The necessity of labels

When you think of genre fiction, your mind likely comes up with umbrella terms like crime, romance, science fiction, drama, horror, and comedy. Beneath these broad terms however, there are many subgenres: mystery, thriller, police procedural, speculative fiction, space opera, regional romance and so on. Then there’s the hybrids: dystopian romance, political thriller etc. So why? Why do we have to create these terms? Why do we have to segregate our stories into this and that? Can’t fiction just be fiction? What’s with the labels, man?

Obviously, there’s a few reasons behind the existence of genres and it’s not all about $$$. Genres are a great way to immediately identify a type of story. If you go to the library and pick up a book with a tiny red heart on the spine, then you know your handling a love story. You know that two people will meet, they’ll either hate each other or be instantly intrigued, they’ll make a loose commitment, there’ll be a conflict that threatens to destroy their delicate relationship, but then love will triumph in the end.

Genre fiction exists so that the reader can know something about a book without having to read it. You know that crime books will feature a bad guy that’s done a bad thing and now someone is trying to catch him. You know that a fantasy book is going to be set in an alternative world or time. You know that historical fiction is a narrative exploration/speculation of actual events.

The reader will have a list of set expectation.

They will expect not only how the plot will unfold, but how the book is going to make them feel.

This expectation also extends to characters.

The whole reason why character tropes exist is because we have seen a particular type of character show up within a specific genre, repeatedly. You’re not likely to find a bleach blonde suburban ‘WASP’ in a Sci-Fi book and you’re not likely to see a dragon or hobbit in a police procedural. After all, a reader can only suspend their belief for so long…

We’ve become use to seeing these types of characters again and again. Sure. They may look a little different each time we run into them, their bellies flatter or fuller, their temperament cooler or more heated, they may be taller or shorter, blonde or brunet, but we do recognise them.

And of course, the primary focus between each genre is different. While your detective may dip into a work place romance or office politics, his primary drive will be to lockup the bad guy. Though the heroes of a dystopian novel may get side-tracked by current relationship or newly revealed family secrets, the focus will always come back to, ‘Let’s save the world.’

From a publisher’s point of view, knowing which genre a manuscript fits into is essential. You know which books sell the most (romance/crime) and which have a smaller, but possibly more dedicated following (sci-fi/fantasy). The big boys out there in print-print land can read a book proposal or manuscript, look up the latest data on book sales and ask the vital question: is there an audience for this book?

Things may be a little less predictable however, thanks to the whole hybrid scene. A straight up crime novel may no longer cut it. Of course, the detective will solve the murder. Of course, Lyla and Rohan will get married. Of course, the crew of good-natured bandits will stop the evil horde and save the universe. Duh. Authors have begun to mix up the A lead to B and then C formula by slicing and dicing these genres, adding a little cumin and throwing in some fresh herbs. Highly predictable story lines and characters have been swished around, producing something that is familiar, yet different.

Ultimately though, genres exist for one primary reason. You.

Have you ever felt a deep regret while reading the final sentence of a much enjoyed book?

Have you ever flipped that book over, stroked the cover and thought, ‘I wish I could read this book – for the first time – again’?

But of course, you can only read a book for the first time once.

That’s why genres exist. Because someone fell in love with a certain type of story and its characters, and they wanted to experience that tale again.

Image by Tim Sox Ace G Man

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