There’s not much I can tell you that you don’t already know about genre and subgenre. The former is a broader classification and the latter is more specific. Both are categories into which your book fits.
But is that really all that they are? Are they the serious afterthought they generally seem to be? Or a small facet of that initial spark when you realized, “I want to write Fantasy [Sci-Fi/Mystery/etc.]!”
Well, according to me, of course genre and subgenre are more than that. They’re your story’s character class.
Genre: It’s Like Choosing a Character Class
I promise I won’t spend the next few weeks relating each of my Fantasy Story Stats to D&D; I understand that not everyone has played it and that’s cool. But what I’m getting at here will make sense to anyone who’s played a video game—or any game—with character classes.
For the sake of this article being remotely interesting, I’m going to assume you understand what character classes are—that you’ve played something where you sat considering a collection of archetypes and abilities. You may consider all the different kinds of classes in the game you’re playing, weighing the Warrior’s abilities against the Rogue’s. Or, if you’re like me, you either read all of the Rogue’s abilities and select them without even looking at the other classes, or you skip the whole reading part. Either way, you look at what’s out there and you decide what suits you—what abilities you can work with. To a very simple degree, deciding what genre to write works the same way. The comparison isn’t perfect but that’s in part because, as writers, we usually make this decision very early on without much consideration—I’ve known I wanted to write fantasy instead of anything else since grade school.
Where this comparison gets more complicated and more interesting is not in how your chosen class relates to you but how it relates to everyone else. If you choose a warrior, everyone’s going to expect basic actions from you at the very least; you’re supposed to have high strength, for example. It’s not absolutely essential, but it’s a general facet of your chosen class and the people you’re playing with will expect it and make decisions based on your choice.
The same can be said of your audience. If you choose Fantasy as your genre, they’re going to expect Fantasy and at least a few of the genre’s standard elements. And the use of those elements will dictate how you interact with your audience—what your story does as part of the genre (what subgenre it fits into, to be oblique). Do you want to use fantasy races? The generic set or ones of your own making? Do you want to use a magic system? Do you want to use a very simple and vague one that will compliment the tone of your story, or do you want an incredibly original or complex one grounded in reality that readers can relate to? Of course, there are no demands that you use any of these elements, but very likely you are, because if you don’t use magic/special powers, dragons, fantastic monsters, fantasy races, or any other element of the genre at all, you’re may not be writing fantasy anymore. And to say it directly and in a useful way, if you expect to write Fantasy effectively (or any other genre) and use its elements to properly convey your story t expectant readers, it’s important to read up on the genre.
Because just as you won’t understand what you’re capable of in combat if you don’t read a character class’s description, you absolutely won’t know what you’re capable of in your own writing if you don’t spend a good amount of your time reading; it’s incredibly easy to just shrug and say, “I’ve got this,” without doing research, but there’s no way you can possibly know how good your story is if you’ve never read any other stories.
Particularly, you can’t fathom the impact of that one series you really love if you don’t read a different series by a different author. It’s like being a kid and having your introduction to Street Fighter being this match:
(Apologies if you hate eSports or Street Fighter).
The point is though, suppose you see that and you immediately try Street Fighter. Who are you going to pick? Well, Daigo used Ken and you admire the hell out of Daigo now, so chances are… you’re picking Ken. Even if you wind up using someone else all the time, you’re probably starting with Ken.
Consider then that picking up a single Fantasy series when you’re young (as we all have) and sticking with only that one is just like picking Ken in this hypothetical situation, only about a billion times worse. Because Street Fighter gets boring if you only choose the one guy. However, epic fantasy novels are generally a thousand pages long with multiple installments, equaling a ton of reading time. It’s incredibly easy to choose the one series and stick with it (out of love and a usually fierce loyalty). That’s fine for the common reader, but it’s terrible for writers.
Because, at worst, you’re doing everything the one writer does without realizing that it’s making you derivative; you’re using every fantasy element that author used to achieve the same goals because you literally don’t know anything else. At best, you’re trying to go with characters, themes and dialogue that are a direct opposite of those in your favorite series, thus still letting it dictate your writing.
Maybe this is common sense—maybe you already know all of this. But maybe you haven’t read enough of your genre to know every facet of it—to know everything you’re capable of, to know the ideas that already exist and might work well with your writing, or to see enough of it to know which ideas you want your story to subvert.
Subgenre: It’s Like Expressing Yourself
Everything I just said above winds up being more important when you decide on a subgenre. I don’t want to spend too much time on those points because I’d be repeating myself, but I will summarize; the elements that I mentioned above (dragons, races, magic, etc.) all play major roles in helping you decide your genre (Epic or High Fantasy, for example, is very likely going to have strong magic while Superhero fiction isn’t going to have any). As with genre, considering these elements is important and finding the subgenre that they fit with is essential to being the strongest Fantasy writer you can be.
So, instead of repeating myself, I’d rather make a distinction between the two. As this short list represents (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_genres), Fantasy subgenre is a big place that’s open to expression. And that, right there, is the distinction. Categorically speaking, at least. If Fantasy is a huge wall displaying all of the possible elements you can use and stories you can tell, your fantasy subgenre should be a clear indication of those choices. Not just as an indication for browsing fantasy readers, but as a personal emblem (because, among Fantasy genres, it’s a given that we write Fantasy, so subgenre becomes the actual distinction that matters). You should be able to look back at your story, find the subgenre of your choice, and assign it with pride.
But in that order; if picking your genre came so naturally and involuntarily that it happened before you even knew you wanted to write, then deciding what subgenre you fit into should come after the entire process is over; after you’ve come up with a story, characters, and perhaps written something—then you should decide on your subgenre. Because, if you choose one first, it might put its own blinders on you, making you write for the subgenre, not for you or your story. And just as you don’t want to accidentally be derivative of that one author you admire, you don’t want to set boundaries for your plots before you’ve even begun. Remember, genre and subgenre, as classifications (particular on this list), are tools for you to use. The elements and concepts that come with them are fuel for your creative fire.
Well, I think that’s a start. As a standard for these Story Stat articles, I’ll leave you with the stats for my novel so far.
War of Exiles
Subgenre… Dark Fantasy