Romance, character, healing and the hero


In her discussion of Romance, Joyce Saricks writes: “Characters rather than plots twists drive Romances. In a Romance the lovers must come to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. As readers, we see interior as well as exterior aspects of these characters, and we respond to them and their developing relationship. In her Contemporary Romances Susan Elizabeth Phillips explores complex family relationships and the difficult concepts of guilt, forgiveness, and grief. Although these affect the protagonists and force them to mature, these themes do not detract from the power of the Romance. In fact, it is because of the environment the Romance creates, one in which the characters feel safe sharing their deepest emotions, that healing finally comes.

This growth, however, is not limited only to Romances with a serious side. In almost all, the characters are forced to change, to relinquish preconceptions about themselves (often their lack of self-worth) and their partners before they are able to embrace the romantic union readers demand.” (p.134)

“That characters are written to a pattern is important, too, as it is in most genres from adventure to Women’s Lives and Relationships. the women are bright, independent, strong, and, perhaps surprisingly, not always beautiful but certainly interesting and articulate. The men must be strong, distant, and always dangerous, because the stronger the hero, the greater the victory when the heroine brings him to his senses and his knees. Conquering a gentle, affectionate, mild-mannered, sensible hero simply is not satisfying, either for the heroine or for the reader.” (p.134)

“One last important point about characterization is that we almost always get the point of view of both protagonists. This allows us to experience their inner dilemmas and follow their thoughts as they work out their relationship. This is not just her story; it is his as well. Romances are almost never written first-person; the reader and author require the third-person to create the full picture, to reveal easily the inner thoughts and struggles of both characters.” (p.135)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

Sex and virginity in Romance novels


Virginity, sexual awakening, and inexperience in romance

On the importance of both virginity and sex in romance, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have quite a lot to say – all interesting. They write that “One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.

Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance. No other genre is as obsessed with the heroine (a) having excellent sex, and (b) not having sex at all unless it’s with the One True Love, who’s also usually the sole person who can make her come. Got orgasm? Got true love! The heroine’s sexual inexperience remains intact only until the hero’s wang of mighty lovin’ introduces her to the wonderment of the fizznuckin’. It’s part and parcel fo the fantasy: the awakening to love  is that much more powerful when it’s accompanied by a sexual awakening as well.

Everything about the love has to be superlative, and on the [-p.37] heroine’s part, it’s easiest to use an association we’re already comfortable with: sexual purity. The sexually experienced woman in fiction still raises hackles and creates uncomfortable associations with uncleanness, the threat of infidelity, and moral degeneration. Interestingly enough, the sexual experience is also superlative for the hero, but authors choose to portray it using, not inexperience (which would ruin the fantasy, because we’re not necessarily interested in reading about lovers who come a little bit too fast and use a little bit too much tongue when kissing), but what we and many others online refer to as the Magic Hoo Hoo. The Magic Hoo Hoo does it all: it heals all ills, psychic and sexual. It provides unparallelled pleasure to the hero, despite the heroine’s reluctance, inexperience, and awkwardness. It’s capable of experiencing (and inducing) earth-shattering multiple orgasms on its first outing. It also creates an instant emotional bond that’s even more irrational and persistent than a newly hatched chick imprinting on the first living thing it sees. All that, and it makes you coffee in the morning. One taste of the Magic Hoo Hoo is all it takes; the hero won’t be satisfied with anything else, physically or emotionally.” (p.38)

“In contemporary romance, virginity is treated differently. The heroine can be:
A: A bona fide virgin, for any number of reasons, many of them completely neurotic and serving as backstory for why the heroine doesn’t believe in herself.
B. Sexually experienced – but it’s never been like it is with the hero….
c. Sexually experienced and perfectly happy with her past orgasms, so much so that it’s a nonissue, but inexperienced in some other, very significant way.” (p.51)

Most contemporary romance novels published after the early 1990s allow the heroines to have sex. They have sex before marriage with somebody who isn’t the hero. They aren’t presented as pure, pristine vessels of womanhood…. So how to create the imbalance of power? What can substitute for viriginity?
Ignorance and inexperience, of course! And maybe life-threatening danger.
Many a contemporary heroine finds herself a fish out of water in the plot of a romance. The city girl moves to the small town in the coutnry. The country girl moves to the city…. …you can make a fool of yourself and charm or fight your way out time and again – it never gets old!” (p.52)

Paranormal romances: from virginity to turning/changing…

Wendell and Tan take this discussion into the paranormal arena, describing the way in which the heroine’s virginity is given new life (as it were) in this genre:

Paranormal romances have a different spin on the virginity angle. Not only is there a chance for an otherworldly protagonist and an innocent human becoming mixed up in each other’s worlds, [-p.53] but there’s always the question of whether he will change or turn her into whatever creature he is. Lilith Saintcrow theorizes that the ‘changing’ or ‘turning’ motif of paranormal romances is the new virginity, and we Bitches think she’s on to something. How many conflicts in paranormal romances are created because he bites her and turns her into a vampire…? Rarely is there a cure. Instead, the happy ending hinges on the communion and then a new community – the heroine becomes like the hero after he initiates her into his world.” (pp.52-53)

Saintcrow traces the modern origins of the virginity/paranormal change parallel to Anne Rice and the first several books of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Rice’s ‘florid descriptions of teeth puncturing skin in her vampire series are downright erotic, code-talk for sex.’ As Saintcrow tells it, among a generation of women who had grown up in a time when unprecedented developments in birth control finally allowed women largely to avoid the risks of pregnancy, and record numbers of women were graduating from college, in swaggered Anita Blake, a gun-toting vampire hunter who was not only strong and competent, but ‘morally and ethically ambiguous,’ in a way mostly allowed in male characters at the time. The mix of unwilling penetration and transformation with strong female characters led to a transgressive space in which a woman is allowed to own her own body and sexuality, but lingering cultural anxieties about ownership over the wandering vagina meant the “metaphor of contamination’ by werewolf, vampire, etc., takes the place of the defloration.”

Saintcrow also points out that the language between the heroine’s unwilling loss of virginity and the unwilling change is startlingly similar. As she wrote in an interview with us:
‘The heated descriptions of breaking the hymen can, with very little trouble, be transferred over to the male vampire/werewolf biting the female human to transform her. Through this agency of contamination the female human is initiated into the world of sex [-p.54] or ‘darkness’ and discovers sexual autonomy/Phenom Cosmic Power. It’s simply not workable to have a believable female virgin over thirty anymore. Not because it’s socially impossible anymore, but because the women shelling out the dough to buy the romances won’t buy it the way they would in the seventies….’

And really, that’s the basic plot of any virginity loss: he initiates her into his experience, and includes her in his world.” (pp.53-54)

Ref: Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (2009) Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. Fireside: New York

Romance reading pleasure… how much, when and where is the sex?

It’s an interesting discussion, and one which connects with what Joyce Saricks has to say on the matter of reading Romance… On conducting the reader’s advisory interview, Saricks writes: “There are three vital pieces of information we need to discover: what does this particular reader mean by Romance? Does this reader want a book set in a particular time period or with Paranormal elements? And, finally, how much sex does the reader want – or how much will she tolerate?” (p.143)

A “…crucial piece of information we need to discover when we talk to readers is the amount of sex they want in their Romances. By this, I do not simply mean whether they want a lot of sex or very little and how graphically it is described. Sometimes one very explicit interlude leaves readers feeling this is a very sexy book, even if that was an isolated occurrence. The real point is the intensity and frequency of the sexual encounters, and whether they occur at the beginning, before the reader really knows the heroine and hero, or farther along in the story. Often if the sex comes later, it feels different than books in which there is graphic sex right from the first few pages. If the sex is later and between a couple seen by readers as ‘made for each other,’ it is less likely to offend or even really be noticed, almost regardless of how graphic. We are often surprised by readers  who say they are looking for books without a lot of sex, like those by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Stephanie Laurens, when we know that explicit sexual interludes figure prominently in novels by these authors. This is a phenomenon I am unable to explain, even though I have encountered it with regularity in speaking with readers. It may have something to do with the reader’s perception of the heroine. If she engages in sexual activity too early in the story, before we know and care about her, we may be more likely to view her as promiscuous. That perception creates a different tone in the story, and for many readers it is not as satisfying.” (p.144) “Readers are really looking for that satisfaction Romances give them, and for some, sex too soon or too much sex destroys that feeling. The atmosphere and when sex occurs can make all the difference.” (p.145)

Not that Saricks reduces the genre to the positioning of the sex in the book! (I get the pun, but I’m feeling short on words). It is simply an important part of the appeal that she discusses…

Saricks also notes (and is this comment relevant?): “Judging from my personal experience, when we come face to face with a Romance reader, we have only about five seconds to make a connection with the reader. This may sound absurd, but we have no more than a few seconds in which to let this reader know that we understand Romances and their appeal.This is not the time to be aloof. Romance readers are accustomed to being looked down upon, and we need to learn ways to indicate immediately that we have read in this genre, that we are someone they can talk with about their favorites.” (p.145)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago



Joyce Saricks writes that “Many librarians dismiss Westerns as a dying genre. It seems that publishers agree, since they currently reprint popular authors and titles from the past and publish fewer and fewer new titles. Still, the archetype of the lone man bringing justice has long been a dominant theme in American literature and one that still resonates with readers. Westerns were first popular as pulp fiction at the turn of the twentieth century, and their appeal was dramatized on radio and television shows and in the movies from the early years of that century through the 1960s. After languishing for several decades, Westerns are making a comeback on television and in the movies. Readers who appreciate the satisfying stories found in this genre can only hope that Western novels, such an integral part of our roots in legend and literature, will once again become a staple of our collections.” (p.313)

Defining Westerns:

Saricks explains: “In traditional Westerns we expect cowboys, cattle drives, gunslingers, adventure, and gunplay. Fans do not necessarily require historical accuracy, although they do expect realistic detail in firearms and accoutrement. However, creating a strong sense of time and place, the feel of the Old West, is essential. Westerns speak to basic, deep-seated feelings about the land and the men who brought justice to the wild, uninhabited country and thus helped make it safe for those who civilized it.

The West was viewed as a land of opportunity that offered the possibility of redemption for those who had escaped the confines of civilization. Westerns dramatize and romanticize the conflict between the civilizing influences of the East and the wild, untamed West, as they portray the dangers faced by the men who brought order to the new territory.” (p.313)

Saricks’s approach to Westerns “also encompasses Historical novels set in the West during the same time period. These Novels of the West accurately depict the western expansion and emphasize historical details and events. These titles often feature explorers as well as the settlers who stayed on to civilize the West. In addition, they frequently include strong female characters, as it is usually the women who are responsible for bringing civilization. These novels explore the issues arising in the civilizing of the West; their focus is on the people who came and stayed. Traditional Westerns, in contrast, more frequently depict the lone man riding into a community and then leaving once his job is complete.

However, as those distinctions now increasingly blur in the novels read by fans of both Westerns and Historical Fiction, the differences between the two become harder to define and less important. Western readers, generally speaking, do not require the strong historical background vital to Historical Fiction fans, but they will enjoy many of these larger, historically accurate novels, because they are set against a familiar background, just as fans of Historical Fiction about the West will appreciate the sense of time and place they find in Westerns.” (p.314)

“Westerns, then” Saricks goes on, “are novels set in the western United States (with the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as the eastern boundaries0 primarily from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century. They feature the adventures of cowboys, scouts, Indians, settlers, and lawmen, and they explore the clash between civilization and anarchy in mythic stories of men and the land. While they may accurately depict the time and place in which they are set, the image and feel of the West and of those times, as well as the struggle too survive against myriad perils, take precedence over history.” (p.314)

Characteristics of Westerns

“1. The exterior descriptions of the landscape and terrain frame the books, which take place in the western United States in the decades between the Civil War and 1900. Since they may be set in unidentified places (simply the West) and in an unspecified time, they often project a sense of timelessness.

2. The traditional hero is often a loner who arrives to right wrongs and then moves on. Heroes use strategy before guns to win arguments, although they are often forced to use violence in the end.

3. Plots may be complex or more straightforward. Common themes include the redemptive power of the West, the difficulties surviving in a harsh landscape, revenge, and the lack of law along with the necessity of creating just laws.

4. Nostalgia for times past creates an elegiac tone that permeates many Westerns.

5. Pacing may be breakneck in Westerns that feature action-packed stories or more measured in others.

6. Dialogue is generally spare, colorful, and rich in jargon, but many Westerns also feature lyrical descriptions of the landscape.” (p315)

Landscape and the land – modern political importance?

Saricks also notes that “Landscape dominates the Western, and it is often so carefully drawn that it is a character itself.” (p.314) … got me thinking about Space Westerns again… and Joss Whedon’s Firefly… obviously the Western genre still has fans… and still has currency … but what part of it? landscape as character? That would almost work on a political level, because of the ‘new’ way of looking at the land that seems to have come with post-colonialism (I’m talking government and their increasing understanding of indigenous relationships with and knowledge of the land… is the land more of a character again?)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

Science Fiction


“Science Fiction,” according to Joyce Saricks, “is a genre that strikes fear in the hearts of many librarians. If we do not read it,” she writes, “this genre seems as strange as the beings that populate the pages of its books. And Science Fiction readers often seem an exclusive club, into which it is hard for a nonfan to gain admission.

Upon further exploration, however, we are likely to find this a genre rich in both physical and intellectual adventure, with something to offer a wide range of readers. This vast genre, with roots in the nineteenth century, is respected by fans and others for its intellectual underpinnings, and its diversity offers a variety of interesting directions for readers to pursue. From Romance to Mystery and beyond, Science Fiction is an unexpected treasure trove of crossover authors and titles.” (p244)

Defining SF

Saricks defines SF in the following way: “Although it seems that every genre overlaps others at some point, this problem is so pronounced with Science Fiction that even the experts disagreee when they try to do something as basic as define it. When it comes to deciding whether or not a book fits within this genre (or Fantasy, the genre with which it most frequently overlaps), everything is up for grabs. One problem is that many of the genre’s popular practitioners – Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula K. Le Guin, and C.J. Cherryh, to name a few – write both Science Fiction and Fantasy. Card suggests, facetiously, we might use cover art to differentiate between Science Fiction and Fantasy. If there are rivets on the cover, the book is Science Fiction. If there are trees on the cover, it is Fantasy. An interesting approach, but it likely says more about the publishers and their covers than about the genres! Another difference suggested by Science Fiction fans is that Science Fiction is the left [-p.245] brain reaching out to the right brain (logic reaching toward the artistic) while Fantasy is the opposite. Unfortunately, neither distinction is particularly helpful when we are working with patrons or cataloguing books.

As a basic definition, it is probably safe to say that Science Fiction posits worlds and technologies which could exist. Science, rather than magic, drives these speculative tales, and the science must be accurate and true to key axioms of Newtonian (classical) and relativistic physics. …Of course, each reader will bring his or her own definition to any discussion of books that fall within the Science Fiction genre – especially in this genre in which readers are vocal and opinionated.” (pp.244-245)

Saricks goes on to discuss the characteristics and the genre’s appeal in more detail with regards to Story Line, Frame/Setting, Style/Language, Tone/Mood, Characterization, and Pacing.

Science Fiction is speculative fiction that appeals to the reader’s intellect. As Betty Rosenberg suggested in the first edition of Genreflecting, ‘Science fiction has been labeled a fiction of questions: What if…? If only…? If this [-p.246] goes on…?’ Questions such as these characterize the premise behind these books.” (pp245-246)

Science Fiction offers an amazing range of appeal, from adventure and relationships among characters facing philosophical and ethical questions on one end, to the elegant style, fully realized characters, and stron speculative bent on the other, and much in between. In general Science Fiction engages the reader’s intellect. It deals with ‘why,’ with philosophical speculation, as well as with ‘where’, with a futuristic setting outside of the usual – with alien beings as well as alien and unorthodox concepts. It cherishes the unexpected, in terms of setting, characters, and plot, and it is generally thought-provoking and prides itself on its ability to raise challenging questions. The most successful examples can challenge the reader to question his or her concept of reality.” (p.261)

Saricks notes that “Environmental concerns have long been championed in this genre, and that trend continues” (p.259), while AI and nanotechnology are also popular themes… “Interest in Alternate Histories remains high.” (p.260) “Space Opera and Military Science Fiction are also experiencing a resurgence of popularity. Weber, Asaro, Elizabeth Moon, Bujold, Brian Herbert, William C Dietz and Linnea Sinclair are authors to remember.

Characteristics of Science Fiction

“1. This is speculative fiction, frequently set in the future. It explores moral, social, intellectual, philosophical, and/or ethical questions against a setting outside of everyday reality.

2. Setting is crucial and invokes otherness of time, place, and/or reality. Both the physical setting of the story and the inherent technical and scientific detail create this essential frame.

3. From the jargon of Cyberpunk to the lyrical language of some classic tales, Science Fiction offers a range of styles and language crafted to suit the story line and to reinfoce the intellectual and speculative nature of the genre.

4. Titles reflect a wide range of tone or mood from dark to comic. Tone is often used to disorient readers and to highlight the issues considered.

5. Authors use characters to underscore issues and atmosphere. Aliens and otherworldly creatures emphasize the otherness of these stories.

6. The focus of the story drives the pacing. If there are more adventure elements and physical action, the pacing is usually faster; if ideas are emphasized more, the book generally unfolds at a more leisurely pace.” (p.245)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

Psychological Suspense – genre orphans


“Imagine any Alfred Hitchcock film that you have enjoyed,” Joyce Saricks writes, “and you understand the attraction of Psychological Suspense. These are books that play with our minds, that create a frisson of unease, that blend the creepiness generated by the Horror genre with the tension inherent in Suspense. These are stories that appeal to a range of readers – and filmmakers – and don’t fit easily in any related genre into which we try to slot them.” (p.229)

Defining Psychological Suspense

Defining the genre, Saricks writes:

“If ever there were a group of books that is neither fish nor fowl, this is surely it. Called Suspense, Thrillers, Horror, Mystery, and sometimes just Psychological Fiction, these titles are genre orphans. I have arbitrarily chosen suspense as the operative noun, because that term implies the building excitement these books generate, even though they are not fast-paced in the same way that Suspense genre titles are.

Much fiction, especially Literary fiction, draws on psychological theories and motivations to propel the story and define the characters. In Psychological Suspense that tradition is clearly evident, but these stories center on the psychological impact. Although not truly Suspense, that [-p230] term emphasizes the impact of these books, with their building tension and claustrophobic feel. Novels of Psychological Suspense create worlds of unease and potential disaster in which characters explore their options and their obsessions, while the reader observes from the outside. In this way they fit firmly in the genres that appeal to the intellect. Masters of the genre create disturbing tales of unbalanced minds, and as we readers observe in morbid fascination, we are pulled into their nightmare worlds. These are puzzles that explore the mind and its inner workings in troubling tales of heart-racing suspense.

These are novels that produce a chill.” (pp.229-230)

“These books are not clinical studies of particular psychoses. Diagnosis is not the issue in these stories, nor is treatment.” 9p.230)

“As in Literary Fiction, the endings of Psychological Suspense may be unresolved. This adds to the unease generated by the story: Authors raise troubling issues, create disturbed and disturbing characers, and then leave the reader to wonder at the outcome. In her neo-Gothic novel The Keep Jennifer Egan not only spins a story within a story, but leaves the reader unsure of the outcome of both plotlines.” (p.232)

“Protagonists in this genre are not the well-rounded, likeable heroes of other fiction, but misfits, sometimes as much antiheroes as heroes, and they may not be particularly sympathetic. Writers, however, pull us into their lives and their dilemmas. We stay on the fringes of the action, observing their efforts rather than participating in their plights. The appeal of the characters is intellectual, focusing on the question of whay they might do next, rather than an emotional connection.” (p.233)

“The writing style employed in Psychological Suspense is often elegant and seldom pedestrian. …Every word is important, and they [authors] carefully choose how sentences are framed. In many cases, these are shorter books; the sense of menace is encased in a spare, often poetic prose style. The style effectively sets the tone of these books and draws readers in. Authors often differentiate characters and mood by typeface, and diaries, journals, or e-mail and instant messages may be used to underline the menace. In Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie, the protagonist, a convicted child molester, offers crude drawings and random capitalization that reflect his unbalanced mind. Oates often writes with a psychological twist, but this novel in particular is a compelling example of the unstable character and edgy style that typify the genre. Zombie feels like Diane Arbus’s photography, although more violent. Like Arbus, Oates builds on the banal and ordinary; resulting depictions are slightly askew but others, like this, are clearly disturbing.” (p.234)

“Pacing in this genre is measured. Mental activity, rather than physical action, drives these stories, and as a result the plot may move slowly, but the books remain compelling, engrossing reading.” (p.234)

“The tone created by the author is almost as important as story in driving the action. Authors create mental nightmares, with much of the action in the mind, and that haunted feeling keeps both protagonists and readers off balance. Words such as moody, claustrophobic, bleak, edgy, evocative, ominous, and foreboding describe the menacing atmosphere.” (p.232)

“Since these novels explore the inner workings of the often unstable protagonist’s mind, madness often frames the stories. The protagonist may start out in the normal world of everyday, but something goes awry, and we watch as he is trapped, mentally at least, in a nightmare world that [-p.233] may be inescapable.” (pp.232-233)

Characteristics of Psychological Suspense

“1. Elaborately constructed plots are the hallmark of these stories, which are characterized by frequent twists (both mental and plot), surprises, and layers of meaning. Endings may be unresolved.

2. These books create a world of mental nightmares, and that chilling, disturbing tone drives the stories and keeps the readers off balance.

3. The interior workings of the mind – even madness – frame these stories, and leave readers on edge, straddling the line between sanity and unreason.

4. Protagonists are often misfits, who may or may not be sympathetic characters. Readers observe the characters rather than participate in their predicaments.

5. Writing style is important in creating this disturbing mood, and these novels are often elegantly written.

6. The pacing is more measured and the physical action less intense than in Suspense novels. These are often densely written novels with more description than dialogue.” (p.231)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago



Joyce Sarricks writes: “For many readers and librarians, the genre classification Thriller is synonymous with the Espionage stories so popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Many types of books share similar characteristics and fit under the Thriller umbrella, however, as they combine fast-paced action and adventure with traditional heroes and an abundance of technical details. For example, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton are linked for fans by their pacing, as well as the nature of their heroes and the obstacles they face, even though their stories focus on disparate subjects. […There are] a wide range of Thrillers – Political/Espionage, legal, Medical/Scientific, Corporate/Financial, and Crime/Caper. Each type offers an insider’s look into a field of expertise or profession and addresses the perennial question posed by titles in the genre and among Adrenaline titles in general: Whom can the hero trust?” (p.71)

What is a Thriller?

Answering this question, Saricks writes: “It is a gripping, plot-centered story, set in the detailed framework of a particular profession, which places heroes or heroines in dangerous situations from which they must extricate themselves. These books are a cinematic blend of adventure, intrigues, and suspense. Although characters may not be in life-and-death situations, they always face danger of some kind, certainly from a conspiracy if not a physical antagonist. Twists of plot play a major role and keep the reader guessing, not necessarily about the outcome, but about exactly how the triumph will be effected. And although justice is the end result, the means of achieving this may not always be strictly by the letter of the law. These are satisfying reads, with the good guys – usually the underdogs – victorious and the bad guys punished, although the victory never comes without cost and pain.” (p.72)

Characteristics of Thrillers

“1. Thrillers move at a rapid pace, driven by the danger or threat of danger faced by the protagonist. Although some are densely written and the action may be more cerebral than physical, their building intensity makes them compelling page-turners.

2. Extensive details and technical language related to each occupation are vital, and they are woven into the story in a way that does not detract from the pacing. They offer the reader an insider’s view of that profession.

3. These cinematic stories center on the plot and the action generated by the intricately involved narrative. There is often a political focus with either national or international ramifications, and hot topics from the news are frequently explored. Conspiracies thrive here. Protagonists face frightening perils, physical and emotional, and violence or the threat of violence propels the story line.

4. Protagonists are usually strong, sympathetic characters, whether heroes or antiheroes. Secondary characters are less well developed and may even be caricatures. Protagonists often operate alond, as they can never be certain, in their worlds of betrayal and deception, whom they can trust.

5. The tone of Thrillers is often dark, and gritty details contribute to this mood. Spoofs may produce a lighter but still menacing tone.

6. The language of Thrillers reflects the jargon of each profession. Styles range from elegantly literary to more informal and conversational.” (p.73)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago



In her discussion of genre fiction, Joyce Saricks writes: “Fantasy may be the most ubiquitous of the genres, as there are fantasy elements in most fiction, almost regardless of how realistic the story is. It is also an ancient form, the genre of myth and legend, as well as of the fairy tales and stories of our childhood. This is the world of faerie, and magic, sorcery, and enchantment all live on in Fantasy.

Like Westerns and Historical Fiction, Fantasy novels create specific landscapes. These are world-building books, and it is important that readers be able to see, hear, and feel the worlds in which the authors place them. Fantasy novels tell a wide range of stories, but the success of each is dependent upon the author’s skill in creating a believable, albeit magical, world populated by characters to whom readers relate.” (p.265)

I’m not given the impression that Saricks is a fan, but she defines Fantasy thus:

“Like Science Fiction, with which it is most frequently linked, Fantasy is not easily defined in a single phrase or two. If Science Fiction emphasizes ideas, then Fantasy delves more into relationships. The stories it tells appeal more to the emotions than to the intellect. As does Science Fiction, Fantasy deals with otherness of time or place; settings may be contemporary or historical but something is out of kilter…. Fantasy exists in a world that most people believe never could be, while Science Fiction worlds are those we accept as possible, even if improbable. Science Fiction generally offers something radically new and different, but Fantasy frequently takes a familiar story, legend, or myth and adds a twist, a new way of looking at things that brings it to life again. The key to Fantasy, [-p.266] however, is the presence of magic. If there is no magic, the story may fit in the Horror, Science Fiction, Romance, Historical Fiction, or Adventure genres. When magic is integral to the story, it must be Fantasy.” (pp.265-266)

“Both Fantasy and Horror draw on everyday fears and feature realms and creatures that are larger than life and often not of this world. However, while Horror creates a nightmare situation in which characters strive to survive and temporarily defeat the evil, Fantasy is more affirming, giving protagonists a chance to win the battle against the dark and permanently end the reign of evil. Like Fantasy, Science Fiction presents a challenging unknown, but, unlike Fantasy, it offers technical explanations and ways to ‘know,’ to discover through science and empirical tests. One finds alternate realities in both Fantasy and Science Fiction, but in Fantasy these alternate universes and histories depend on magic, while in Science Fiction the roots are logical, not magical. Horror and Fantasy share an intuitive approach to the world, in contrast to the rational outlook of Science Fiction. Like Romance, Fantasy may have a romantic tone, and some stories certainly project the same emotional appeal, but magic supplants the romantic interest as the most important element. Adventure abounds in many types of Fantasy, but again it is secondary to the magical nature of the story.” (p.266)

“Fantasy is a genre that inspires lifelong fans. …These are often elegantly written stories with a haunting quality. We sense that there is something just behind the story, something bigger than the story itself which hints at a larger meaning. These are the stories of legends come to life, and the popularity of the genre attests to the continuing importance of this kind of story in our lives.” (p.287)

Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy, Saricks writes, “tends to be darker, despite the fact that it is sometimes characterized as elves on motorcycles! The emphasis is on societal issues, power or its absence, and general urban blight contributes to the bleaker nature of these stories. [-p.269] The classic Urban Fantasy author is Charles de Lint. Try Memory and Dream, part of his Newford series, as an introduction to this landscape. A young artist’s paintings release ancient spirits into the modern world with unpleasant results. Other well-regarded authors of Urban Fantasy include China Miéville (the New Crobuzon series – Perdido Street Station is the first) and Emma Bull, whose award-winning War for the Oaks recounts a war among fairies in modern-day Minneapolis. Consider also Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, beginning with Storm Front. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard and supernatural investigator who operates in an alternate Chicago in these dark though witty stories. Urban Fantasy produces haunting stories that can be appreicated on many levels.” (pp.268-269)

Characteristics of Fantasy

“1. Detailed settings depict another world, often Earth, but out-of-time or invisible to most people. Magic frames the story.

2. Story lines feature Good versus Evil, as protagonists battle and ultimately conquer the malevolent forces – although victory does not come easily or cheaply. Titles are frequently part of a series with a continuing story told over several books.

3. Mood ranges from humourous to dark, but it is ultimately optimistic. Despite this, a melancholy tone pervades much of the genre even when victory is achieved.

4. Characters, clearly defined as good or bad, often attain special magical gifts, and the story lines explore ways to discover one’s own potential, magical or otherwise. Even good characters will find themselves challenged, both physically and ethically. Characters may include mythical creatures – dragons, unicorns, elves, wizards – as well as more familiar ones.

5. In general, books start slowly as the author sets the scene, presents the challenge, and introduces the cast – frequently involving a group of diverse characters who are brought together solely to fight a new or resurging evil in an unfamiliar world. Pacing increases later as more adventure elements appear.

6. From the stylized language of High Fantasy to the jargon of Urban Fantasy, language and style run the gamut. Language creates verbal pictures of characters and landscape, and illustrations sometimes enhance both adult and children’s Fantasy.” (p.267)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago