A note on genre
I recently had a conversation with a student to whom I asked why he was making the choice to speak of space colonies in his story, when his story didn’t need different planets and he didn’t wish to address the colonial aspect. To this, he answered that he wanted to write a science-fiction story, and that science-fiction involved space colony. So today, my post will be about why you choose to write a story, and the genres and subgenres of fantasy, science-fiction, and the paranormal.
First, stories come from ideas. Usually, it comes from an idea for either a character, or a story concept, such as the answer to the question what would happen if…? More rarely, it starts with an idea for a setting, but settings are rarely the sole basis for a story, as they are often paired with characters and concepts. (In fact, while most stories begin from either a concept or a character, you need both to have a real beginning.) In science-fiction and fantasy, you also need to determine the setting. Once you have these two, or three, elements, THEN YOU CAN DETERMINE GENRE. Genre should NEVER, EVER be the first thing you decide on when starting to write a story. Especially if you’re not familiar with the genre. It’s a bit like saying, this painting is going to be cubist. It’s not natural, and it’s not part of the creative process.
Now, don’t get me wrong; once you have determined your story concept, you should have a very good idea of what genre it’s going to fit into, like when you paint, you have a good idea of what style you are painting. That’s part of knowing your craft. But it shouldn’t be what dictates what you are writing; there is such a thing as inspiration. Stories come from thoughts like “I’d like to write something about a guy that…” or “wow, I wonder what would happen if…” not “Hmm well I think I should write something steampunk with vampires because that’s what’s hot.” Once you have an idea, then will come deciding where it fits. And I would like to add that you’re not sure exactly what subgenres your story will fit, because a story you intend to be political can turn military, or develop a strong romance. Genre is something you should worry about afterwards, when you submit to a publisher and are wondering which imprint will best fit what you wrote. And even at that, the most organic way to do that is to be familiar with the books that have been printed. But more on getting published in another post.
The thing I wanted to talk about most here is genre, though. What makes a story science-fiction, or fantasy, or paranormal. I won’t go into the others, because I think they’re easier to grasp. I think we all know what a mystery or a romance is. But science-fiction and fantasy can be harder to grasp, even, as I noticed, for people who are consumers of the genre. So let me make it perfectly clear.
Science-fiction is about science. Fantasy is about fantasy.
You have to really pay attention to the title of the genres. Science-fiction, in its simplest definition, is fiction that is based on science. What that means is that it consists of stories that are about science. Since all stories are about people, then, to make it clearer, science-fiction concerns itself about how sciences affects, changes, and influences human lives. It is as simple as that. It’s not about “space” or “robots” or “time machines”, though all these elements can certainly be part of it, as they are all effects or products of science. But mostly, they are about how these things interact with humans. About how they shape society. Everyday life. Psychology, relationships… well, you get my meaning.
There are many, many subgenres to science-fiction. This page has a pretty comprehensive listing of science-fiction, horror and fantasy subgenres. In my opinion, if you’re interested in writing science-fiction, you should get familiar with the subgenres, just to know what there is out there. After all, just knowing about all this might spark an idea you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Other than that, though, you can usually gauge what a publisher will like a lot better from looking at the books they have published instead of the genre. Most publishers will favour a subgenre, but it will almost never be specified in their submissions guidelines.
One last word on science-fiction, before moving on: being the literature of science, most readers who enjoy science-fiction are at least somewhat knowledgeable about science. So please, for your readers’ sake, and the sake of your career, GET IT RIGHT. Do your research. Or, if you’re not willing to… stay away from it.
When it comes to fantasy, it is a little harder to define exactly. But where science is the central point to science-fiction, I would say that magic is what defines fantasy. Fantasy does not have to be set in a medieval or a fantastic world. In fact, one of its most popular subgenres, at the moment, is urban fantasy, which is mostly set in modern cities, fictitious or not. It’s definitely the magic that makes fantasy. Which, yes, can include magical creatures. I’m not going to get into magical creatures in this post. I will have an entire post on that. Every story that has a well established magical system, whether or not it is at the forefront of the story, will qualify for one of the subgenres of fantasy. Again, for subgenres, please consult the aforementioned link.
Now I think I’ve already said this, and I will definitely say it again, but it deserves to be repeated until it is understood. Magic should not be construed as a license to justify any impossible thing with “well, it’s because it’s magic, see”. It still has to make sense. Which is why fantasy, in my opinion, can often be harder to write than science-fiction. In science-fiction, you can research the science. You can read up on it. You can compare the different theories and decide what makes the most sense to you, and then you can compare the model you have chosen to project against the existing explanations. In fantasy, though, there is no basis. There are no ground rules, except for what others have written, which is as likely to be flawed as what you come up with. Unless you want to write urban fantasy and base yourself on the different superstitions that exist in the world, you are left to your own devices. It is up to you to create a system that makes sense, to create believable effects, costs, and limitations to your magic. And this must be done, or else someone is bound to notice and point out the flaws in your logic, like the hundreds of Star Wars fans who have wondered, after the first of the prequels, “if the Force is some blood thing that runs in families, how come the Jedi aren’t supposed to reproduce?”
In either case, just make sure that your inner logic is flawless. This might mean that once you have established your system, you will need to bounce it off someone who is knowledgeable in your genre. But you really should be sure that it works before you submit it to a publisher who will definitely be knowledgeable about their genre… and will be judging the quality of your work by how much sense it makes.