If you want to be a serious writer who makes a successful career by your writing, the one thing you need to understand is that building an avid reader base is imperative to success. And, if you come up with a fantasy book one year and a mystery the next, your reader base will not have a chance that grow because most people who read fantasy would not read mystery, or vice versa.
I challenge you to think of one truly successful writer who is known for several genres. What I am saying is that authors who write in one genre become more successful because they are known for their type of work.
I am not saying in any way that, if you are a beginning writer, you should focus on one genre only. I know I didn’t. I wrote fantasy, romance, sci-fi, historical, horror, and mystery throughout my life. Saying that, if you do want to become a published writer and be successful, it is inevitable that you have to settle down into one genre.
But which one?
There are so many genres and sub-genres it can be intimidating to decide which one you enjoy enough to write for years or maybe the rest of your life. The easiest answer is to pick a genre that you love reading the most. For example, if all you read is fantasy, odds are that that is the genre you were meant to write.
However, if you, like me, have read many different genres and like them for their own attributes, I want to give an overview of what genres are out there, what they contain, and what qualities in a book are most important to your own writing.
This might also be useful if you have already written a book and are still figuring out which genre it belongs in. I will be focusing on fictional genres, as non-fiction and poetry are very different.
There are seven main genres often used and published today: Mysteries, Fantasy, Historical fiction, Horror, Science fiction, Romance, and Thrillers. This does not mean some books do not crossover (for example a sci-fi/fantasy novels), but those are the basic categories.
Mysteries are those books which contain a crime and someone—perhaps a detective—who sets out to solve that crime. For this genre, the checklist of major attributes found in most of these books is as follows.
- Mysteries center around a crime which must be solved, focusing more on plot.
- Characters are second to the plot, so if you are not fond of tons of character development, this genre may be for you.
- This genre is about figuring something out, so if you have more of a mathematical, logical brain that works better with thinking things through and formulating puzzles, you will enjoy this genre. On the other hand, if you prefer more disorganized, organic work, this is not the genre for you.
Within this genre, there are many sub-genres, including cozy, hard-boiled, historical, or legal. Cozies tend to be more relaxed, so if you don’t like gore and sex, this type of mystery would work well. Hard-boiled, on the other hand, is more gritty and darker. Historical are set in another era, which pretty much means you’ll be doing a lot of research about a point in history. Similarly legal mysteries (or court procedurals) would involve a lot of research on law.
Fantasy is a genre that incorporates magic or other supernatural elements into a story. It is often set in a different world—either our own with magic or another—and is filled with creatures and concepts that do not exist in real life—like dragons. The main checklist is as follows:
- If you enjoy creating unique worlds, creatures, governments, etc., this genre is perfect for you. Unlike mysteries, there is no necessary research involve. You just can make everything up.
- If you like incorporating magic—or some uncanny abilities like magic—into stories, you should probably write fantasy.
- Fantasies are usually more focused on plots, so again, if characters aren’t for you, fantasies might be.
Fantasy has several sub-genres as well: high fantasy (set in medieval worlds), urban fantasy (set in our modern world but with a fanciful element like vampires), dark fantasy (fantasy, but dark and closer to horror), and arcanepunk (blending science fiction with fantasy).
Now, this genre is rather vague, as it can incorporate pretty much any genre. The only attribute in all historical fiction is setting (maybe in the 1940s or Ancient Rome). But here are the things you have to enjoy to do in order to write this genre.
- Lots and lots of research. It never ends! If you love reading old books or stories of exotic, old places, or learning how people lived in Versailles in the 17th century, historical fiction is for you!
- An interest in creating people from a different time. Accurate characters are often very important to this genre, so if deep, complex characters are important for you in writing, you’ll find it in this genre.
- Things are very realistic. If you prefer stories that are based in reality—both the good and horrible of it—historical dramas would be great for you.
Subgenres of historical fiction can include any of the other genres in a mix and match game. These include historical romance (history combines with romance), historical fantasy (fantasy, but with more basis in actual historical research), historical mystery, historical thriller, or family sagas (usually a series of books documenting the life of a family in a historical era).
Now we get to the creepy stuff. If you like getting and giving chills, this genre is your soulmate. I always contrast horror with mysteries. While mysteries are all about the logical processing of something unknown, horror examines the emotional reactions to the unknown. These are some of horror attributes.
- Yep, fear is the most important aspect about the horror genre. It is all about keeping the reader in the darkness—literally and metaphorically. If you like concocting terrifying scenarios and throwing characters in them, you may be a sadist. At the very least, you should be writing horror.
- Tone is very important for this genre. One of the aspects a good horror book accomplishes is a sense of fear and suspense. This is achieved by vivid description, a creepy setting, and complex, twisted characters. If you enjoy creating a darker tone, this genre is perfect.
- Do have a vivid imagination for describing and understanding darkly psychological concepts? Do you enjoy understanding what is fearful, or why things are feared? Do you like examining this in your books? If you answer yes, then pick horror.
Subgenres of horror include sci-fi horror (has elements of sci-fi, such as aliens, but more focusing on the terror the sci-fi elements illicit), gothic horror (these books are reminiscent of Victorian era horror, like Dracula or Edger Allan Poe’s writings, concerning old castles and insanity), hauntings (usually about a possession or haunted house), slashers (similar to the movie genre, these books are usually about a serial killer going around killing people), psychological horror (usually dealing with madness inside a person’s head), and humorous horror (comedy that often makes fun of horror tropes).
This genre incorporates futuristic technology and science into a story, typically an adventure. These books are often filled with “what ifs?” of technology. For example, what if we could travel at light speed? This genre is often mixed with fantasy, but sci-fi actually relies on science whereas fantasy relies on magic. Here are some common elements science fiction contains.
- If you like science, computers, technology, and researching all these things and coming up with theories of future worlds, you’ll love this genre.
- You enjoy creating worlds in the future with zombies, aliens, space travel, etc., or have created an underground bunk for the zombie apocalypse (I’m still trying to convince my mom to let me build one under our house…no luck yet). You also like putting your characters in danger in said zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, or space.
- While both characters and plot are important to this genre, the world is usually the forefront, similar to fantasy. So if you do not like extensive world building, do not pick this genre.
Some of the subgenres of this genre include sci-fi fantasy (including both science and magic into one book), post-apocalyptic (set in a future time when the world has suffered an end of human civilization), hard science fiction (this deals with more plausible scientific theories, such as a flying car instead of aliens), soft sci-fi (these focus more on characters and psychology, while technology, though present, is not forefront), space opera (action books set in space, such as Star Trek), and time travel (usually combining historical fiction with sci-fi).
This genre is all about romance between two characters. While other genres often have romance as an aspect of the plot, these books bring it to the forefront. It’s all about the love.
- These books are highly character-driven, focusing on two characters. As the “romance” suggests, the story focuses on the growth in the relationship between these two characters. If romance is your favorite part of everything you watch and read, maybe romance is where you are meant to be.
- Romance is one of the few genres of which plot, world, etc. are not extremely important. If you are someone who loves developing characters, but hates developing a world or plot, realize that you probably shouldn’t be writing because even though world and plot is second to romance, it’s still important. Come on, people!
- Most romances are happy and optimistic. Unless you are writing a tragic romance, the majority of romances contain a happy ending and a hopeful look on the future. If you are a writer who likes a happy ending, then romance in your best bet.
Subgenres of romance include: historical romance (this is historical fiction, just with more emphasis on romance), paranormal romance (centering around supernatural romance, like Twilight, or just a romance with a backdrop of ghosts), and gothic romance or romantic suspense (both these include mystery or thriller elements surrounding a romance, but gothics tend to be like those written by Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart in the 40s through 80s, whereas romantic suspense tends to be a bit darker and more modern).
This genre is similar to mystery, but has less emphasis on the logical solving of a crime and more towards the suspense and thrills surrounding chasing a criminal. In a sense, it is more the emotional side of mystery novels.
- If you love writing action scenes, such as car chase scenes or fight scenes, you’ll love this genre.
- Thrillers center around tightly woven storytelling and fast-paced drama. There is usually little reflection and more action. It plays on paranoia (like horror), fear, but focuses more on a protagonist fighting an antagonist. Also, the endings tend to be a bit happier than horrors.
- The characters tend to be darker, often dealing with addiction, strained relationships, and dark pasts. If you like creating characters like these, thrillers are great for you.
Subgenres of thrillers include conspiracy thrillers (in which the protagonist must destroy or uncover a powerful and corrupt organization), romantic thrillers (similar to romantic suspense, but more emphasis on the thriller side), and supernatural thrillers (dealing with unworldly phenomena).
Honestly, a lot of the subgenres can be similar to others, and all these genres blend together in one way or another. It’s more important to understand what you like to write the most and choosing a genre to incorporate into your writing career. Read books which fall under these genres and sub-genres, and see which most resemble your writing.
What is your favorite genre? Which do you emphasis most in your writing: plot, characters, or world-building/setting? I’d love to know and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,