Oct 19 2010

Genres, Queries and Superhero Stories

Published by at 9:36 am under Writing Articles

The Great Geek Manual linked to a potentially helpful Writer’s Digest article about how to identify your genre and deal with ambiguous situations. In summary:

  • Identifying a genre in your query can help show the editor what sort of audience you’re aiming at and what sort of  “experience” you’re offering to them.  (My addition: identifying too many genres suggests that the author isn’t really clear why people would want to read the book).
  • Sometimes the genre isn’t 100% clear.  For example, Spiderman could be action, science-fiction or maybe romance, and Batman could be action, detective/crime, maybe horror and maybe science-fiction.  Pick a main genre.  For example, in most Spiderman stories, there’s romance and some scientific shenanigans on the side, but the main plot is usually violently stopping a villain.  In such cases, the main genre is probably action.

Some more suggestions from me…


1.  I think genres are generally optional in novel queries and comic book submission letters because it should be pretty obvious from your description of the plot and characters.  If you haven’t given the editors enough information to guess a genre on their own, I’d recommend going back to the drawing board.  However, mentioning 1-2 genres may help the editors quickly determine what sort of book you’re pitching.

2.  Whichever genre(s) you pick, your query should hit the right emotional notes. If you’re writing a comedy, the query should be at least amusing.  A horror should make us wonder whether the characters will survive, a romance should make us wonder whether the characters get together, etc.

3.  Don’t call the book a comedy just because it has some funny lines. I would only recommend calling it a comedy if your main goal is to make readers laugh and readers probably could not enjoy it unless they found it funny.  You’re probably not writing a comedy unless you’ve taken out scenes because they weren’t funny enough. If the book is allegedly a comedy but it has pages (or even chapters) without funny lines, you are in real trouble.  Pitch what you have!

4.  Action and romance sometimes blur together. If you’re not sure which one describes your story better, here are some rules of thumb.

  • In a romance, the love interest is almost always a major character.  In contrast, in a lot of action stories, the love interest is more of a bit character, like a Bond girl: usually more seen than heard, and not that much of either.
  • In a romance, the love interest usually changes the protagonist in some major way, like prodding Scott Pilgrim to become more mature and raising his self-expectations.  If the love interest is more of a trophy or a sign that the character has “arrived,” it’s probably more of an action.
  • In a romance, the love interest usually has some sort of life independent of the protagonist.  In contrast, I think Pepper Potts has ~5 lines in Ironman that are neither to Tony nor about Tony.  Mary Jane is a bit more fleshed out in that regard, especially in “Spiderman Loves Mary Jane,” where she’s the main character.
  • If the main plot centers around the protagonist trying to violently defeat a villain, I’d probably classify it as an action unless the hero is mainly fighting the villain to pursue a romance.  (As in the Scott Pilgrim series–Scott is only fighting Ramona’s Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends because they’re a romantic obstacle).

5.  When does a superhero story “count” as science fiction?

  • If science is mainly a way to give heroes and/or villains superpowers but doesn’t come up much afterwards, I wouldn’t recommend describing the story as sci-fi in a query or proposal letter.   If you’ve given the characters superpowers so that they can have intense battles or solve crimes, it’s probably action or  detective/crime.
  • The larger the changes between your setting and the real world, the more likely it will feel like science fiction.  For example, maybe the story is set significantly in the future and/or away from Earth.  Alternately, perhaps it is set in modern Earth, but the premise is SO out-there that the world feels fundamentally different in some major way.  For example, District 9 had thousands of aliens and a human-turned-alien in a story where “otherness” and a human-alien conflict were crucial.  In contrast, Superman is an alien but his species rarely plays a major part of the story except for explaining where he got his superpowers.  So District 9 is more of a science fiction story than Superman is, even though both have aliens and spaceships.

6.  When does a superhero story “count” as detective/crime rather than action?

  • In a detective/crime story, the focus is usually more on solving the crime than on beating up the antagonist.  It’s an uncommon angle for a superhero story.  The only superhero stories that I can think of that feel more like detective stories than action are Powers, Top 10, a few versions of Batman and the Question, and maybe (if you squint really hard) Watchmen. Also, District X and Gotham Central aren’t exactly superhero stories, but they feature mostly unpowered cops investigating superpowered crimes.
  • In most superhero action stories, the protagonists do not have to work hard to find or identify the antagonist.  An action story will usually have the superhero respond to crimes in progress, whereas a detective story usually focuses on the character responding to crimes that have already happened.  (However, at the end, both action and detective superheroes frequently avert the villain’s biggest crime as it is about to happen).

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Genres, Queries and Superhero Stories”

  1. Abby Annison 19 Oct 2010 at 1:54 pm

    This is such a great post! I’ve been waffling for a while about whether my story is science fiction or urban fantasy, and I think this has cleared things up for me. Thanks!

  2. Rachel Mon 19 Oct 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Hi, everyone! I’m Rachel. I found this site several days ago, and started commenting without introducing myself first-Sorry! I get ahead of myself sometimes:(.

    Very helpful post, this has been bugging me. Thank you!:)

  3. Anonymouson 21 Oct 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Alternatively, you could just put ‘superhero fiction’. I feel this may adequately describe any number of stories that feature mysterious figures in masks, capes and brightly-coloured spandex doing things that might vary from destroying New York with a fake alien space squid to beating up escaped mental patients because the local justice system is a bigger joke than anything the major villain has ever told.

    Just a thought.

  4. B. Macon 21 Oct 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Good thinking, Anonymous. Mentioning the superhero angle gets the point across very quickly. However, I think if you mention “superhero,” “fiction” is probably unnecessary*.

    It might help to add a genre, though, particularly if the story isn’t action-heavy. Editors may assume that “superhero” means “action,” which isn’t always the case. A superhero romance or a superhero novel for young adults/children probably won’t be on the same bookstore shelf as a superhero action, so I think it pays to be more specific.

    *I think “superhero” usually implies fiction, although there are some self-explanatory exceptions (an author might describe his nonfictional history of the Superman series as a “superhero story,” for example, because it is technically a story about a superhero).

  5. Milanon 22 Oct 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Thanks B. Mac, this is a great article. It has done more than many others to help me figure out my genre. I have a superhero novel. It has science fiction/fantasy, but is set in the real world. It has comedy, but it has serious bits. It otherwise might resemble a James Bond story (action), but with some romantic character development.

    I need to nail one of these genre elements, and I haven’t yet. I want to have all of them, and yet there will be situations where I have to choose. The one I choose the most, will satisfy the reader looking for that, the most. It is a four-genre pastiche. Not including “superhero”. Wikipedia is not kind to the concept of pastiche.

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