Noveljutsu Episode 06 - Genre Part III (Fantasy and Sci-Fi)
If you’ve read the previous Noveljutsu posts, you’ll know I’ve been discussing genre a lot lately. In today’s post I’ll wrap up this examination of genre with a look at my fictional one true love: speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is comprised of three main genres, and we’ll begin with:
For a lot of people, when they imagine horror, they think of horror movies with blood, guts, and lurking figures in the dark, but that’s just one of many places horror can go.
Horror’s main purpose is to make the reader feel, well, horror. You want to evoke a deep emotional or even physical response from your readers. Make them afraid. Make them appalled and disgusted. Give them nightmares. Blood and guts can do that, but it’s not the only way. The unknown can be just as terrifying. So can isolation. So can a lack of control, an inability to trust your own senses, or a sense of being overwhelmed by something insurmountable.
Theme is also important to the genre. Horror usually explores darker themes we might not normally want to think about, such as the nature of evil or our own mortality. Horror isn’t just a momentary prank, jumping out at you from behind a tree for a quick laugh at your expense. As much as it wants to scare you, horror also wants to make you think. When the existential dread comes for you, horror wants you to stare deep into the abyss.
So, let’s talk about that abyss for a moment. There are many forms, or subgenres, it comes in. Here are just a few.
1. Psychological Horror
In this subgenre, the main character is likely to be their own worst enemy—an unstable mental state becoming their own downfall. Instead of violence or gore, psychological horror usually deals with the fragility of mental strength or sanity. It’s not uncommon for the story to appear paranormal in nature at first, as the protagonist might be dealing with delusions or paranoia, but in the end it’s often revealed that these horrors were coming from their own mind. Hardly a comforting thought.
2. Gothic Horror
Gothic horror is the place for your scary stories that take place in decrepit castles falling into ruin. Named for the Gothic architecture—castles, monasteries, etcetera—the stories were set in, Gothic horror combines pleasure and sometimes romance with death and fear, generally of the psychological kind. Think of stories of young virgins being hypnotized or seduced by evil, predatory vampires, for example.
The setting of a Gothic horror novel will be important—not just to establish a spooky mood, but also to reflect the minds and secrets of the characters. Though the residents inhabiting the building may outwardly appear well-dressed, clean, and even kindly, the dilapidated state of the building will be a metaphor for the residents’ disturbed internal nature. Stories in this genre might feature supernatural entities such as ghosts or the aforementioned vampires.
3. Lovecraftian Horror
Named for an author who was one of the founders of this subgenre, in Lovecraftian, or cosmic, horror, you play with the reader’s fear of the unknown and reflect on mankind’s insignificance in the universe. Perhaps strange and powerful, even godlike, beings once inhabited and reigned supreme over the earth. They may be gone for now, or asleep or otherwise unavailable, but the threat that they will return and wreak havoc on mankind drives fear into the reader. These beings and the true history and nature of the universe are unknowable, and any character who attempts to understand them is likely to go mad.
Like the name suggests, this is the subgenre for all your beasties that threaten mankind. Aliens, werewolves, and Mr. Hydes go here. In these stories, some sort of evil is depicted in the form of a monster who is often stronger and smarter than the humans who fall prey to it. People aren’t used to being prey, and the thought that something out there might be hunting them will make your readers want to hide under their covers.
Of all the speculative genres, fantasy is my favourite, but it’s a pretty broad term. Does your story have a strange, even magical force that can’t be explained with modern science? That sounds like fantasy. Does it have creatures that are generally understood to be imaginary, such as dragons or fairies? Fantasy. Does your novel take place on a made-up world with made up cultures? It could be sci-fi, but it just might be fantasy again.
Too many treat fantasy as a lesser, childish genre, but fantasy has long been used to address real-world, adult issues with complexity and sensitivity. If time and care is taken, fantasy has the benefit of being able to explore these modern issues, presenting them to readers in a way that allows them to shed their prejudices before they step into your fictional world.
Fantasy can combine with any other genre to form an abundance of subgenres. Here are a small sampling of them.
1. Dark Fantasy
Dark fantasy novels often combine the fantasy elements with aspects of horror to make the stories grittier and more gruesome than what’s usually found in other subgenres. Major characters are less likely to carry the “get out of death free” cards so commonly found among heroes and sidekicks of other novels, and if they find themselves falling into trouble, they might not always be able to expect a rescue. The tone of novels in this subgenre should therefor be suitably dark and dreadful to signal to the reader what they’re getting into.
2. Fairy Tale
The fairy tale genre includes the many, many retellings of fairy tales out there, but it also includes original stories that have a fairy tale feel. You might see, not surprisingly, fairies, but you’ll also likely encounter witches, secret royals, curses, and dark kings or queens—whose kingdoms are often as dark and twisted as they are. You might also see nature personified, such as winter queens or forests that feel sentient.
3. High Fantasy
High fantasy, or epic fantasy at it’s sometimes called, is for the J. R. R. Tolkiens of the world. If you love to create your own worlds and fill them with races that each have their own, rich cultures and histories, this may be your playground. In a high fantasy, your plot is likely to involve high stakes that will affect your whole invented world, such as sweeping wars, the end of an empire, or a cataclysmic event that threatens the realm.
4. Urban Fantasy
In this subgenre, your story takes place in an urban setting, predominantly in the real world, and it will combine the real world with magical elements. This may include an actual magic system you’ve developed, or it may include imaginary beings, such as creatures found in mythology and heroic tales. Or it may include both!
Commonly, though it’s not a requirement, your main character will be an outsider who grew up in the mundane world, unaware of any magic or supernatural beings. Often this character will discover and become part of a magical, underground society that coexists secretly with the familiar world.
Much that I said about fantasy can be said of science fiction as well. Science fiction also frequently features invented worlds and races that may have unique powers. The genre is also known for using those invented worlds and races as metaphors for real-world issues like racism or colonialism.
The major difference between science fiction and fantasy is, while fantasy often deals with forces or beings that are supernatural in nature, science fiction prefers its imagined worlds, beings, and metaphysical powers to be scientifically plausible, even if sometimes they have to stretch that plausibility a little (or a lot) for the sake of the story or character development.
Instead of magic, science fiction will have technology or unusual biology. Rather than dismissing a character with telepathic abilities as being a wizard, a science fiction novel is more likely to explain their ability with an implanted microchip, or perhaps delve into how a mutation in that character’s physiology made them able to read brain waves at a distance.
Though historical science fiction absolutely exists, more often science fiction novels will be set in the future, whether that future is distant or near, and their plot will likely deal with a future technology’s impact on the world and even the universe.
For our sampling of science fiction subgenres, we have:
In apocalyptic fiction, a catastrophic event that will threaten civilization is about to happen. In post-apocalyptic fiction, it already has, and human civilization as we know it today has fallen apart or significantly transformed. This catastrophic event can be a natural event, such as a meteor striking earth, or a man-made one like a nuclear war, or it could even be an alien invasion. In any case, this event will change the world drastically (if it can’t be stopped), and humanity will have to fight to survive. The form their survival takes—whether mankind puts aside any differences and joins together, or whether their motto is “every man for himself”—will largely depend on the themes of the novel and how much of a pessimist the author is.
In a dystopian, something has gone very wrong in the setting of the novel, and the symptoms are usually societal. There is often a corrupt government in control. This may be a tyrannical government that has wrested control away from a legitimate government, but it’s common to see a degenerate, if charismatic, leader who reaps power by convincing the populace they must give up their freedoms in exchange for an ideal such as safety, unity, or order. Sometimes the outside threat to these ideals is real, and sometimes the threat is contrived by those in power in order to maintain said power.
As such, dystopian novels are often written about some aspect of our society the author views as potentially dangerous. They will take that troubling aspect—whether it be related to government, environmental policies, religion, technology, or so on—and ramp it up to an extreme in order to offer a critique on it.
Dystopian is its own subgenre but is often closely connected with post-apocalyptic fiction. In many novels, the rise of a dystopia happens in response to an apocalyptic event.
3. Hard Science Fiction
Hard science fiction is all about real, hardcore science, and there is very little stretching of science allowed in this subgenre. A novel may include some fictional technology or a scientific discovery that hasn’t happened in the real world yet, but it’s likely that technology or discovery is already being hoped for and expected in today’s scientific community. The point of hard science fiction is to have accurate science, and where the technology or advancements of the novel stretch into fiction, they must at least be logical and scientifically believable.
4. Space Opera
Unlike with hard science fiction, scientific accuracy isn’t usually so important in a space opera. The focus here is usually on larger than life characters and melodramatic adventures. Expect to see a lot of space travel, space battles, daring heroes and heroines, and maybe some romance to tie it all off.
Steampunk novels imagine a typically Victorian-era setting that gained steam power and steam-powered gadgetry in a time before those technologies were historically available. Your main character might be an inventor far ahead of their time who develops such technologies using the tools, resources, and artistic styles available in that era. Or, if your character isn’t such an inventor, there’s a decent chance they’ll meet one on their adventures.
6. Parallel Universe
A parallel universe is a reality that co-exists alongside another, often our own. This other reality may be entirely separate from ours, with a separate history and separate laws of physics that govern the world, but often the parallel universe depicts an alternate history of our own reality—one that has fundamentally changed that reality into something relatable but at least partly unrecognizable. The difference here between a parallel universe and other alternate history novels is that at least two realities exist within the story. In many cases this means your main characters will travel from their own universe into another. It’s not unusual to see this subgenre paired with time travel as well.
At last we’ve covered the major genres and I can issue a writing challenge to you! Most of you probably already know what genres you want to write in, but for this challenge I want you to try writing in a different genre than you normally would. Trying to write in other genres can be a useful exercise because sometimes you find you truly enjoy or are good at writing stories that fit into a genre other than the one you favour. And, even if you find you’re still best suited to your favourite genre, doing exercises like this can make your writing more versatile.
For this challenge, take a genre that doesn’t play to your strengths and write a scene with at least two characters that would fit into that genre. Suck at romantic scenes? That’s your genre now. Terrible at setting? Try writing a scene from a fantasy or horror story where setting can be as important as character.
Finding the genre for Project: Noveljutsu was pretty easy for me. I imagine the story as a trilogy that takes our main characters to locations across an entire country of my own creation. There will be cultures and histories that I design and maybe a few invented creatures. My main characters will interact with a magic system that causes far-reaching power imbalances. The genre for Project: Noveljutsu is going to be high, or epic, fantasy.