The Psychology of Genre: Fantasy

I confess I’m struggling a little with this post. The Fantasy genre, from its humble beginnings as stories for children, that blossomed into fiction for adults by Lord of the Rings and has close dies to RPGs, video games and movies really is a fictional staple, and its hard to analyze something so ubiquitous in culture.



I have to credit KnightOwl for giving me a start. In an earlier comment they mention how the ‘Western’ as a genre showed a highly romanticized version of the wild-west, and there is no doubt that fantasy stories depict a romanticized version of medieval times. After all we’re really happy to hear about swords and armour and castles, however disease, back-broken peasant workers and wide-spread illiteracy tend not to feature so much.

But why do we romanticize such things, and why does Fantasy seem to “fit” so well, after all we also seem to glamorize other historical periods, yet ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ isn’t really a genre and other than maybe ‘Pirate’ movies we don’t really see quite such huge focus on others.

My first theory is that the time-period (or technically speaking “era” after all the majority of Fantasy novels aren’t set in the past per se, they are set in alternate worlds) that Fantasy are set in captures society at a crux between global organisation, and individual freedom. By which I mean society is somewhat organised, there is a sense of a world – and perhaps importantly a world that can be changed – however there isn’t a more modern feeling of any given individual being overwhelmed and disappearing into the morass of human civilization. Conflicts are often presented as warfare between races, not necessarily (I hope) because the stories tap into our innate racism, but because we long for a world so simple, where baddies are Orcs, and goodies are Elves. In more modern settings such simplicity doesn’t fit, and push too far into the past like say in Clan of the Cave Bear, one has sense of simplicity but not that the actions of one can change the world, because the world is essentially a few isolated tribes.

Granted all fiction has that element of simplification, however I think Fantasy captures our imagination in a way that doesn’t make us balk. It’s hard to imagine Lord of the Rings in a modern setting because there are so many factors that don’t fit, travel for one thing, global communication. More on this in a second but also magic and modern technology are an awkward fit.

I have another slightly left field theory and that is the nature of the technology and yes specifically weaponry creates a more personal feel. For whatever reason, swords and shields capture our interest and I suspect part of it is that physical conflict becomes up-close and personal. While a lot of movie demonstrate the joy of guns and explosions I’m not sure that the written word captures much of it, and when it comes to blades you know that characters are going to be within speaking distance of each other.

Also there is something blunt and immediate about castles. It would be wrong to discuss the Fantasy genre without mentioning our weird obsession with castles. I don’t know whether we want to live in them (apparently probably not a great idea, they were actually drafty, and very open with little privacy) like the look of them or what but again there is something clear-cut about a castle, its either held by the humans or the “bad-guys”, standing or fallen, draw-bridge up or down.

Finally I need to mention the presence of magic and Fantasy. I find this a real challenge because I can’t quite pin down what is going on. I do think there is an element of magic fitting well with swords and primitive technology. The moment ‘science’ catches up to magic you’ve got some complications. While obviously modern settings do often contain magic, e.g. an entire genre called Urban Fantasy. It seems pretty obvious that Fantasy novels is the mainstay of magic. But I also think that it’s easier to suspend your disbelief of magic and monsters in a past setting. Like I said above Fantasy seems to be set in a time where you can change the world, and Fantasy is usually set in a way where you can safely believe that Gandalf the Gray has wandered the world for 2000 years without anyone posting conspiracy blogs about it. Point is you dump a dragon into the modern world and you have to explain why many different outcomes haven’t occurred, and in some respects people aren’t picking up a novel to listen to different rationales for why your story works, they just want the story, and its instantly more believable that a dragon has gone unpoached, studied or documentaried, in a medieval setting than a modern.

So in short, I think the allure of Fantasy or rather the market success, is driven by the freedom of the genre. Within Fantasy there is a lot that can be explored without having to explain just why exactly. Equally there is a sense of freedom, of potential characters in Fantasy aren’t crushed by social media, working weeks, and uncomfortable global politics. They may be crushed by a cave-troll, but that is a nice straightforward problem, dealt with by a handy and sharp blade!

Thanks for reading!

What are your thoughts on Fantasy as a genre?

The Psychology of Genre: Crime and Mystery

Next in my exploration of genre, the second most popular (at least in terms of dollars earned) genre Crime/Mystery.

I confess I’m not 100% sure how broad this category is, obviously we have classical detective fiction in this genre, but also presumably the likes of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne and Da Vinci Codes.


And Skeleton Planes?

Unlike my previous post on Romance, I think that Crime Fiction for a number of reasons a strange unity of elements that creates a successful story type.

First of I want to talk about the mystery aspect. Within the genre there is actually a broad range of how mysteries are created and solved, the most obvious being the ‘Whodunnit’ but also the lesser known cousins ‘Howdunnit?’ and ‘Whydunnit’ (they just don’t have the same ring to them do they). There are also a number of other intrigues that an author may use such as in a typical Dan Brown thriller where there is some historical or religious revelation to be revealed on top of the usual who is the big-bad guy?

It’s hard to explain why mysteries are enjoyable, they do provide a very tidy way of creating perfect fictional tension and resolution, after all what else could provide such a clear-cut way of creating drama (other than perhaps a will-they won’t-they love story?). Just as there is something deep in our brains which cares about relationships, there is also something about our brain which dislikes not-knowing, and enjoys a tidy answer. However I think mystery goes deeper than that. Readers aren’t passive participants in mystery novels, its been a long standing traditional of trying to provide enough to the reader to potentially allow them to figure out the riddle before the big reveal.

Now just as a side-note sometimes books are written to create the impression of “you should have worked this out” without actually providing that information to the reader but that’s another story.

So I don’t think mystery is just about a convenient tension builder, I think readers like a challenge and to segue into my next point I think the Mystery/Crime genre provides a sense of control and mastery in the reader. If we consider that typically readers will empathize with main characters, and almost universally the MC of this genre are the one solving the mystery and often the reader is literally given the challenge of solving the mystery themselves.

I may be stretching a bit far here but broadly speaking one of the delights of fiction is to have a tidy, understandable and (usually) fairly resolved world, where in the real non-fiction world life is unpredictable, arbitrary and often unfair. Crime is in fact one of the major aspects of life that scares and depresses people, and I don’t think its a co-incidence that “Crime” is a key part of this genre. Especially in hard-boiled detective tropes, where the MC is a character ground down by the harshness of the world they are forced to inhabit and confront, yet goes on to resolve and solve some horrible crime or another to a (relatively) happy ending.

So other than a powerful tension builder, and a touch on real-world concerns there is one other reason I think that Mystery and Crime is a successful genre, which sort of builds from the previous two points:

A crime mystery creates a simplicity. In some respects this is the purpose of all fiction to create a simplified tension and resolution, and I think is somewhat of a unifying point of all the main genres – e.g. simplifying life to getting the girl, solving the crime or defeating the dark lord. What makes Crime/Mystery so interesting is that the nature of the adventure that is spun for the reader is even more compact than other tales. For example most romances end with the implication of a forever love, epic fantasy the world is saved (or not). However in Crime/Mystery just that riddle is solved. Part of what I’m saying is that Crime/Mystery novels are prime sequel-bait which is actually a plus if you’re a reader that wants more. More psychologically however what I’m saying is that Crime/Mystery tap into a sense of adventure without the overwhelming nature of other genres – if there is an element of helping a reader feel more in control in a nasty crime-filled world, there is also an element of enjoying a simple distraction where for a short time the only thing of importance is solving a mystery.

Anyway. Thanks for reading – as always keen to hear your thoughts, are there any points which you think I’ve got horribly wrong? Surely some other points I’ve missed completely.

Look forward to seeing you on my next post.





Help I have a floating caption bar and can’t delete it!

The Psychology of Genre: Romance


It’s taken me a while to formulate some theories for why the genre of Romance is so bloody popular.

There are some obvious glib reasons: like relationships (particularly physical ones) are very important to people, and somewhat high on the vital wants and needs list somewhere between food and shelter. And there are slightly complex explanations like this article which uses the classic evolutionary psychology ‘just-so’ fairy-tale to explain the success of the romance novel.

And indeed one doesn’t need to look far to see that our artistic, advertising and sometimes completely unrelated endeavours are seeped in sex. “Sex-sells” as they say whether you’re selling music or coffee.

Although I’d like to dig a little deeper than that, surely reading has a little bit more to it than sexy reinforcement right? After all reading a novel, even a trashy one is a multi-hour commitment that for the most part involves processing the written page, so there must be something about the content of the genre that attracts   engages a reader. Plus evolutionary wise we also love food and sleep and breathing, but despite cook-books sometimes being on best-seller lists you don’t really see those genres in existence compared to romance.

So why then is romance so popular, is there anything more than just readers going “me likely”?

First of all I think there is something a little tricky to acknowledge about relationships. There was a study done some years ago (link please) where they found out something odd, when you interview people about their friendships we all tend to show a similar pattern, we have a few very close relationships, e.g. one or two best friends, a core group of close friends and a large number of acquaintances. What was weird however is that people’s ‘map’ of friendships level didn’t correlate very well. That is to say that person X’s best friends (or rather who they thought were best friends) could have thought of person X as an acquiescence. Reciprocation, often thought of us a key part of a relationship wasn’t actually present.

Disturbingly what this means is right now if everyone revealed where all their relationships were at objectively, most people would be disappointed and/or drastically uncomfortable. Maybe there is a point to social graces and small talk after all.

My point? Well it’s really a long winded way of saying: relationships are tense man! We also know that rejection hurts like a physical wound, so between that and the fact that most relationships are distinctly uneven, it’s not just that relationships are important to us, they are tension filled. I mean we’ve all suffered the experience of wondering whether our crush returns our feelings (while slowing accepting the evidence that they in fact do not amiright?) but I’m trying to extend this to all our interactions.

So what this all come around to in the genre is that relationships are not only interesting on a sexy sexy level, but that the conflicts and tensions generated by relationships are one that many many people find immediately and intuitively relatable. Where an author might struggle to make James Bonds exploits empathetic, our brains very quickly seize on human interactions. And it’s interesting to note that often Romance novels as a genre tend to explore more than just the key intimate relationship, while it is of course the main focus, I’ve noticed that Romance novels tend to touch on familial relationships, work woes and friendships as subplots.

So what I’m saying is that not so much that readers are hard-wired to enjoy stories that (presumably) lead to reproducing, but more that relationships provide some of the most fertile ground (so to speak) for tension ridden stories. Sure being stalked by a Raptor, or chased down by a T-Rex is pretty tense, but could there be anything more horrifying than facing down a love interest who is about to tell you yes or no?

As a final note on psychology, people (let’s face it usually men) derive romance as glib piffle, or indeed porn for women. Yet romance is almost ubiquitous even in other genres, indeed it seems rare to find a novel without at least a touch included.

Anywho, i’ve waffled on the subject long enough. I’m not too sure how many purposeful and accidental innuendos I’ve managed to slip into this post. Or perhaps more importantly I’m not sure if the topic is actually of use to anyone or is just a bit of a random diversion!

What are your thoughts on the Romance genre, is it just silly wish fulfillment? Tapping into the procreation part of our brains?

Why do you think Romance is the most financially successful genre of fiction?