Fiction Genres Glossary

By Cecilia Lewis

Last week, I discussed the difference between category and genre. Now, I’d like to break these genres down and define them, to give you a better idea of where your book might fit. All of these definitions can seem daunting, but being able to place your book in a specific genre will be enormously beneficial. Keep in mind that these labels might mean slightly different things to different people, and some books will crossover into multiple genres. This is not a complete list of all genres; rather, it’s an overview of some of the most common terms and their definitions.

For clarity’s sake, I’ve broken these into a single broad category, and then divided them further into subgenres. But keep in mind that there’s a lot of overlap here.

  1. Speculative Fiction is generally defined as anything set in a different world or featuring elements that do not exist in the real world. This can mean future worlds, fantasy worlds, alternate worlds, etc.
  • Dystopian – There is actually some debate about the definition of dystopian. It is used most broadly to refer to any book set in a bleak future world, where humans struggle to survive. However, some will argue that a book is only dystopian if it features a terrible society/government; it is the opposite of a perfect utopian society. Therefore books which take place in a bleak future world but don’t feature a dystopic government are actually “post-apocalyptic.” For example, a book about the zombie apocalypse where all forms of society have collapsed would be post-apocalyptic, whereas The Hunger Games is a true dystopia. There are even more arguments about the definition of dystopian—I once took a college course on dystopian fiction where we discussed this for days—but most people aren’t going to be too picky about it. If your setting is a bleak future world, it’s probably safe to call it dystopian.
  • Fantasy – This genre is most frequently defined as anything featuring magic. It will be set in a different world than our own, where there is some kind of magic system. It can take place on Earth, but with a magical world (think Hogwarts in Harry Potter). Fantasy can be broken down into many smaller groups, but I’ve listed only the major ones in this glossary.
    • High fantasy – This is a subgenre of fantasy which is set in a completely different world than our own. Most high fantasy is epic fantasy, which is known for swords, quests, medieval worlds, etc. (Think Tolkien.) However, high fantasy doesn’t have to be epic—anything with magic set in a completely different world from our own is high fantasy.
    • Low fantasy – This is another subgenre of fantasy, and is typically defined as “anything that isn’t high fantasy.” In other words, it’s probably set on Earth or in a world resembling our own, but features fantastical elements in some way. Urban fantasy is a type of low fantasy where the setting is a modern city, usually with a dark, gritty tone.
  • Paranormal — Although paranormal stories feature fantastical or sci-fi elements, I’d say they’re a different genre altogether than fantasy. Paranormal stories usually feature humanoid creatures with super-human abilities—vampires, werewolves, psychics, etc. There’s a lot of overlap with fantasy and sci-fi here—vampires are fantastical creatures, whereas aliens are sci-fi, and yet both could be considered paranormal. This is an area where you have to really know the conventions and tone of the genre to make a determination. If your story is on the border between paranormal and fantasy, just pick whichever you feel is the closest match. Also, note that paranormal romance is really its own genre, so I’ve listed it under romance instead.
  • Science fiction — Sci-fi is different from fantasy in that it looks at our real world and asks “What if?” For example: “What if we made this scientific discovery?” “What if we could time travel?” “What if aliens came to Earth?” True sci-fi doesn’t feature magic of any kind, and instead argues what our real world could be like under certain circumstances. If it has space travel, time travel, aliens, or alternative history, it’s probably sci-fi.
  • Steampunk — I know I just said alternative history is sci-fi, but steampunk stories are the exception to that. Steampunk is alternative history—usually Vicorian-esque—featuring anachronistic technology or fictional machines. Steampunk has a very unique feel, compared with other alternative histories—think H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
  1. Mystery stories are those where the mystery is the central focus, usually involving a crime and a “whodunit” question. There are many subgenres here, as mysteries can be historical or fantasy or contemporary… But many will fall into one of the following subgenres:
  • Cozy — These are light, cute mysteries, usually in a series. They may include crime or murder, but there won’t be much blood, violence, or profanity.
  • Thriller – A fast-paced story with a mystery/crime element, usually featuring adventure and daring escapades. These can also fall into a number of other genres—historical, paranormal, etc.—but the fast pacing is an essential element of what constitutes a thriller.
  • Traditional — Stories featuring a sleuth who is given a crime and a set of suspects and clues, often with a specific location and time frame in which to solve the crime, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. (Think Agatha Christie.)
  1. Romance is different from all other kinds of fiction in that it’s about the romance. The focus is on the romantic relationship, rather than other elements, so much so that you couldn’t take the romance out, or there wouldn’t be much story left.
  • Category romance — These are romance books released in a series, where each book has similar elements to it and new books come out in the series monthly. These are typically short paperbacks. (Think of Harlequin books.)
  • Historical romance — You guessed it: These are romances set in a historical time period. They can be romances in any time period, but many historical romances are Regency-era, which is why “regency romance” is a common designation.
  • Paranormal romance — These are stories which feature paranormal elements, but where the romance is still the defining aspect of the story. Paranormal elements may include vampires, werewolves, psychics, etc. Books featuring those elements that don’t focus on the romance are just paranormal, not paranormal romance.
  • Single Title romance — These are defined as not category romance; they’re longer, and often more complicated. Note that “single title” does not mean that the book can’t be part of a series about the same characters; it just means “not category romance.”
  1. Other — All the genres that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
  • Historical — Anything set in the past, of course. The only place where I see confusion here is with books set in the eighties or nineties—yes, they are historical fiction.
  • Literary fiction — This is another one that is hotly debated and hard to define. For me, literary fiction is anything with focus on voice, language, and the craft itself. It’s as much about how the story is told as what the story is. If your book features heightened language and doesn’t fit into any of these genres, it may well be literary fiction.
  • Magical realism — These stories are set in a world exactly like ours, except for one or two (small) magical elements. They’re not truly fantasy, but not entirely realistic either. (Think Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Isabel Allende.)
  • Urban fiction — This is gritty, realistic fiction set in a modern city. I sometimes see writers using this term just because their book takes place in a large city, but keep in mind that there’s a very specific tone associated with urban fiction. These stories typically focus on things like gangs, drugs, gambling, violence, corruption, etc.


Phew! I hope these definitions haven’t made things more confusing. Feel free to ask if you need more clarification or have any questions about a specific genre. I couldn’t possibly cover them all, but I hope this gives you a basic understanding of where your book might fit.

Also, as I said last week, if you’re still feeling confused about any of these terms, I’d suggest going to a bookstore and looking at the way books are shelved. It’s often easier to see the differences between these genres if you can see real examples!

What do you think? Do you find any of these terms confusing? How do you recognize differences between genres? Are there any other genres you’d like defined? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

Related Links:

-Understanding Category vs. Genre

-Glossary of Publishing Terms and Definitions

-All About Word Count

-Who’s Reading Your Books? Identifying Your Audience


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