity to love.

This isn’t strictly a requirement. However, the thematic development at the center of literary fiction almost always requires it.

Speculative fiction focuses on antagonists with contradicting material interests most of the time. Because it is more straightforward in the role of its protagonists, the antagonists are less abstractly conceptual.

This doesn’t mean that they are simple. In fact, they can still represent an opposing ideology. The distinction is that they have direct physical or social rivalry with the protagonist, which isn’t a requirement for literary fiction.

Romance fiction can have different antagonist profiles based on sub-genre. In some cases, the “antagonist” is the love interest. The central conflict is two compatible people coming together despite initial obstacles.

But a third-wheel or romantic rival can be the antagonist as well.

The important thing here is that the antagonist is in the way of bliss.

Mystery antagonists are great deceivers. They violate social and moral rules, usually by committing murder or grand theft.

They have set up a web of lies for the protagonist to untangle, and this forms the central conflict.

Young adult antagonists represent the challenges of youth and growth. They are often authority figures or peers whose relationship is difficult to understand, though traditional evil antagonists are possible.

The goal of the central conflict is to have protagonists figure out their proper relationships with the antagonist. Often they will not conquer the antagonist. Instead, they will learn how to live with them.

Secrets of Genre #4: The Selling Point

Literary fiction is craft-focused. This is part of the reason people get snobbish about it. However, rich storytelling is the bread and butter of speculative fiction, which often takes pride in its ability to ask questions of characters rather than create a plot that sells on thrills.

Speculative fiction is about vision. Readers want stories that offer questions–and sometimes answers–about what could be.

While speculative fiction sometimes resorts to cheap tricks, it can also delve deeply into hypothetical problems (or problems people won’t discuss openly) facing society.

Romance fiction sells on its characters. Despite often having paper-thin protagonists meant to serve as a mask for the audience to wear, it is still about the relationships people form.

A consequence of this is that romance fiction uses characters and settings that evoke an image for people, often in a way that rivals literary fiction.

Mystery fiction sells on questions and answers. Readers expect enough information to solve the mystery on their own, while also being challenged to not jump straight to the right conclusion.

Young adult fiction is vicarious. It has lessons and adventures for the reader to experience through their own perspective.

Wrapping Up

Knowing genre is key for both writers and readers. It tells us what to expect from a text.

The five genres I’ve laid out here are not complete. They are not even mutually incompatible!

But they offer a starting point, a lense to examine works through. Genre is a straightforward way to say what a story’s about without revealing its contents.

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