A Complete Guide to the Types of Novels

Toni Morrison: If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.

There are many different types of novels, and you need to know from the start which category to specialize in. Why? Because writing is a business.

I love the quotation by Toni Morrison at the top. If you don't write a novel that you "really want to read," what's the point in doing it at all?

But, still, fiction is a business. Even if you don't care about making money from your writing, you still want an audience – and readers and dollars amount to the same thing. So you need to be smart...

  • Yes, write the type of novel that you want to write. If you choose a genre simply on the basis of how large or popular it is, you'll have a tough time getting motivated to write.
  • That said, don't ignore the market totally. You do need to find a profitable niche to target – or a sizeable group of readers who buy novels similar to the one you intend to write.

In other words, you need to meet two sets of desires at once: your desire to write the type of book you want to write, and your audience's desire to read what they like to read.

Hopefully, the needs of both parties will be perfectly aligned. If not, you may need to tweak your plans somewhat to ensure that, once you've finished your novel, there is a market for it.

More On the Business of Writing

I know, I know – the reading public is going to love your fiction! But at least stop to consider the possibility that they may not. Too many writers over too many years have suffered from that crushing rejection...

"Great novel, but we can't see a market for it."

True, the publishing scene isn't as tough as it used to be (indeed, there's never been a better time to write fiction). But even so...

Writing a novel without having a solid idea of the position it will occupy in the book-buying marketplace is a risky strategy...

  • You can get away with it if your novel just happens to slot neatly into a fiction category, more by luck than judgment.
  • If it slips between the gaps, readers will be far less inclined to buy it – no matter how great the quality of the writing.

So, please, do take the time to research your market. What does that mean?

It means taking the time to investigate all the different types of novels, and then choosing a category which not only appeals to you but, crucially, has a large-enough audience to allow you to meet your financial goals.

Still not convinced?

Then think of novels like products in a supermarket...

Each aisle is devoted to a particular type of product: meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables, breakfast cereals, and so on.

Now suppose you invent a new product, one that doesn't fit into any of the aisles because there's nothing else like it.

It's possible that you just invented the "next big thing." More likely, the supermarket won't stock the product because they can't find a place for it on their shelves – or they can't "position" it in the market.

The flip side to that is trying to place a product in a highly-competitive section of the supermarket. Yes, they can "position" it alright. But because the competition is so fierce, you don't stand a chance as a newcomer.

Back to the literary marketplace...

"Too competitive a market" is not such a problem if your novel is accepted by a big publishing house. If they believe in you, and if they back up that belief with a huge marketing budget, you could be well on your way to the top rung of the novelist's ladder.

If you go down the self-publishing route (by far the easiest way to make it as a writer), you won't have the kind of financial clout that the big boys have. So you need to find a "Goldilocks" niche...

  • Not so large that you'll be invisible next to all the bestselling writers.
  • Not so small that there aren't enough readers of that type of fiction – not even if you become the biggest fish in the pond.

Again, do your research before you begin to write. This guide to the different types of novels will get you off to a flying start...

The Three Categories of Fiction

Broadly speaking, fiction can be divided into three varieties: literary, genre, and mainstream. The first thing you need to do when deciding what type of novel you want to write is to come down in one of the three camps.

As a keen reader, you're probably already familiar with the three categories, so I've only included a thumbnail sketch of each one below. To learn more about any of the categories, click on the links (then hit the back button to return here when you're done).

  • Genre fiction is the most popular variety of fiction. It can be divided into categories such as mysteries, thrillers, and romances. If you decide to write genre fiction, you need to be aware that each category will have a particular set of rules (or conventions) that you, the writer, will need to more or less follow in order to satisfy the fans of that category.
  • Literary novels are generally far less commercial than genre ones – but only generally. If your literary novel happens to win a major prize or get made into a movie or receive some positive word-of-mouth buzz, it could still make you very rich. A page-turning plot is less important here than in genre fiction. What is more important? Deep characterization, the exploration of theme and "fine" writing.
  • Mainstream fiction, as you might have guessed, sits more or less halfway between the other two. In fact, it's often defined in terms of how it's not quite as "literary" as literary fiction and not quite as plot-driven as genre novels.

The Two Types of Novels That Matter

What is a novel for? What is the point of them? Why do we even bother to read them? I know those sound like odd question, but they really are relevant to this discussion (so stick with me on this!)

Let's start by thinking about this question...

Why Do We Read Novels?

1. Entertainment and escape...

This is perhaps the biggest motivation behind us picking up a good book. Novels fill time that might otherwise be filled with boredom, and they offer a temporary escape from our workaday worlds.

And incidentally, entertainment and escape don't just explain why we read novels, but why we go to the theater, ride a roller coaster, listen to music, or do just about any of those things we do to take us away from our everyday lives and concerns.

2. Understanding of the human condition...

From the day we're born to the day we die, we are all on a quest to improve ourselves. We might not always know it, but all of us are struggling to understand this world we call home and what it takes to get by in it.

Much of our understanding, of course, comes from our first-hand experiences. But it also comes from hearing about the experiences of others. And guess what? A novel is one of the best ways there is to tap into what our fellow humans think and feel about this world.

All good novels have something to say about one aspect or another of the "human condition" – about how to find true love, about the horrors of war, about a million things.

Sometimes when we read these thoughts and insights, we will have arrived at similar conclusions ourselves, and we'll take comfort from knowing that we are not alone.

More often, an author will shed fresh, unexpected light on an issue, and our understanding of that issue is deepened or even changed, making us grow as a person.

How Does This Help With Deciding What Kind of Fiction to Write?

As you know, novels fall into two distinct groups: genre fiction and literary fiction. (The third type, mainstream fiction, sits somewhere between the two.) Still speaking broadly...

  • Genre novels are seen as providing plenty of entertainment but less understanding of the human condition.
  • With literary novels, you get plenty of understanding but less in the way of entertainment.

But it seems to me that you need to provide both these things, whatever category of fiction you plan to write.

Sure, genre fiction must always put entertainment first (in the form of a great plot). And readers of literary fiction will expect deep characterization, word-perfect writing and a philosophical exploration of theme (at the expense of such a fast-paced plot).

But that doesn't mean that you can concentrate on only the one thing and neglect the other...

  • On one level you must write a page-turning plot full of twists and turns and some well-paced action. That's entertainment.
  • On another level, you need to create a cast of fully rounded, believable characters who are struggling to overcome some very human problems. The way they deal with these problems will provide the reader with insights into the human condition – insights which will stay with them long after they have turned the final page.

And you must do both of these things, whatever type of novel you write. Providing lots of entertainment but little understanding, or vice versa, is a trap you must avoid.

Bottom line? To my mind, there are only two types of fiction that matter...

  • good novels
  • bad novels

... and you can find both varieties in every section of the bookstore.

What is a novel's purpose? It is to entertain and provide understanding of the human condition. Bad novels provide entertainment or understanding. But only good novels provide both.

Discovering Your Niche Market

So far, we've divided the book-buying marketplace into three broad categories: genre, literary and mainstream fiction. We've also said that the only two types of novels that matter are good novels and bad novels (hint: steer clear of the second variety!)

The final step is to narrow down to your specific niche. As you do this, understand that it's possible – even desirable – to thrive in a very small niche, now that you have the Internet to help you market your fiction.

How do you narrow down?

The odds are that you already have. We all have our favorite niche writers, and the chances are that you plan to write fiction very similar to one of those writers (albeit in your own unique way).

It's likely, too, that you've spent years getting to know this niche as a reader. If not, that's okay – but do start reading now.

Read as many books as you can by writers who operate in the same niche. As you do so, keep half a mind on where your fiction will eventually sit in this mini-marketplace...

  • How will your novels be the same as these books you've been reading (allowing you to appeal to fans of that niche)?
  • How will they be different (allowing you to stand out as a unique voice)?

Be as specific and as detailed as you can. A group of novelists who essentially write the "same type of fiction" will each still have elements in their novels which make them uniquely theirs...

  • They might all be set in the same place and time (New York in the 1950s; the North of England during the Industrial Revolution).
  • They might all feature a similar kind of hero (geeky underdog winning against the odds; feisty woman making her way in male-dominated worlds).

If you had to describe what type of fiction you write in a single sentence, what would it say? What is it about your fiction that makes it a recognizable member of its category? What makes it uniquely yours? For example...

  • If you plan to write vampire novels, how will yours stand out from every other vampire novel that has ever been written?
  • If you write detective fiction, what is special about your detective?
  • If fantasy fiction is your thing, how is your fantasy world different from all the worlds that have been created before?

In short, choose a "Goldilocks" niche (not too big, not too small) then find a way to "spin" it. Don't rush this process...

It's partly about researching the market – finding out what the competition is doing and how they are faring in terms of sales. Such analysis takes time, but it's worth it because you'll be laying the foundations for your entire novel-writing career.

The other part is about analyzing your own head – brainstorming for ideas, in other words. More than that, it's about finding ideas that you really want to write about, rather than ideas that you feel may be more commercial (or more whatever).

Bottom line?

Deciding what type of novel to write is ultimately the same thing as creating a business plan. No serious business targets a market that is too small (near-zero demand) or too large (too much supply to be able to compete). And it's exactly the same for the novel writer.