Which Genre, Anyway?

I recently launched a book on the ‘Zon and checked off the applicable genre tags. And discovered that it also appears under a horror sub-genre. “But wait, this isn’t horror! Just because it has…” Um, OK, never mind. But it is still not horror. Or is it?

What separates urban fantasy (UF), paranormal fantasy, paranormal romance (PNR), dark fantasy, and horror? Besides “Does the guy on the cover have a bare chest? If so, PNR.” Although that might change next week, given how publishers keep re-doing genre conventions on covers.

Urban fantasy is the easiest to peg. It is a fantasy world, meaning magic, magical creatures, vampires, were-creatures, and the like, in a mostly realistic modern setting. The Dresden Files is an excellent example. But so are Charles de Lint’s older books Greenmantle, Moonheart and The Onion Girl. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series could also be considered urban fantasy, although they were written before it became a genre, and are lumped in with YA fantasy. The characters accept magic, and strange goings on are taken in stride in urban fantasy. Not everyone has to believe it, and in some cases efforts are made by the fantastic creatures/people to keep most folks from knowing about the fantasy stuff, but it is part of the world the protagonists are familiar with.

Paranormal romance is romance plus (usually but not always) were-creatures and/or vampires. Twilight is a sweet-ish PNR. For a while you could tell by looking at the cover. If the chick was in form-fitting black leather and either no men or fully-clad men were on the cover, it was urban fantasy. If she was in form-fitting leather and the guys lacked shirts? Paranormal romance. That seems to be shifting a bit, but if you see a shirtless man superimposed on a wild animal, it is paranormal romance. Those follow the romance genre conventions, but with vampires, were-creatures and the like tossed in, and some magic.

Paranormal fantasy seems to be either paranormal romance toned down (sweeter, so no on-screen “adult situations”), or a less common tag for urban fantasy.

Dark Fantasy has strong elements of horror, but unlike horror, the protagonists come to understand and accept magic and magical creatures. Some Gothic fantasies (Gothic fiction elements plus fantasy setting) are dark enough to count. Take a Byronic hero (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”) of dubious moral quality, an ancestral mansion that has seen better days (the House of Usher), or a grimy town with a secret, toss in magic, and you are close. Dark fantasy can drift close to cosmic horror, with elements of Lovecraftian “things man was never meant to know” lurking on the edges. But it is not horror. The protagonists have an element of control, and good and evil are pretty clear.

Horror can have fantastic elements in it, but it is the mood and strict morality that define horror, no matter how presented. George R. R. Martin’s “The Sand Kings” is science fiction horror, and a heckuva good story. In horror often there is no reason given for why the precipitating event happens. Also, the main character doesn’t accept that the fantasy element is part of the ordinary world. Lovecraftian horror, also called cosmic horror, implies that there are things too enormous for humans to understand, and if they try, the characters go mad. “Sanity rolls” are common in horror. Not in fantasy.

So, Eerily Familiar is urban fantasy, and dark fantasy. The characters use magic, they accept that it is there, there is an element of “Don’t open that door!”, and a Byronic-appearing hero. The talking animals (Familiars), tweed socks, trip to the thaumatovet, and other humor elements nudge it closer to UF, and the plot sequence is not that of a romance. “Familiar Roads” is straight-up urban fantasy.

You might have your own thoughts as to where your book ought to go. Keep in mind that marketing is what determines genre. What are you closest to? Use that for your categories, and then add tags and keywords to tailor things more closely.

An agent’s look at genre. Scroll down for links to more options.

One writer’s take on fantasy sub-genres.


  1. The borderlands among the conventional genres are growing broader and grayer as we speak. If you can fit your book “comfortably” (whatever that might mean) in a conventional genre. your marketing will surely be simpler and easier, but in the indie-pub world, there are ever more offerings that cannot fit neatly into any of them.

    I recently had a shock delivered to me by a longtime reader, concerning my “Futanari” saga (available at Amazon). He read it from first volume to last, said he enjoyed it greatly, and then hit me with this:

    “Why do you call it science fiction?”

    I replied that as it involves technological elements, including human cloning and desire control through nanotechnology, that are only possibilities today, and is set a few years in the future, I couldn’t imagine how it could be deemed anything else. He disagreed:

    “It’s more LGBT stuff.”

    I was surprised, to say the least, and asked him why. His reply was that “It’s got transwomen and a lesbian in it.” That was his entire objection, but to him it seemed to invalidate the SF categorization and make it more of a current-events / current-disputes tale.

    Reactions of that sort will be ever more frequent, especially as indies, not having conventional publishers to appease, are rather more inclined to mix motifs from the conventional genres for the sake of originality and an involving tale. The implications for marketing via categorization are disturbing. Beware! (:-)

      1. Exactly! And once we solve that one, we have the problem of a zombie-demon romance set on a colony world orbiting Tau Ceti. A mite tougher, especially as the zombie is Catholic and the demon a Muslim. (:-)

      2. SF. Because —

        “If there’s a zeppelin, it’s alternate history. If there’s a rocketship, it’s science fiction. If there are swords and/or horses, it’s fantasy. A book with swords and horses in it can be turned into science fiction by adding a rocketship to the mix. If a book has a rocketship in it, the only thing that can turn it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.”

        ― Debra Doyle

        1. And of course, the “Demon” might be “just” a dangerous alien from another dimension.

          Its “Powers” may not be “Magic” but Extremely Strong PSI Powers. 😈

          Note, there was a period when some SF/F writers wrote stories that they claimed weren’t “Real Fantasy” but “Science Fiction” with (for example) Elves being humanlike Aliens with “PSI Powers” not “Magic”.

          Of course, it’s “just a change in Terminology” which could be just word games.

          IIRC Poul Anderson’s character in “Three Hearts And Three Lions” thought about the above explanation of the situation he was in but basically decided the explanation didn’t matter.

          What mattered was that the Elves were Real and their powers were Real. 😀

          1. Yeah, I ended up with both kinds. Started with eeeevile AI aliens, then -actual- demons showed up. Because as I said in my other comment, I couldn’t pass up the chance to turn Ultimate Eeevile into an appetizer. ~:D

            1. Well, there was one Jack Chalker Books (part of the Changewinds series) where a girl from “our world” thought this ring that a Wizard gave her as a guide was “just super-science”. IE The guide in the ring was just a computer mind.

              Unfortunately, she had found a “good place” to stop her journey and decided to stay there permanently but the “guide” was a Demon trapped in the ring and wouldn’t be free until the girl reached where she was supposed to travel too.

              The Demon put a nasty curse on her, one that wouldn’t prevent her from traveling but still nasty. 😈

              1. Yeah. There’s magia, unexplained causality, such as drinking willow-bark tea for headaches.

                Then there’s goetia, trafficking with evil or chthonic spirits. (Or theurgia, trafficking with beneficent spirits, but even practicing theurgists solemnly warned that most people who tried got demons who were lying)

                In most fantasy, magic is magia which, when put through the wringler, came out a different set of rules than when ours did. But not when it’s goetia.

        2. So, when Dread Cthulhu gets evaporated in orbit by the fusion drive of a starship…

          Mostly because I always wanted dear dread Cthulhu and his eldritch Eeevile to come up against something Good big enough to make him into calamari tempura. KaPOW baby!

          No, I did not hold back my inner fanboy. I let the kid go nuts.

          1. Well, don’t forget that the Lovecraft “Old Ones” (like Cthulhu) were Extremely Powerful Aliens not gods/demons. 😉

            1. I have a very pliable cosmology that lets them all fit in. Demons are evil dead people. Weird, f-ed up demons are evil dead alien people. (Aliens die too, right? Hell has to be pretty accommodating.) Cthulhu is a giant evil dead flying squid with horrific supernatural powers of eeeevile.

              Perfect candidate to learn the Kzinti Lesson. That boi has been begging for it.

  2. I think “Superheroes” fiction can be a genre of itself.

    Some Superhero Fiction has a “whiff” of Science Fiction but most is closer to Fantasy as you can find it difficult to explain the Super-Powers by Science.

    1. Actually, Superheroes are a genre by itself because if you make it purely SF or fantasy, it stops being Superheroes.

      Wizards, aliens from other planets, werewolves, strange accidents with chemicals and/or lightning and/or radioactivity, etc. etc. This is why Superheroes needs a metaorigin, not an origin, or the superpowered beings will lack the wild and random nature of the genre.

      (Note: if you really want the powers to be RANDOM, you need to use a random power generator. There’s no way around that.)

    2. Actually, they aren’t a genre. They are a subgenre. We don’t get to make up genres. (Okay, Amazon can for marketing reasons.) But the reality is, at the moment superheroes fall into both SF and Fantasy depending on how the writer creates their backstory/powers. The basic genres are mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, western, inspirational and horror. Everything else pretty much falls under one or more of them as a sub-genre.

          1. I suspect that self-help was codified as a bookstore genre after western, and know that “Women’s fiction” is very recent. (Women’s Fiction = “romances that have other-than-happily-ever-after/for-now endings. See: Nicholas Sparks.”)

            Also, cookbooks are pretty recent as a genre – not the invention of cookbooks, but the idea of cookbooks as a specialized bookstore section with “1001 sandwiches” and “foods of morocco” and “Will it waffle? A waffle iron recipe book” and celebrity chef books. If I recall correctly, cookbooks-as-entertainment lagged western by several decades; Westerns were affected by the paper rationing of WWII, but the explosion of cookbookery is a post-WWII phenomenon.

  3. Where does one put a space opera with strong romance (they’re mental with the kissy face, but the action is off screen, no tab A/slot B scenes), fantasy elements and sciency (mostly materials science) science fiction?

    Work progresses ever so slowly on the cover, but progress it does. I’ve got a nice 3D model for my tank, I’ve got a couple of fetching female models for the armed-and-dangerous robot lady, and I’m about to dive into the Photoshoping of the background. Presently I’ll be having to make these genre decisions.

    1. It comes down to the dominant pattern. If you could remove everything else and still have a space opera, and your “beats” are space opera, then call it space opera for your categories, followed perhaps by adventure sci-fi or whatever is close, and use the tags to signal other details.

        1. Exactly. Where do my Merchant books fit? There is magic, but no dragons. It is not high fantasy, not epic fantasy, not urban fantasy (well, unless you try medieval urban fantasy), and you have main characters who either can’t use magic, or do their best to pretend that they can’t use magic. “Blue collar fantasy” is a good fit, but that’s not a ‘Zon genre. So I tag them as blue-collar fantasy.

    1. You mean like part of the Vorkosigan series, or Pam Uphoff’s Wine of the Gods? 😛

      The overall genre is what determines. Wine of the Gods includes genetic engineering, straight-up magic, quests, romances, and what have you, within the same enormous frame story. So each volume is likely genre-labeled as fits the individual book, but readers can pick up from tags and reading other works in the series that they all fall into sci-fi.

      To my knowledge, the entire series gets labeled with what genre the earliest books fit into.

      1. Thx. Guess I need to read that series. Pam, what did you do about covers? Does each signify the genre, or did you try to pick a Least Common Denominator for the entire series, in an attempt to impose some order on the on the eclectic mix?

        1. From the reader’s side, the most important order imposed is that one can read them in publication order and it makes sense. Time jumping is minimal, if at all. Given the scope of the thing, that’s pretty amazing. (And very much appreciated – please don’t stop!)

        2. I chose one category of SF and one category of Fantasy for the series, then use tags for “Mystery” “Magic Horses” “Portals” “Genetic Engineering” and so forth.

          Covers? I’m hopeless. I try to signal something about the story in a way that will get someone to pick it up and try it. I try to unify the series with the same cover fonts, and “Book 48 of the Wine of the Gods.”

          Really, you don’t want to use mine as examples of “how to make a good cover.”

  4. Next year I am going to try marketing to particular genres. I have two collections in the works, one of which is Hard SF and one of which is (mostly) Pre-industrial Fantasy. I am hoping that they’ll get more traction than my first collection, which was a mishmash of genres, mostly some flavor of Horror/Dark Fantasy.

    My most recent release, Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts, is listed as Paranormal & Urban Fantasy, which I suppose is as good a description as any. It’s a collection of stories about a cop in a Fantasy world who investigates crimes committed by magic, “Fantasy” describes the setting, but the stories are more Dragnet with dragons than the usual UF. I deliberately kept my protagonist purely human–he deals with magic, but he’s not a wizard or a magical creature.

  5. I need to catch up on my sleep, because I started trying to mentally sketch what an asian light novel would be if the male hero showed up topless on the covers with poses and costumes from older American fiction. A 1960s men’s adventure or 1930s pulp cover executed in anime.

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