What is Genre Fiction?

The first thing I ask people when I’m preparing to give a book recommendation is, “What do like to read? What genres?” I’m often met with blank stares. Either that or “I like to read anything,” which a reader may think is true about themselves but I can guarantee you it’s not!

I’ve discovered that people can’t tell me what genre they like to read because they aren’t sure what genres are.

For example someone will say, “I like anything with a good story.” Then I’ll find out they don’t want murder, or sex, or harming of children, or any number of qualifiers. (My favorite repose to this question was a retired guy at the library book sale who announced, “The more murder the better!”)

Defining genre fiction is easy, it’s any fiction book (which means a made up story) that is in a specific category. For example, romance, horror, mystery, and science fiction are examples of genres. These books have “formulas” that readers expect.

When my library holds their used book sale, each table holds a different genre. This allows readers to find what they’re looking for easier.

My friend Jess has told me that once I helped her identify that historical fiction is her jam, she’s had a much easier time finding books that she loves.

So to help you figure out what your jam is, here’s a rundown of some of the most common genres in fiction with examples.


In a mystery novel, the plot always revolves around a crime that’s been committed. The protagonist (main character) is generally trying to solve the crime or prevent one.

Author examples: Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, CJ Box


Generally set in a made up world, though they can also take place in our read world, fantasy novels must have elements of magic, mythology, and/or the supernatural.

Author examples: Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Deborah Harkness


Horror writing is is intended to scare or disgust readers, and incite feelings of horror and terror. This can be done in both subtle and obvious ways.

Author examples: Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Joe Hill

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is always set in real time periods in the past. Sometimes there are characters who were real people/historical figures, other times the characters are fictional and the story is fictional.

Author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Phillipa Gregory, Ken Follett


A romance novel has two qualifiers: a love story is central to the plot, and the ending is optimistic and emotionally satisfying (AKA a happy ending.)

Example authors: Nora Roberts, Alyssa Cole, Nicholas Sparks


Generally, westerns are set in the American Old West frontier in the late eighteenth to late nineteenth century. Generally there is a self-reliant main character, lots of action and outlaws.

Example authors: Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry, Phillip Meyer


In a thriller, the main character is in danger from the beginning of the story. This is different from a mystery, where the reader has the same amount of information as the detective. Often in a thriller, the reader knows more than the character and fears for their safety.

Example authors: Gillian Flynn, Karin Slaughter, Riley Sager

Science Fiction

While sci-fi can be similar to fantasy, the big difference is that science strongly features themes of technology and future science. Apocalyptic and dystopian novels fit here too.

Example authors: Phillip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, Octavia Butler

Literary Fiction

While it seems like broad genre that encompasses many others, literary fiction doesn’t follow any of the above “formulas.” It often explores the human experience and can provide social commentary.

Example authors: Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Colson Whitehead

Short Stories

While they can encompass any of the genres above, short stories are significantly shorter than novels. Often authors will publish a collection on a theme.

Example authors: Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri

I hope this basic introduction to genre fiction is useful for you. Now you might have an easier time finding books and authors that you will enjoy!

Let me know in the comments if you’d like to learn more about sub-genres and tropes in fiction as well. As always, I love hearing from you!

1 Comment

  1. Five Things Friday August 7, 2020 - RamonaMead.com

    August 7, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    […] by Rufi Thorpe, which immediately became my favorite novel of the year so far. It’s a work of literary fiction about the long friendship between two young people who are neighbors in the California suburbs. […]

Leave a Reply