ARTICLE #4 - Genre – Part One
At the forefront of your writing experience the subject of creating believable characters is pivotal. But before we venture deep into that essential topic I would first like to take this opportunity to touch bases on the subject of genre and define literary genre as simple and straightforward as possible. Understanding the style and category of what you’re writing is reasonably significant. But since genre is not an absolute, we won’t get into any in-depth analytical examinations of its abstract, obscure, and perhaps even intangible natures, as with its literary properties of language, style, and technique. Those individual tangents can become arguably convoluted; rendering such hair-splitting discussions as unnecessary in this presentation.
Genre, pronounced zhän-rä or jän-rä, takes its roots from the French language to mean “kind” or “gender.” Simply put, literary genre is a concept of labeling and categorizing a group of literary compositions, both in fiction and nonfiction, which share a similar theme and/or style, technique, content, and linguistics.
The practice of categorizing received its early beginning with the philosophers Plato and Aristotle of Ancient Greece. Plato divided genre into three primary categories: poetry, drama, and prose; whereas Aristotle made further divisions of comedy, tragedy, parody, and epic. In the areas of nonfiction, genres are usually conveyed in factual narratives, chronicles, essays, and memoirs.
As literature evolved with the human experience, genres have likewise changed with time. Some themes have become more complex, creating mixed genres, as in mystery-romance, or comedy-science fiction. Genre may even divide into subcategories, or mixed genres as mentioned above. Or, they may be unique as well as new genres altogether as seen in J. D. Robb’s bestseller, mystery crime series, featuring interplanetary travels, advanced technological weapons, a murder to solve, bizarre-other-world creatures, futuristic flying vehicles, an invincible heroine, and lots of sultry romance. How would you classify such a series? Ultimately, it can be argued that Robb’s mystery writings are a collection of matchless mystery-romance/science fiction/fantasies.
Subcategories, sometimes referred to as subgenres, branch off from the classic or the basic accepted genres. Take comedy for example: Comedy is one of the major categories of literature, stemming back from ancient Greece, kōmōidía, to mean humorous discourse of entertainment. Comedy can be broken into subgenres, such as satire, farce, political satire, burlesque, parody, dark comedy, comedy of manner, and many more.
However complicated genre can become, I think the basic understanding and definition presented in this presentation will suffice. So, let’s concern ourselves in the examination of the most popular genres of our time: fantasy, science fiction, horror, comedy, and finally, a rising star within modern literature, the multifaceted thrillers. And, while they may appear familiar to you, it might be a good idea to study them more closely to determine how they differ.
Fantasy is a fictional, literary genre, containing elements of make-believe worlds of magical, superhero, superhuman-type characters, creatures, and events. A world of fantasy may contain, singularly or in combination, such imaginary characters as wizards, elves, mystical beasts, humanized-talking animals and/or objects, werewolves and vampires. Some of these combinations can be seen within the famous writings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. Or, they can be seen within the exemplary modern-day Harry Potter tales, by J.K. Rowling, which incorporates an assortment of fantastical characters such as wizards and witches, mystical creatures, vampires, giants, oracles, potion-makers and ghosts, all instrumental in stretching the reader’s imagination to the limit. Comparative to science fiction and horror, pure fantasy lacks scientific essentials or the scary, dark-wicked elements, respectively. I must mention here, I share the opinion that science fiction and horror have evolved into unique genres in and of themselves, and are not, as some literature may suggest, offshoots, or subgenres of fantasy—though, oftentimes, their boundaries do cross.
A literary fantasy is usually set in a mystical world with the main character set off on a major quest. Or, the tale presents a lightweight or dire struggle between the forces of good and evil, without the scare tactics of horror. And, the story is reflective of the time and setting of past, present, or future and of the culture and social ethics for which it is written.
Science fiction is a fictional, literary genre of plausible or improbable science that is based on reasonable factors drawn from actual scientific data or speculative predictions and theories. As such, we have but to look back a little more than 150 years to understand how fantastic it would have been for an author to write stories depicting a television, or CGI in video games; or flying crafts that transported people and merchandise from one continent to another; or even envisioning anyone speaking into an object, smaller than their hand, enabling them to instantly speak to someone on the other side of the world. Any of these scenarios would have been feasible if during that time such technological advancements in science existed. However, since they did not, such tales would have been farfetched at best and, per se, pure science fiction.
From the above explanation, then, it’s clear that science fiction depicts what could possibly happen in the real world, such as an alien invasion, flying craft that appear invisible, people socializing and working alongside humanoids that look and feel human. These things are possible; whereas, with fantasy, the story depictions are of imaginary worlds that could never exist in reality. There will never be dragons, elves, fantastic magical creatures, superheroes, or supernatural kingdoms of wizards and witches. It should be clarified, however, that all science fiction need not be plausible, which is where the lines between science fiction, horror, and fantasy may overlap. For example, take the screenplay made into motion picture entitled Mar’s Attack. The story contained scientific plausibility of an alien invasion, yet, it also contained comedy and fantasy-type creatures that could never exist. Therefore, it was a science fiction-fantasy and a comedy. And, as all major genres, science-fiction is divided into many subgenres such as, for example, hard SF, soft SF, space opera, utopia, cyberpunk, alternate futures, dark SF, new world, science fantasy and many more. In conclusion, pure science fiction is based on principles of science and should be presented in a conceivable process—even if farfetched.
Horror is a fictional, literary genre possessing the power to incite the sense of intense fear in the reader through means of either the macabre or supernatural.
Rooted in the fear of death and the unknown arises the dread of monsters, devils, and evil spirits lurking in the darkness—horror. These fears have been around since man, particularly in ancient times when electric bulbs didn’t exist, and eerie shadows danced on walls to the rhythm of candlelight. All it takes is an active imagination, coupled with the right psychological mindset of fear and, ta-dah, like magic, a folklore tale of horror is born. The creepy sounds of insects and small animals, the howls and hooting noises in the night, the wheezing of strong winds, and the terror that comes with pounding thunder would have easily given birth to tales of gods and demons, wizards and witches, ghosts and spirits, vampires and werewolves. And yes, these beast and creatures are fantastical and are found in books of fantasy, but when used to give rise to fear, then they become horror. Horror of the unknown easily and quite reasonably fed religious philosophies and folklore.
Today, contemporary horror can also overlap fantasy and science fiction. Consider Harry Potter, for example: The first books in the series were true fantasy. But, with the growing influence of malevolence in the ongoing tale, wrought by the powerful wizard Lord Voldemort, the element of horror became very prominent. Of course, the series contained no science fiction. Since no amount of science can produce it, magic must forever be improbable.
Also in contemporary horror, whether plausible or implausible, is the macabre, deathly, and chilling tales, such as in Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga’s screenplay Psycho, or Albert Hitchcock’s The Birds, or Steven King’s cinematized novel, Carrie. These stories provoke the sense of terror: A psycho with a large, sharp knife is terrifying. The thought of harmless animals, such as birds, turning against and killing humans can be quite frightening. Or, as with Carrie, the idea of someone both psychotic and possessing supernatural powers is true horror.
When it comes to horror combined with science fiction, the tale is usually classified as a thriller. Aliens invading Earth and dominating the will of mankind, or aliens atrociously destroying city after city; or scary-looking creatures appearing from outer space—as in War of the Worlds—can be quite frightening. Yet, on the other hand, it can also be an exciting and thrilling prospect, keeping the reader tense, excitedly anticipating, and on the edge of their seat. Therefore, such stories of alien invasion are not true horrors, but rather, science fiction-thrillers—thriller being an evolving genre and subgenre within many categories of writing that portray heightened suspense.
In Genre – Part Two, I will continue to offer basic explanations of other literary categories that separate them in compositional form, subject and in style of writing. But now it’s time to put thoughts and pen to paper as we, once again, pick up our quills and write!
C. R. Swainward