The Category Game

I spent the better part of the past weekend promoting my latest novel, DARKBEAST, to avid readers who are not necessarily readers of fantasy and science fiction.  (I was attending the Baltimore Book Festival’s Children’s Bookstore Stage and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association annual meeting.)  I got my patter down pretty quickly:  “DARKBEAST is a traditional fantasy novel perfect for middle grade readers, both boys and girls.  It’s the story of Keara, a girl who has been magically bonded to her best friend, a raven, since birth.  When her society dictates that Keara must sacrifice her raven so that she can become an adult, she decides to run away from home and join a troupe of traveling actors.”

My pitch is all about giving my listeners categories:  “traditional fantasy novel”, “middle grade readers”, “both boys and girls”…  The weekend became one giant game of Categories.

You’ve all played “Categories” haven’t you?  You make a grid, and across the top you put a variety of categories (e.g. “animals”, “colors”, and “cheeses”) and down one side you put letters of the alphabet.  Then, with a time limitation, you try to come up with an item for each category that starts with each letter.

Often, I feel like we break down science fiction and fantasy this way.  Across the top, we put “Non-Western-Culture Steampunk in Translation”, “Feminist Space Opera with All Non-Human Characters”, “Pacifist Military SF Built on Pre 1970′s Technology”, etc.  Then, we try to fill in the columns, with all the amazing, incredible, obscure novels we know.

But sometimes, I think we’d be better served to look at the bigger picture, the broader categories.  For people who are new to our genre, or people who have read widely in some sub-genres but not across the board, our “micro-categories” can be alienating.  When we try to expand the foundation of our genre, we can reach more people by defining things as broadly as possible.

Of course, our broadest categories are “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” (with a possible third of “Horror”).  But we don’t want our categories to be so broad that they’re useless.  The person who revels in the scientific rigor of Stanislaw Lem is likely to be disappointed by Mary Doria Russell.  Likewise, the person who adores the humor of Jim C. Hines might not be thrilled with the staid worldbuilding of J.R.R. Tolkien.

So, what is the bare minimum of categories that we can define, to satisfy readers looking for similar books without overwhelming readers with specificity?

Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll propose the following for fantasy, I’d propose epic fantasy, traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, humorous fantasy, and alternative history.

So?  What about you?  Modify my list for fantasy, and make your own for science fiction and/or horror!

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  1. 1. Deborah Blake

    My problem (and that of many authors, I suspect) is that not everything I write fits easily into one specific category. And you know how agents and editors love that :-)

    Some paranormal romance is really a kind of fantasy…so maybe fantasy romance? Or romantic fantasy. Something like that.

    Does steampunk fit in their somewhere too? Or would we call that historical fantasy?

  2. 2. Patchi

    I think the problem with categories is that people feel the need to fit a book neatly in the box. Instead, I like using keyword tags to describe a book. With enough tags you can find exactly what you like. I know this works better for digital libraries and bookstores than the physical ones. But for readers looking for a book, it might help them find something new that might have been boxed in a category they normally don’t read.

  3. 3. Mindy Klasky

    Deb – I wonder if we divide paranormal and urban fantasy, for these somewhat-broad topics? Do they all fit under romantic fantasy? And, in the interest of limiting sub-categories, I wonder if steampunk fits into alternative history? Or does it need to stand on its own? Perhaps both steampunk and alt history fit into your proposed historical fantasy (which I like!)

    Patchi – I agree that tags work well for electronic media, but as you note, they don’t translate well to print. I’m still a bit amazed that it remains so hard to browse effectively in online bookstores…

  4. 4. Dany

    Under fantasy, I’d propose the categories of mythological and/or fairy tale fiction as well. While those could fit under alternative history, I’d say that there’s a distinct difference between something firmly grounded in history with fantastical elements added for flavour, and something like “Mists of Avalon”, “Black Ships”, or “The Bull from the Sea”. The author in these cases is working within an established framework of magic and religion (and, frequently, separating the two is a futile effort), moulding already-known characters and plotlines to suit their story, and while historicity may form a backdrop, it usually isn’t the main focus.

  5. 5. Mindy Klasky

    Dany – I love the idea of fairy tale fiction, especially as we see so many of the classic tales retold!

  6. 6. Thomas Cardin

    Can I get a clear definition of the difference between epic fantasy and traditional fantasy? Wiki is all over the place.

    I have yet to determine where my fantasy WIP falls. Its a secret origin story of the mythology of a living, magical world in a universe far removed from our own. It’s epic, apocolyptic and heroic.

    Suffice to say, I can’t clearly categorize it between epic fantasy and heroic fantasy…it seems so much more than that.

  7. 7. Mindy Klasky

    Thomas – I don’t know that there *is* a clear difference between epic and traditional. I’d venture that “epic fantasy” concerns the battle between good and evil where an entire world (or society or culture) is at stake. “Traditional fantasy” can take place on a much smaller playing field — it can be the battle for one person’s soul/social-standing/reality, without implicating all of society.

    (As a gross over-simplification, I’d venture that THE HOBBIT is traditional fantasy; LotR is epic fantasy.)

    (And as for your work being so much more than a label, that’s true for every work. The labels serve a shorthand purpose, so that agents, editors, and readers know where to look for them. They are the signs on the cupboard door, not the contents contained therein!)

    Does that help?


  1. The Category Game | Mindy Klasky, Author

Author Information

Mindy Klasky

Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.



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