The Psychology of Stories: Genre

As I mentioned in my earlier post I’ve been wondering about the reasons that we use genres in our writing. Obviously there is a certain marketing or categorization factor e.g. how best to market, sell and organize books by genre, but that isn’t the side I want to examine.




I want to examine the why genres have emerged in fiction and more specifically why the major genres that have emerged have been the genres that have done so – assuming of course that fiction, as a both an art and an entertainment, is shaped by some form of natural selection/market principles – an assumption that suggests there is actually some coherence behind genre and its not just happenstance and chaos (or at least there is some rhyme to the chaos.)

Before I go any further it may be wise to narrow the range of genres I’m talking about, as least for now, according to BookSTR the top five book genres (from a financial perspective) are:

  1. Romance
  2. Crime/Mystery
  3. Religious/Inspirational
  4. Sci-Fi/Fantasy
  5. Horror

For no dubious reasons I won’t dive into religious/inspirational, as firstly its not fiction and secondly it probably speaks for itself somewhat that human beings are somewhat religious and somewhat more in need of inspiration.

I also don’t want to dive into a debate about successful sales versus genuinely successful writing, that’s a massive debate as old as words and even more broadly a discussion more complex than my brain can handle these days.

So what the heck am I talking about?

I’m interested in why exactly Romance, Crime, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror (and maybe in the future some further genres if I can muster enough interesting to say about them) have settled in as lucrative and popular genres of fiction. What is it about the tropes, structure or perhaps image of these categories that fits with our taste in fiction?

Each genre will get tackled in their own separate posts, however I thought it may be worth throwing around some ideas of why genres develop at all.

First of all I think when it comes to stories there is a strange dialectic tension in an original work, that being a reader wants something familiar enough to find comfort in reading, while still maintaining enough originality and strangeness to give the piece a unique feel, and some tension to experiencing it. Genre provides a convenient way to capture comfort while oddly providing quite a wide potential for originality. It’s weird genre is often seen as a tropey way of restricting one’s creativity, yet often genre fiction has some of the most off-the-wall material that only works because its packaged in a genre (I’m looking at you 50 Shades).

And I suppose it just makes sense that if this pattern is real that we’d see certain genres gather and maintain popularity just as any individual mega-success breeds several clones, the success of a genre leads to further material produced within that category. Kinda makes me feel respect for the ‘firsts’ Like Tolkien was for Fantasy the authors that really dragged their genre into the spotlight and paved the way for entire generations of authors.

Similar to the first point genre creates elements of predictability. Sure most people won’t claim they want to know what happens ‘in the end’ of their books the reality is the vast majority of fiction works aren’t exactly unpredictable (well this could be the subject of a future post too) by which I mean people keep buying romances knowing essentially what they are in for. I liken this to the old restaurant/take-away conundrum: try something new, or get something familiar?

Genres provide a familiar fictional meal for us, you might be asking how this second point is different from the first – but what I’m trying to say is in the immediate sense of consuming fiction we want one food in the familiar and one in the novel (pun intended) AND when looking for fiction to consume we want an element of predictability.

Finally I think genres tap into certain elements of human nature that spark the emotions that authors aim to stir. I will get into this more with the different genres but I don’t think its a coincidence that popular genres seem to correlate with serious and consuming issues of real life, romance is obvious, crime never far from the newspaper. You might ask how Sci-Fi and Fantasy relates to real issues but let me ask you this: how often do you find yourself thinking or talking about different times, or how the world could be vastly different? Horror is perhaps more visceral, and perhaps too more taboo, we don’t often talk about fear yet its a ubiquitous part of our experience.

Anyway I plan soon to dive into each of these genres on their individual merits, we’ll see how the creativity well goes for diving through genres beyond the “top five” I’m also more than happy to tackle genres that readers want to see discussed, rather than just the money-makers!

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Stories: Genre

  1. “For no dubious reasons I won’t dive into religious/inspirational, as firstly its not fiction…”

    I thought that genre was stories of the “character goes through traumatic experience, has reawakening of their faith/hope/spirituality/etc, contentment ensues” ilk? As in, the fictional equivalent of the “Eat Prey Love”-style “I took up yoga and divorced my husband” memoirs.

    Genres sometimes thrive (or disappear) because of the prevailing attitude of the culture towards that particular time/place. For example, the Western (i.e. “cowboys and injuns”) falling out of favour because of society at large having a less-romanticised perspective on that era and the treatment of native american people. That’s possibly why sci-fi/fantasy is popular; it can deal with some of the themes without the baggage of actual/historical situations.

    Liked by 1 person

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