Distinguishing Between Fiction Genres

Literary Agencies and Publishers use a plethora of terms to describe different categories of fiction genres. Since they don’t always use the same standard terms, this post will hopefully help clear up any confusion as it pertains to Fiction, Fantasy, and/or Science Fiction genres.

  • Speculative Fiction: A broad term that covers all the fantastical sub-genres of fiction, such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror, etc.
  • Genre Fiction: This includes horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.
  • Fantasy: A fiction novel that fuses fantasy elements into the story. They can be magic, it could be unicorns, it could be Greek gods, etc. Anything that isn’t real that is a part of the story turns it from regular fiction into fantasy.
  • High Fantasy: Contains lots of magic, swords, dragons, elves, etc. Is also usually set in its own world.
  • Low Fantasy: Staged in the medieval era, but many of the classical fantasy elements aren’t present, or are used sparingly. George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is a good example of this.
  • Sword & Sorcery: Same as High Fantasy.
  • Urban Fantasy: This takes the real world of today, and throws fantastical elements into it (such as magic, monsters, etc).
  • Epic Fantasy: Is set in its own world. This is also known as High Fantasy.
  • Steam Punk: In my experience, this has always been in a category of its own. It is a blend of fantasy and technology (of the steam-engine variety).
  • Science Fiction: This usually is set in space, or some time frame in the future. Usually incorporates technology that isn’t invented yet.
  • YA: This is young adult.
  • MG: Middle Grade.
  • Literary Fiction: Used to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature)
  • Contemporary Fiction: Includes stories that could happen to people or animals. The characters are made up, but their actions and feelings are similar to those of people we could know. These stories often take place in the present time and portray attitudes and problems of contemporary people
  • Commercial Fiction: Attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on

If there are some that I missed, please let me know in the comments below. I’ll continue to add to this list to make it as comprehensive as possible.

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Conducting Research for Your Fantasy Novel

As every author must inevitably do, whether it occurs during the writing process or when an editor is fact-checking your work, research must be conducted. I would like to proclaim that no novel in existence has ever been written without a certain level of research. However, in the fantasy genre, I think many new authors feel that the genre itself is an excuse for not researching historical facts, which is something that I believe is hurting new authors.

There are ample amounts of historical knowledge that span all of the various medieval eras and cover what war was like, of what life was like (for nobles and serfs), and what knighthood was really like. George R. R. Martin has always touted that authors should read non-fiction as much as fiction. He has a list of reading recommendations in his FAQ page under the question: “How do you research your novels?”

As far as direct research is concerned for the fantasy genre, I recently stumbled across a few excellent books. The first (The Timeline of Medieval Warfare) details the strategies of war throughout the 11th – 15th centuries, while the second (Knight) details the training, the life, the chivalry, and the honor of what it was really like to be a knight. 

Books such as these are filled with the things that can bring your novel to life. Not only do these books provide a window into the medieval eras, but they can inspire entire stories too.

Though, inspiration can be found anywhere. It was after I watched the Chinese film Red Cliff, that I realized I wanted to convey a story of strategic warfare much like the film, where two generals are trying to outwit each other in a chess-like fashion of war. But in order to do so successfully, I began to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Within the first chapter, I learned so much that I was overflowing with ideas for my characters!

Though books are not the only medium to provide research. I began using Netflix to search for medieval documentaries, and I found a great film called: Medieval Warfare: Agincourt. I learned a lot about the bow, and how far and fast an archer can shoot, what the different arrow tips are for, and how expensive it was for the king to employ archers in his army. Things such as these provide the realism that keeps your reader within their state of suspended disbelief. So be sure to use every medium at your disposal to absorb the information you need to bring realism and inspiration to your novel.

As my final caution to new writers, I’ll leave you with this: Learning so many things will make you want to insert all of it into your story, but you should know when not to say too much. The story always needs to be the focus of your writing.