The 17 Most Popular Genres In Fiction - And Why They Matter


What Is Genre?

Genre is a style or category of art, music, or literature. As an author, genre controls what you write and how you write it. It describes the style and focus of the novel you write. It is the blueprint for different types of stories. 

There are general rules to follow, for example, manuscript length, character types, settings, themes, and plots. For instance, certain settings suit specific genres. These vary in type, details, intensity, and length of description. 

There are often sub-genres within genres, for example, a fantasy story with sinister, frightening elements would belong to the dark fantasy sub-genre.

Why Does It Matter?

Genres are great because they fulfil reader expectations. We buy certain books because we have enjoyed similar stories in the past. Reading these novels gives us a sense of belonging, of sitting down with an old friend and knowing we're on familiar ground. There is also a camaraderie between readers who follow the same genres.

Writers can use this to their advantage because their boundaries are models on which to base stories. Genres reflect trends in society and they evolve when writers push the boundaries. Readers ultimately decide if the experiment has worked by buying these books. 

The most important part of genre fiction, though, is that it fulfils our human need for good old-fashioned storytelling. We sometimes need stories we can rely on to blunt the harsh realities of life.

17 Popular Fictional Genres 
  1. Romance. These stories are about a romantic relationship between two people. They are characterised by sensual tension, desire, and idealism. The author keeps the two apart for most of the novel, but they do eventually end up together.  There are many sub-genres, including paranormal, historical, contemporary, category, fantasy, and gothic. 
  2. Action Adventure. Any story that puts the protagonist in physical danger, characterised by thrilling near misses, and courageous and daring feats, belongs to this genre. It is fast paced, the tension mounting as the clock ticks. There is always a climax that offers the reader some relief. 
  3. Science Fiction. This genre incorporates any story set in the future, the past, or other dimensions. The story features scientific ideas and advanced technological concepts. Writers must be prepared to spend time building new worlds. The setting should define the plot. There are many science fiction sub-genres.
  4. Fantasy. These stories deal with kingdoms as opposed to sci-fi, which deals with universes. Writers must spend plenty of time on world building. Myths, otherworldly magic-based concepts, and ideas characterise these books. They frequently take cues from historical settings like The Dark Ages. There are also plenty of sub-genres here.
  5. Speculative Fiction. These stories are created in worlds unlike our real world in certain important ways. This genre usually overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.
  6. Suspense/Thriller. A character in jeopardy dominates these stories. This genre involves pursuit and escape. There are one or more ‘dark’ characters that the protagonist must escape from, fight against, or best in the story. The threats to the protagonist can be physical or psychological, or both. The setting is integral to the plot. A Techno Thriller is a sub-genre. 
  7. Young Adult. Young Adult (YA) books are written, published, and marketed to adolescents and young adults. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18, but adults also read these books. These are generally coming-of-age stories, and often cross into the fantasy and science fiction genres. YA novels feature diverse protagonists facing changes and challenges. This genre has become more popular with the success of novels like The Hunger Games, Twilight, and The Fault in our Stars
  8. New Adult. New Adult (NA) books feature college, rather than school-aged, characters and plotlines. It is the next age-category up from YA. It explores the challenges and uncertainties of leaving home and living independently for the first time. Many NA books focus on sex, blurring the boundary between romance and erotica. 
  9. Horror/Paranormal/Ghost. These are high-pitched scary stories involving pursuit and escape. The protagonist must overcome supernatural or demonic beings. Occult is a sub-genre that always uses satanic-type antagonists. 
  10. Mystery/Crime. These are also known as ‘whodunits’. The central issue is a question that must be answered, an identity revealed, a crime solved. This novel is characterised by clues leading to rising tension as the answer to the mystery is approached. There are many sub-genres in this category.
  11. Police Procedurals are mysteries that involve a police officer or detective solving the crime. The emphasis rests heavily on technological or forensic aspects of police work, sorting and collecting evidence, as well as the legal aspects of criminology. 
  12. Historical. These fictional stories take place against factual historical backdrops. Important historical figures are portrayed as fictional characters. Historical Romance is a sub-genre that involves a conflicted love relationship in a factual historical setting. 
  13. Westerns. These books are specifically set in the old American West. Plotlines include survival, romance, and adventures with characters of the time, for example, cowboys, frontiersmen, Indians, mountain men, and miners. 
  14. Family Saga. This genre is about on-going stories of two or more generations of a family. Plots revolve around things like businesses, acquisition, properties, adventures, and family curses. By their nature, these are primarily historical, often bringing the resolution in contemporary settings. 
  15. Women’s Fiction.  These plot lines are characterised by female central characters who face challenges, difficulties, and crises that have a direct relationship to gender.  This is inclusive of woman’s conflict with man, though not limited to that. It can include conflict with things such as the economy, family, society, art, politics, and religion. 
  16. Magic Realism. Magical events are part of ordinary life in this genre. The characters do not see them as abnormal or unusual. They are a natural part of the story. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a classic in this genre.
  17. Literary Fiction. This genre focuses on the human condition and it is more concerned with the inner lives of characters and themes than plot. Literary fiction is difficult to sell and continues to decline in popularity.

Genre Changes

With the advent of self-publishing and ebooks, these genre guidelines have become less strict. This is because a publisher does not have to produce thousands of physical copies of the book. However, if you want to publish traditionally, you should still consider genre requirements. 

How To Become Generic 

Isolate your target market, research it, and adapt your story if necessary. Look in bookshops – they are generic, sorting books into categories to make it easier for their busy readers to choose and buy whatever will guarantee them a good read. 

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

Writing prompts are an excellent way to exercise the writing muscle. If you want to receive a free daily prompt from us, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za with the word DAILY PROMPT in the subject line. We will add you to our mailing list. 

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 by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Pinterest,  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Google+,  LinkedIn, and  Twitter.

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14 responses
This is wonderful and so easy to read. I wish there were more sub-genres and I guess there are, but it would be weird to list them, like steampunk, vintage, and Western could be in every category except maybe sci-fi. LOL! ~Tam Francis~ www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com
I'm glad you enjoyed it, Tam. Yes, I could have listed many sub-genres, but it would have been overwhelming. Thank you for the feedback.
Amanda, thanks for the concise but telling descriptions. One question I have is about overlapping genres. Above, there are aspects of the Action Adventure genre that seem to overlap with the Thriller genre. It seems to me many stories have components of multiple genres and I assume you pick the one that fits best. Great article!
Thank you, Robert. You are correct. Genres do bleed into each other, but it's impossible to categorise everything perfectly. When we teach our courses, we talk about crossing genres. In point 5, I talk about how genres overlap, and they all do to some extent. You might find this article helpful. It deals with children's fiction - which is an age group - not a genre, and it shows how many genres and grey areas one can find in this age group. http://imc.library.appstate.edu/bibliographies/... I hope this helps.
Maybe this is just the difference between South Africa and North America, but here we use "speculative fiction" to encompass both Science Fiction and Fantasy and all their subgenres. So in the US and Canada we wouldn't say that speculative overlaps SciFi or Fantasy. We'd say the set SciFi and the set Fantasy are both subsets of the set Speculative Fiction. For more info: http://whatisspecfic.com/
Kristen, I do not think it is accepted as a fact anywhere in the world. There are many critics and writers who try to use speculative fiction as a blanket term, but there are just as many who reject it. 'Margaret Atwood is one of these writers, and her use of the term "speculative fiction" generates strong reactions from her own readers as well as from science fiction readers in general. Atwood stresses the idea of speculative fiction is different from science fiction, for she sees science fiction as "filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that." Atwood seems to view science fiction as inferior to speculative fiction in that science fiction seeks only to entertain, whereas speculative fiction attempts to make the reader rethink his or her own world based on the experiences described the novel. ' http://www.gradesaver.com/the-handmaids-tale/st... I have included more links about how these genres are seen to differ below: http://annieneugebauer.com/2014/03/24/what-is-s... https://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm - This says that speculative fiction is a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy http://io9.gizmodo.com/5650396/margaret-atwood-...
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