A list of fiction categories, genres and sub-genres

Jumble of colorful letters on black background.

A novel is a novel is a novel . . . Think so? In my previous post I defined “genre fiction” and began to differentiate between “popular” or “commercial” genre novels and those classified as “mainstream” or “literary” fiction (the subject of my next post). I also discussed the usefulness of such a system of classification. Believe it or not, more than one hundred fiction categories have been identified. Even this list isn’t all-inclusive. Take a look at the long list below and see what you think. 

List of Fiction Categories, Genres and Sub-genres:

Action-adventure. Action is the plot focus. May be man-against-nature, airplane crash, terrorists, spies, mercenaries . . .  Often set in isolated and rugged or exotic locations.

Biographical Novel. Central characters are actual historical figures and their true stories are creatively told through novelistic structure, dialogue, drama and mood.

Coming-of-age (Gr: Bildungsroman). The story’s focus is a character’s psychological and moral development from youth to adulthood. The emphasis is on character change and arriving at successful completion of developmental steps in psychological terms.

Ethnic Fiction. Central characters are African-American, Native American, Asian-American, Italian-American, Jewish, Amish or some other ethnic or specific cultural group. Usually, the protagonist experiences conflict between his/her ethnic heritage and mainstream American culture.

Fictional Biography. Life stories of real people are imaginatively told through fictional scenes and dialogue. These novels are fiction, not historical biographies.

Gothic. A fiction category that dates back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Contemporary gothic novels usually feature beautiful, young female heroines and handsome heros in richly described atmospheric, historical settings and use mystery, danger or evil (natural or supernatural), a sense of foreboding, and romance to heighten readers’ emotional experience.

Historical Fiction. While the story is set in a recognizable historical period and the setting may be authentic, the characters are fictional. They may be people leading ordinary, everyday lives, or be involved in political or cultural events of the times. Historical fiction may be blended with other genres, such as romance, mystery, thriller, or other sub-genres.

Horror. Stories that are particularly gruesome and produce the strongest degrees of fear or dread, particularly fear of the unknown or horrors beyond human imagination.

  • Child in Peril: A child is threatened, abducted or persecuted by dark forces.
  • Comic Horror: These stories may be horror spoofs or involve a mix of gore and dark humor.
  • Creepy Kids: In these novels, children, under the influence of dark forces, threaten adults.
  • Dark Fantasy: These novels involve supernatural elements and fantasy.
  • Dark Mystery/Noir: A horror tale involving detectives against the crime underworld in big cities.
  • Erotic Vampire: These graphic and violent stories combine sex and vampires.
  • Fabulist: Similar to ancient fables, this fiction involves moral lessons conveyed through tales that anthropomorphize animals, objects, or natural forces.
  • Gothic: Set in the Middle Ages, the mood of these stories is dark, the atmosphere one of decay and evil, with scenes involving persecution and imprisonment.
  • Hauntings: Stories that involve demonic possession, ghosts or poltergeists haunting houses or other settings.
  • Magical Realism: In these novels, a genre popular in Latin-American literature, amazing creatures or forces enter into normal, everyday environments.
  • Psychological: The monster in these stories is a mentally disturbed individual and the horror derives from his or her insanity rather than supernatural forces.
  • Quiet Horror: The horror in these stories is more subtly portrayed through atmosphere and mood rather than graphic details.
  • Religious: Such classics as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost are the inspirations for these horror tales, rich in religious symbolism and mythology.
  • Science-Fiction Horror: SF with a darker, more violent twist, often revolving around alien invasions, mad scientists, or experiments gone wrong.
  • Splatter: a fairly new, extreme style of horror that cuts right to the gore.
  • Supernatural Menace: Supernatural threats from such creatures as vampires, werewolves, ghosts and demons pervade these horror stories.
  • Technology: In these horror stories, computers, genetic engineering, or some other technology is the monstrous threat.
  • Weird Tales: Like those in the magazine called Weird Tales, these stories involve fear brought about by the unexplained, events that are uncanny and strange, similar to the traditional tales in the television program Twilight Zone.
  • Zombie: These stories involve threats from people who have returned from the dead.

Juvenile Fiction. The writing audience: ages two to sixteen. Subject matter, characterization, language and format are designed for the targeted readership ages. Human relationships and suspense are common themes. Children’s books are generally categorized as: (1) picture and storybooks (ages 2-9); (2) easy-to-read books (ages 7-9); “middle-age” or “middle-grade” books (ages 8-12); and young adult books (ages 12-16).

Mystery. Novels in which one or more aspects of the story are not revealed or explained until the end and main characters must meet and overcome physical and psychological challenges to arrive at their goals. Mystery sub-genres include:

  • Classic Mystery. (Who-done-it) A crime is solved by a detective. POV is detective’s, and readers know no more or less than he or she does; all clues to solving the mystery are known by the readers.
  • Amateur Detective. Protagonist may or may not be a professional detective, but does have a professional association of some kind creating routine involvement in criminal cases and facilitating her or his solving of a crime.
  • Cozy Mystery. An amateur detective, often female and quirky (may also be an eccentric professor or minister), solves a crime, usually murder, often identifying the culprit and explaining the details in a final, summary scene.These stories have less violence than other mystery categories.
  • Comic (Bumbling Detective). The detective in these mysteries is unskilled but, despite his or her bumbling, manages to solve the crime anyway.
  • Private Detective. These novels feature tough male or female private detectives who are usually licensed but “fringe” operators in frequent conflict with official law enforcement. Stories tend to involve violence.
  • Police Procedural. Main characters, usually cops (often partners), are portrayed realistically and basis for plots and action are well-researched. Conflicts are often present, perhaps between partners or between a cop and superiors, or arising from jurisdictional disputes or one or two “bad apple” cops in a good department.
  • Historical Mystery. Can be any category of mystery which emphasizes a historical setting, well-researched, at the same time that the plot remains primary in keeping with the type of mystery.
  • Suspense/Thriller. Stories involve more complex plots–such as, corporate or computer crimes, economic or ecological threats, serial killers, pedophiles, kidnappers or rapists–than standard murder mysteries and global scenarios than standard murder mysteries. They often involve multiple points of view and protagonists other than the police or detectives.
  • Espionage. While stories about spies previously most often were set during the previous World Wars and the Cold War, these novels now are frequently about political instability in third-world countries or computer espionage.
  • Medical Thriller. These novels may be about the criminal misuse of medical technology or pharmaceuticals, or a major medical threat such as a dangerous disease outbreak.
  • Courtroom Drama. Taking place primarily in the courtroom, the action in these novels generally involves a defensive attorney working to prove the innocence of the accused.
  • Woman in Jeopardy. On her own, the female protagonist uses her wits to overcome a threat to herself or her family.
  • Forensic: The setting and scientific procedures of a forensics lab is the place where crimes are solved in these novels.
  • Heists and Capers: These mysteries are told through the eyes of the criminals.
  • Historical: These mystery novels are set in particular historical settings and periods.
  • Inverted: Readers already know who the culprit is in these mysteries, and the suspenseful story unfolds as the detective works to solve the crime.
  • Locked Room: A seemingly impossible crime is in the end rationally explained and solved.  
  • Psychological Suspense: These novels focus on the psychological motivations of the criminals.
  • Romantic: The characters who solve the crime fall in love in these mysteries.

Non-fiction Novel. While the people and events are real and presented as such, the true story is written in the form of a novel, unifying disparate details and scattered moments in a meaningful, often symbolic way.

Psychological Novel. The story deals with the character’s psychological and emotional features and states, focusing on why something occurred rather than only what occurred.

Roman a Clef. (Fr: “novel with a key”) In these novels, real people and events are disguised as fiction.

Romantic Novel (or, Romance). In romance novels, a woman meets a man and falls in love, but obstacles to their relationship must then be overcome before they can be together. An element of pervasive sexual tension between the man and the woman pervades the mood of the story, often told in the female’s point of view, and heightens the reader’s interest. Characters and scenes must be believable. Romance sub-genres include:

  • Historical. Stories are set in any historical period the writer chooses, and must be well-researched. Historical romance categories may include, for example: Gothic. Involve suspense and the supernatural, are moody and dark; Historical Fantasy. Incorporate magic, often medieval; Early American. Set in the Wild West, during the American Revolution or Civil War; Native American. At least one Native American main character, and a focus on cultural conflict is common; Regency. Set in Regency period (1811-1820) in England.
  • Category (or, Series). Novels or novellas published “in lines” by individual publishing houses, each having specific requirements for story, sexual content, and word count.
  • Single-title Contemporary. Longer romance novels with characters and plots that do not conform to the specific conventions of other romance sub-genres.
  • Erotica. Focus is on sex, with often graphic descriptions.
  • Glitz (or, Glamour). Stories usually feature characters who are rich and lead glamorous lifestyles, often are involved in the high-powered worlds of finance, Hollywood, fashion/modeling, or the music industry, and live in exotic settings around the world or exciting cities, such as New York, London, or Paris.
  • Romantic Comedy. The author’s narrative voice or the heroine’s has a strong comedic premise.
  • Romantic Suspense. A romance novel that includes a mystery or psychological thriller as a subplot.
  • Paranormal Romance. These cross-genre novels involve both romance and either science-fiction/fantasy or the paranormal. For example:Time Travel. One or more of the characters travels through time and finds love; Science Fiction/Futuristic. Story may take place some time in the future, and be set in a parallel universe or imaginary world; Contemporary Fantasy. May include, for example, extraterrestrial, zombie, ghost or vampire stories.
  • Multicultural Romances. Most often these stories, whether contemporary or historical, are about African-American couples, but they can feature relationships between individuals of other ethnic or specific cultural groups as well.
  • Christian. These novels about focus on relationships in a context of spiritual values, emphasizing faith in God and offering an inspirational message through the story.

Science Fiction/Fantasy. In science fiction novels, which usually take place in the future, conflict arises out of scientific and technological concepts based on actual science. The science in the novels is extrapolated and hypothesized from research; accuracy and consistency are important. Good research is essential. Though similar to science fiction in many ways, in fantasy novels, the stories, which usually take place in the future, feature magic, magical beings, or the mythological or neo-mythological and are not derived from scientific fact.

  • Alternate History:  These novels use a profound “what if” speculative premise to tell the story of actual events in history.
  • Arthurian Fantasy: The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is at the center of these fantasy novels.
  • Bangsian Fantasy: The “afterlives” of famous people are subjects of speculation in these novels.
  • Biopunk: Drawing from post-modernism, film noir, and Japanese animation, these stories feature a nihilistic, underground world steeped in biotechnology.
  • Comic: These novels spoof the normal conventions of science fiction/fantasy novels, or use science fiction or fantasy to spoof conventional society.
  • Cyberpunk: Tough individuals battle against conformity and inclusion in a high-tech, computer-transformed society not far in the future.
  • Dark Fantasy: The horrific dark side of magic is central to these more violent novels.
  • Dystopian: A bleak future world is the focus of these stories.
  • Erotic: Sexuality is a central element in these science fiction and fantasy novels.
  • Game-Related Fantasy: Role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons are the basis for these stories of good and evil.
  • Hard Science Fiction: Today’s science is logically portrayed in stories taking place in the future.
  • Heroic Fantasy: Heroic war stories are told through fantasy.
  • High/Epic Fantasy: Themes involve large questions of good versus evil and the fate of nations or a people, and may feature a young hero rising to the challenge to ward off the threat.
  • Mundane Science Fiction: Actual scientific knowledge is the basis for these fanciful science fiction stories involving such things as wormholes and faster-than-light travel.
  • Military Science Fiction: The military technology and tactics of today are projected into future times.
  • Mystery Science Fiction: These novels involve adding science fiction elements to classic or other mystery genre stories.
  • Mythic Fiction: The stories are based on classical mythology, legends or fairy-tales.
  • New Age: a category of speculative fiction that deals with Occult subjects are the focus of these kinds of speculative fiction. Stories may feature such things as mysticism, psychic phenomena, spiritual healing, astrology or UFOs.
  • Post-Apocalyptic: A post-apocalyptic struggle for survival is the focus of these stories.
  • Romance: Romance is a central element of this kind of speculative fiction.
  • Religious: For the heroes of these stories, religion and theological ideas are vital influences in their lives. .
  • Social Science Fiction: These novels focus on how individuals interact with their environments, including social satire.
  • Soft Science Fiction: The social sciences, such as psychology, sociology and anthropology, are the basis for these stories.
  • Space Opera: Traditional action-packed and larger-than-life good guy/bad guy confrontations are featured in these stories.
  • Spy-Fi: Espionage, commonly involving lots of high-tech gadgets, is central to these science fiction stories.
  • Steampunk: History is alternatively told in these tales when today’s technology becomes accessible to characters in Victorian England.
  • Superheroes: The heroes and heroines of these stories have superhuman strength and abilities.
  • Sword and Sorcery: Unlike heroic or epic fantasy, these novels tend to involve more immediate confrontations and battles, often taking place in medieval times.
  • Thriller Science Fiction: Key aspects of the thriller genre blend with science fiction in these stories of a world in danger.
  • Time-Travel: Characters move backward or forward in time, with scenes playing out in parallel universes.
  • Urban Fantasy: Characters with magical powers exist in normal, real-life settings.
  • Vampire: Romance and sexuality are key elements in these recent variations of stories derived from the classic vampire legend.
  • Wuxia: Chinese philosophy and martial arts traditions are central to these fantasy tales.

Thriller. These exciting, suspense-filled and often sensational novels focus on intense kill-or-be-killed kinds of situations involving, for example, mob activity, political or industrial espionage, sex and violence.

  • Action: A fast pace, ample violence and a clearly identified villain are central elements of this kind of thriller.
  • Comic: The thriller genre itself may be spoofed, or comedy may play a key role in the interaction between protagonist characters.
  • Conspiracy: Only the protagonist knows the complexity and extent of the enemy he or she battles in these suspenseful stories.
  • Crime:Often told in the point of view of characters committing a crime, these novels involve an alternative perspective.
  • Disaster: Natural disasters, such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, are central to these stories, with the heroes struggling against menacing forces of nature.
  • Eco-Thriller: The disaster in these stories is ecological, and the hero or heroine is engaged in a battle against the people or organizations who caused it.
  • Erotic: Sexuality is a key element in these novels.
  • Espionage: The focus of these stories, like the international spy novels popular in previous years, is espionage, only now the antagonists are usually terrorists.
  • Forensic: Forensic laboratories and the technicians working in them may find their lives at risk as they work to prevent or solve crimes.
  • Horror: These stories often feature graphic violence, gruesome description, and terrifying threats from monstrous villains or even the unknown.
  • Legal: The justice system is the setting for these stories, usually involving attorneys who, at great potential peril to themselves, confront adversaries both inside and outside the courtroom.
  • Medical: These stories involve protagonists in the world of medicine battling major threats from epidemic disease, criminal and immoral use of technology or pharmaceuticals.
  • Military: The hero is in the military, perhaps special forces or behind enemy lines, battling an enemy.
  • Police Procedural: As in police procedural mysteries, cops’ procedures in crime-solving is central to these thrillers, but the conflicts and threats are taken up a notch or more.
  • Political Intrigue: In these stories, the protagonist battles to ensure political stability.
  • Psychological: While a violent confrontation often happens at the end of these stories, the focus throughout is on the emotional and psychological conflicts between characters.
  • Romantic: Romantic involvement of the protagonists is a central factor in romantic thrillers.
  • Supernatural: In these stories the hero or heroine protagonist, the antagonist, or both possess supernatural powers.
  • Technological: These thrillers involve threats from technology run amok.

Oh . . . my . . . g-d. Are we done, yet? Sheesh! 

If you’re a writer wondering how to categorize a novel-in-progress, consider these words from an editor friend of mine: “Don’t worry about the category. If it’s a good story, just write the d–n book, do a thorough job of editing it, and label it when you launch it.” Liberating advice! Of course, that editing process includes making sure it “works” for the audience of readers most likely to want to read it–readership patterns I discussed in my posts on genre, mainstream, and literary fiction.

In other posts, I’ve defined the differences between the over-arching classifications of popular “genre” fiction, “mainstream” fiction, and “literary” fiction. Are you wondering why all this categorization of literature is important? It’s said that literary novels are more “serious” fiction, as well as having higher writing standards, and therefore superior. Shouldn’t all authors strive for quality writing in their published works? As I discuss in future posts, it seems to me that with the ease of self-publishing, the gap between the good and the downright disgraceful is getting wider. What do you think?

(Sources of genre descriptions:  Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, Writer’s Digest Books;  Writer’s Digest University; an article about fiction sub-genres by Michael J. Vaughn posted on Writer’s Digest BlogMarch 19, 2008;  Bildungsroman, Wikipedia.)

3 thoughts on “A list of fiction categories, genres and sub-genres

  1. What a brilliant post. Thanks. I am never sure what genre my books are as I don’t plan and just write. This is the most comprehensive information I’ve found. And I adore the advice “Don’t worry about the category. If it’s a good story, just write the d–n book, do a thorough job of editing it, and label it when you launch it.”

    • Delighted to see your comment, Janet! I’m glad you found my post helpful. The whole business of deciding the genre classification for a book can be really confusing! I like your approach: “I don’t plan and just write.” I might add something the wonderful writer, Toni Morrison, who recently passed away, said: “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” A good idea, don’t you think? All the best to you in your writing journey! (And also, all good wishes to all of you in the UK for a successful resolution to the Brexit challenges soon!)

  2. Pingback: What Is Literary Fiction? | Martta Karol

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s