Genrely Speaking: Aesthetics and Characteristics

So I promised to talk about Aesthetic and Characteristic genres today. For starters, so far as I know, this is not any official literary distinction; it’s just something I’ve noticed as I spent the last year or so working on this segment and started organizing the genres I’ve covered into something like a comprehensive list. So what exactly prompted me to start breaking genres into two groups?

Well, basically it was the fact that genres get mixed and matched a lot. “Scifi thriller” or “paranormal romance” just to name a few. Look at either of those and you can break them into component parts. The scifi in the first is usually some kind of space opera or maybe just twenty minutes in the future hard scifi. The thriller is something else (that is not related to Michael Jackson.) Paranormal probably means urban fantasy while romance is well… romance. Each of these “genres” is actually two genres – one governing the aesthetics and themes of the story, the other governing the kinds of characters we see and the pacing and focus of the actual plot.

While on the one hand you can mix and match aesthetic and characteristic genres you can’t really combine two aesthetic or characteristic genres. Take the detective story and the police procedural, for example. Each of those genres demands totally different focuses for character development and plot structure. Likewise you can’t combine steampunk, with it’s heavy emphasis on progress and examining the standards of society, with the high fantasy themes of upholding law, rightful rulers and the destruction of the depraved – or you could, but your story would be jumbled, confused and lacking in impact.

Unlike the genres themselves, these protogroupings (ur-groupings?) have no real pros or cons. It’s just another way to take the expectations of your audience and your literary form and analyze them. I’ve been wondering if I should even bother making the distinction here on the blog since it adds so little to how I look at them – but then, there’s no telling what the Internet will make of things so there is that.

One of the most interesting things about aesthetic and characteristic genres is that they can stand on their own just fine. Thriller is a perfectly serviceable genre without adding scifi or paranormal overtones to it. So are hard scifi, space opera, detective stories, you name it. The whole point of fiction is to give us a reflection of real life with which we can form a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. If there’s one particular part you want to focus on without wasting time building up added layers of complexity, go for it. That’s a real strength for a writer and you should not shy away from it. Genres are tools for understanding, not requirements of it.

So write whatever you want. But if you’re having trouble getting your themes focused or your characters to flow the way you want them don’t hesitate to use genres to help you find focus. That’s a big part of what they’re there for.