Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Which Genres Are Which?

In which Gillian lectures like she knows what she's talking about it (hint: she does not)

Obviously, I'm not the definitive expert on anything (except Disney lyrics, procrastination, and eating my weight in baked goods). But I've been running into some genre confusion lately among other readers, so I just figured I'd put together a post where we try to figure out, say, what makes a book sci-fi and what makes it dystopian.So what which fiction genres are which?

This is where I see most of the confusion, honestly. The problem is that most, if not all, dystopian is science fiction, but not all science fiction is dystopian. Those who classify Cinder and Scarlet as dystopian, for example, are incorrect. It's straight up science fiction.

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)Reboot (Reboot, #1)Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)All Our Yesterdays8235178

Science fiction
Sci-Fi doesn't have to be in the future, but it usually is. It can be in space or on earth or anywhere it likes. Science fiction is any kind of speculative fiction involving technology and not involving magic.

 Divergent (Divergent, #1)The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)The Giver  (The Giver Quartet, #1)Brave New WorldUglies (Uglies, #1)

Dystopians, on the other hand, require some kind of dystopian-- ie a non-optimal, failed, usually totalitarian-- vision of the future. The societies created in Matched, The Hunger Games, and Divergent are dystopian. Dystopians can also be set after post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Wasteland, Orleans, etc. Dystopian is technically under the umbrella of science fiction, but there can also be dystopian fantasy, such as Poison Study or even dystopian contemporaries.

I feel like the basic unifying characteristic of fantasy is magic. Admittedly, that definition can get a little fuzzy when you contrast it with paranormal. "Aren't werewolves and vampires magic?" you ask, confusion on your bright and perky faces. And I will say no, they're supernatural. Twilight, which has werewolves and vampires, is paranormal romance. The Mortal Instruments, which has werewolves, vampires, angels, and witches, is urban fantasy. It's a fine line, but urban fantasy tends to be set in very real-word, often (you guessed it) urban settings, and has more going on that just strange occult happenings. The stakes are bigger and the magicky stuff is more... magical. Basically, The Mortal Instruments has magic, and Twilight doesn't. YAY FOR CONFUSION!

Then we get into the fun business of categorizing the different kinds of fantasy.

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2)Graceling (Graceling Realm, #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns, #1)29868654932435

High fantasy is any fantasy that takes place in another realm entirely. Sometimes it can be accessed by our world (Narnia, Wonderland, Neverland), and sometimes it is a world entirely its own (Joya D'Arena in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Adarlan in Throne of Glass, Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, Tortall from the Alanna series, etc).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)10137823American Gods125582851551102

Low fantasy is fantasy set in or connected to our world. It's magic that is connected to our reality, like urban fantasy. The most famous example of low fantasy is Harry Potter. I mean, it might as well be high fantasy, since all us muggles can't access it or hop a train to Hogwarts or anything, but it's still located in real life Britain. Then there are the worlds like Wonderland and Narnia that can be accessed from our world. One could argue these are high fantasy, but I consider them low.

Of Beast and BeautyThe School for Good and Evil (The School for Good and Evil, #1)Ella EnchantedThe Goose Girl (The Books of Bayern, #1)Ash

Fairy tale fantasy is usually high fantasy (Ash, Goose Girl) but can be low, like in Kill Me Softly. Basically, it's any type of fantasy that evokes or emulates or is influenced by fairy tales, like Princess of the Midnight Ball or Ella Enchanted, both of which are technically high fantasy.

Undeadly (The Reaper Diaries, #1)281877090447Everneath (Everneath, #1)Antigoddess (Goddess War, #1)

Mythology fantasy, to me, usually fits in with low or high fantasy. The Percy Jackson series is low fantasy because it takes place in our world, though it's about the children of Greek gods. The Queen's Thief series, which gets most of its magic from a pantheon of gods, is high fantasy. Antigoddess is about modern day versions of the Greek Gods, while The Chaos of Stars is about Egyptian. Could also be considered supernatural in its low fantasy form.

The Beginning of EverythingAnna and the French Kiss (Anna and the French Kiss, #1)Pushing the Limits (Pushing the Limits, #1)The Fault in Our StarsMy Life Next Door

This one appears to be the easy one on the surface, but then you get books like If I Stay, where the narrator is watching events she is not capable of witnessing because she's in a coma, where there's a bit of other going on. Not enough to be classified as supernatural, but still. How I understand it is contemporary YA takes place in our time and without unrealistic elements. Contemporary romance, thriller, horror, mystery, etc. can all fall under here.


All genres can be mystery, and all good books have some mystery to them. But mystery as a genre is usually a direct whodunit, where the main object of the plot is to solve a case.

 Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Between, #1)The Hallowed Ones (The Hallowed Ones, #1)Ten 1204377112665819


Mind Games (Mind Games, #1)Dangerous Girls1062482812013031Don't Turn Around (PERSEF0NE, #1)

Thrillers are action-packed, fast-paced adrenaline balls in which a hero or heroine must thwart evil plans or prevent some kind of impending disaster. These can be political or supernatural or science-fiction. Think Jason Bourne. There are spy thrillers, psychological thrillers, and even legal thrillers, which always seemed like an oxymoron to me, because what's less thrilling than a lawyer? No offense, lawyers.

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)Twilight (Twilight, #1)Beautiful Creatures (Caster Chronicles, #1)Pivot Point (Pivot Point, #1)The Immortal Rules (Blood of Eden, #1)

Supernatural/Paranormal (romance or not)
Is there a difference between supernatural and paranormal? This is where things get reeeeeally tricky.
 I really didn't know how to differentiate these (and in my head, I DON'T differentiate them. I use the terms interchangeably, since there is such a tremendous amount of overlap), so here's what Goodreads has to say: 

Paranormal books involve unusual experiences that lack a scientific explanation. Some popular subjects in paranormal books are supernatural creatures, ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, and psychics. A subgenre of paranormal books and of romances is paranormal romance. These books focus mainly on the romantic relationships with a background theme of vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, time travel, fantastical beings, and psychic abilities. 

The supernatural genre is fiction about witches, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, shape shifters, demons, angels, or anything else in the paranormal or otherworldly realm. A sub-category is "supernatural-romance" in which the plot revolves around the main female character and the romance storyline. 

 Basically, something funky and unexplainable is goin' on. Why is Harry Potter not considered supernatural/paranormal, if it's about witches and it's got werewolves and other otherwordly things? It's hard to say definitively why, but it's probably because of the complexity of the world-building, the epic plot structure, and the high stakes, which lodge it pretty comfortably in fantasy.

 A Walk to RememberPride and PrejudicePerfect Chemistry (Perfect Chemistry, #1)Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget Jones, #1)Breathe (Sea Breeze, #1)

Two people fall in love. Lots of other genres will have romance incorporated into them, but in the romance genre, the kissy, lovey, coupley stuff is the primary thrust of the plot. In paranormal romance, there are supernatural shenanigans afoot, but the plot is still oriented around will-they-won't-they-kiss-kiss-kiss (Twilight). Basically, the fun stuff.

It can be chick-lit, serious weepy Nicholas Sparks, it can be paranormal, it can be fantasy, it can be a classic, it can be historical, it can be anything. As long as it's about the kissing.

 Code Name VerityOut of the EasyThe Book ThiefThe Other Boleyn Girl (The Tudor Court, #2)The Help

 Thankfully, historical fiction is VERY EASY to categorize. If it's set in the past, it's historical! Yay! If it's set in an imagined past that didn't really happen, it's alternative history (Leviathan). If it incorporates steampunk, its... you guessed it: steampunk (Soulless). If it's a romance, Regency or otherwise, it's historical romance (Venom, the Luxe series). If there are supernatural shenanigans, it's historical paranormal (Something Strange and Deadly). If there's magical mayhem, it's historical fantasy (the Clockwork Angel series, Grave Mercy).

And last but not least, what exactly are Young Adult and New Adult? I can tell you what they aren't. These are not genres. They are categories. They are age groups. They imply the age of the character more than the age of the reader, though they also designate the intended reader. You can find books of every genre listed above within those two categories. Well, possibly not NA, just by dint of it being newer and there not being a lot out there. But obvious there's YA fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, contemporary, historical, you name it. All these genres live comfortably under the readership heading of YA.

Whew. I'm now exhausted, and that was a lot of technical stuff, and I may or may not be right about all of it. You might have different opinions about what constitutes what genre, particularly in the more nebulous designations, like paranormal. Do you agree with me on the way I differentiate between genres? In which ways am I, or you, or people you know, genre-confused? Was this helpful to you?


  1. Dude, you saved my life a little. I love this post!!! See, fantasy is VERY confusing to me. I usually only choose between high fantasy and urban fantasy (is Harry Potter urban fantasy or just low fantasy?), and then paranormal and urban fantasy... And then everything gets mixed up and my brain is like, WHATEVER DUDE THEY'RE ALL THE SAME, and yeah... I should probably go edit all my reviews now *whistles*

  2. Dude, you saved my life a little. I love this post!!! See, fantasy is VERY confusing to me. I usually only choose between high fantasy and urban fantasy (is Harry Potter urban fantasy or just low fantasy?), and then paranormal and urban fantasy... And then everything gets mixed up and my brain is like, WHATEVER DUDE THEY'RE ALL THE SAME, and yeah... I should probably go edit all my reviews now *whistles*

  3. This post is super great! I'm going to share it on Twitter so others can check it out. :)

  4. I also heard a definition that there is Epic Fantasy (generally the stereotypical fantasy elements that usually involve some quest) and High Fantasy (which usually involves the ruling class of a fantasy world). I'm not sure that it's RIGHT, but it works, too.

    This was a great explanation, though. And THANK YOU for the "New Adult/Young Adult are not genres" clarification!!

  5. I'm kind of in love with this posts. Which kills me, because you know, you wrote it. :P

  6. I think I do agree with you and you've actually clarifyed a pair of things I wasn't too sure about, and the way you explained it makes a lot of sense! Great post!

  7. I'm so glad you pointed out that YA and NA are categories and not genres. Personally, I have a hard time placing stories with fringe science and parallel universes. Take Pivot Point, for example. I don't necessarily see it as paranormal, but I have no idea what else to call it.

    Another thing is zombies. They're not exactly paranormal creatures, so I usually lump them all together as "apocalyptic", even though I'm not even sure if that's a genre.

    I was confused about Cinder, because there is some world rearrangement going in, but there are no evil governments, so it's indeed not a true dystopian. Ah, confusing classification is confusing.

    Keep spreading the word, Gillian. People (like me) need it.

  8. I love this post! (And not just for the gif from Princess Bride because 75% of male patrons ask me that when I recommend a book) You picked great examples and explained the murky stuff well. So many good books represented! The paragraph about YA vs. NA was awesome because people really don't get that. The media is so inaccurate in its portrayal of YA and MG books that it's really tough to have actual conversations about them with adults who don't read YA.

  9. Awesome post! The categories still confuse me a bit but after reading this very informative post, I know a lot more about them than I did before reading this post. You explained everything so well.

  10. And there's also the subset of PORTAL fantasy, which I guess is probably part of low fantasy. So many... just... ALL THE GENRES. ALL OF THEM.

  11. I found this very helpful! I also get confused with Dystopian/ Sci Fi.. Thanks for the post!

  12. Great post. I found it very helpful. Thank you!

  13. This post will forever be bookmarked. Thank you for spending time to write this.

    I find it hard with the high and low fantasy and the way you defined it was spectacular.

    I do see the dystopian/Sci-Fi mixed up a lot mainly because there are so many new books out that fit into the categories.


  14. Oh my goodness, I'm glad you wrote this! The thing that always gets me are the mix-ups between dystopians and post-apocalyptic books. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. Sometimes they can overlap, but not always, and the terms are not interchangeable. I admit I probably contribute to this problem, though, because I lump dystopian/post-apoc/utopians into one shelf on GoodReads, but that's because people shopping for a particular kind of book probably don't mind reading across the other genres.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  15. I am CONSTANTLY getting dystopian/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic type genres mixed up despite them being my favorite genre. This is an awesome guide that I fully agree with. Will definitely be referring back to this when I can't get them all straight (which is often). :)

  16. I love everything about this post! Except I don't know if I'd classify DEVIL as a mystery. I'd say it's more a gothic horror with paranormal leanings but that's just me and my head. I normally don't have problems with genres I just get so angry at people who classify everything as dystopian if it takes place in the future.

  17. Oh wow, this is SO helpful. Labeling a book can be a horror, especially when it comes to all the subgenres in fantasy.

  18. Lovely post. All the people (mostly on Goodreads) that mix up dystopian with regular old sci-fi annoy me so much. Though I would argue that Across the Universe is semi-dystopian (one dude with complete authority over a sedated populace?). Cinder I can also kind of understand the dystopian opinion, at least for the titular character, given how little rights the cyborg types have (Scarlet is def. not dystopian though, which probably disqualifies the series).

  19. The only thing I'd add is that 99.9% of the time romance has a happy ending. Excellent post!

  20. While I agree with your distinction between Sci Fi and Dystopian, I actually disagree with you about Cinder and Scarlet. I think the way that Cyborgs are treated is wrong, in the same way The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian story in which the way women are treated is wrong. In both cases, society was intended to be better as a whole, but I find the way things actually worked out unacceptable.

    1. While you're right that there is some discrimination against cyborgs in Cinder in particular, that doesn't mean that the futuristic world in those books is dystopian. Just because there are some elements that aren't perfect, doesn't mean the whole society is dystopian. The Handmaid's Tale centers around an imperfect version of society; Cinder, really, does not. The United States has some terrible laws against minorities and women and people of lower income, but it's not a dystopian society. Of course, it's open to interpretation in regards to Cinder, but you'll find that the general consensus is that it's NOT dystopian. Luna, however-- things are pretty dystopian up there.

  21. Ooh this is super helpful. I would also throw Magical Realism in there - which of course is similar to contemporary but with a wee bit of magical elements thrown in - like with Every Day by David Levithan.

  22. Great and very helpful post! I had actually been wondering about this lately so it was nice to get things cleared up. Thank you :)

  23. "I'm not the definitive expert on anything (except Disney lyrics, procrastination, and eating my weight in baked goods" <- Does one really need more in life than this?

    Bahaha, I like how you call people out as wrong. I didn't really think Cinder was dystopian. However, I basically don't know what that means anymore tbh. Like, Reboot? That society was never utopian. I do not understand. The 5th Wave is definitely post-apocalyptic. All Our Yesterdays strikes me as just sci-fi. I guess Across the Universe is both. Divergent I'd call for of a dystopian fantasy, bc lolz that world building.

    I wouldn't say fantasy is magic necessarily. I think it's really anything that follows different natural laws than our world does. Or "what if" scenarios like alternative histories.

    The other thing with contemporary is WHEN is contemporary. Like, is a book set in 2000 still a contemporary or is that historical fiction? Also, depending on how you define it, Jane Austen's novels are contemporaries, because they WERE written in roughly the time they were set. It's confusing and weird. I prefer the term realistic fiction, but that's complex too, because it can cover historicals.

    BASICALLY, none of these labels mean anything to me anymore. I just put down what the community thinks usually, unless it's so wrong that I cannot.



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