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Genre Blender: What IS Riding the Dragon?

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Something I have always been very bad at is identifying the genre of any work. Genre, to me, doesn’t ultimately mean much at the end of the day. I understand its usefulness, but I find it incredibly difficult to disentangle. What makes something a romance and not a comedy? Is a fantasy story still fantasy if it focuses on a love story? At what point does it become romance with fantasy elements, or fantasy with romance elements?

And I’m the worst for hitting blend on the proverbial genre juicer, mixing in a hefty dose of whatever I feel appropriate for a story.

A list of common fiction genres
Is sports really a fiction genre though?

So when it comes time to actually tell Amazon what category my book belongs in or try to describe it to a reader or pitch it, I have a very hard time putting it solidly in any category.

So, what is Riding the Dragon anyway?

It’s Primarily Romance

Or, well, it’s supposed to be at least. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly a traditional romance, because the connection between Cad and Drake gets sidelined at a couple of points.

Yet the trappings of romance are still there. It’s a story that’s largely focused on the main character and his love interest, the budding relationship between them. And it’s, in some ways, that relationship that resolves the other plot points.

The cover for Riding the Dragon, Book 2 of the Flirting with the Zodiac Series.
I mean, red means romance, right?

And yes, it does have a happily ever after (or a happily enough for now) ending, so it fulfills that genre requirement.

Romance Is Flexible

One of the arguments I see a lot is that romance novels get misconstrued as only being about relationships or only about sex. In fact, romance is an incredibly malleable genre. You can have historical romance as easily as fantasy or sci-fi romance. You can throw comedy in there—rom-coms anyone? Or what about a murder mystery? (Why, yes, I am a KJ Charles fan.)

So, what then makes a romance?

There seems to be two primary ingredients:

  • a focus on a romantic relationship, which is central to the plot
  • the HEA

Otherwise, you can toss whatever you want in there. So, Riding the Dragon contains a heavy dose of action-adventure, on top of having the sci-fi setting, but it can still qualify as romance. It meets the HEA requirement, and it does focus, by and large, on the romantic relationship between the two leads.

Where’s the Line?

Here’s where things get messy though. At what point does something stop being romance and become primarily action-adventure? I mean, how many action movies have (terrible) romance plots?

We still call them action flicks, not romances. And where is something a rom-com or primarily horror or a mystery if it still contains those romance elements?

For me, the most important part is that a romance has the romance front and center. Sure, plenty of other things can be happening—there can be a lot of dead bodies or a bunch of spies—but the romance has to be the central focus.

Once we move the focus from the romantic element of the story, it stops being a romance and starts being something else. It may still have a romantic subplot, but it’s not a romance.

And I think this is a key point, because how many romance subplots seem simply shoehorned in there? If they were the central focus, they’d either fall apart in short order or they’d suddenly become a lot more engrossing. But because the focus isn’t on them, they often feel forced and unnatural, instead of organic.

Of course, there’s always an argument about precisely where the line is. Riding the Dragon is actually a good example. Cad and Drake’s relationship is incredibly important to the plot and factors into the resolution of the other plot elements. Their relationship is in central focus for the first half of the book.

Then we shift gears, and their relationship takes a backseat as other plot elements come to the fore. Their relationship is still important, but the focus has shifted.

So, is this story still a romance? It sure seems like it is, at least for the first half of the book.

Genre Gets Messy

And this is precisely why I have a hard time with picking genre categories. Riding the Dragon is a romance, but it’s also action-adventure and sci-fi. It also fits into a category like “LGBTQ+ fiction.” I’d hesitate to call it a comedy, although there are certainly comedic moments. It’s a bit of a spy drama, it’s got some military aspects and a war in the background. It’s not really a mystery or a thriller, and it’s definitely not horror.

So there are some things it’s not, but also many things it is.

The problem with genre, then, is that it asks us to put our writing into neat little boxes. Humans like neat little boxes; we like them a lot.

And it makes sense. Genre is supposed to be shorthand for readers. I can say I love fantasy novels, which probably means I like things with dragons and maybe medieval societies. I maybe don’t want too much technology in there, but I’m interested in landscapes with magic and stuff that doesn’t exist in “the real world.”

But, then, we could consider something like incubi and vampires—these are both fantastical creatures, mythological creatures. We also see them crop up in horror and paranormal/urban fantasy; they start populating contemporary landscapes just as easily—looking at you, Twilight.

So can we say a vampire novel is just one thing? Not really. And even then, these broad-stroke categories mean we could sign up for one thing, but we could just as easily get any sort of story within them. Even the vampire story could end up being a contemporary, a horror story, an urban fantasy/paranormal, a fantasy, a romance, or even a historical story.
Just looking at that, we can see how genre sort of fails us in working as shorthand. Sure, I like romance but I like a particular sort of romance that another reader doesn’t like. Take the whole controversy over the omegaverse recently.

As a reader? I love that stuff. (Love it as a writer too.) But not everyone does. Not everyone likes non-con or dub-con. Some people feel those elements have no place in romance. Other readers, like myself, would prefer to walk a line, perhaps seeing it included as a kink or in a romance story that features an unhealthy relationship. (That’s a whole other can of worms, though.)

But this is the point. When I say I like romance, I might mean I like paranormal/UF romance, romance that contains that supernatural or fantastical element. Another reader might want romances with murder mysteries. And yet another reader wants contemporary meet-cutes and second-chance romance.

But we all like romance. So when I ask for “romance recs,” I’m bound to get suggestions that don’t fit the bill for me as a reader.

Genre Is Still a Tool

Genre, of course, can still be useful, as messy as it is. It helps us narrow the field, even somewhat. When someone says they want a mystery, we know immediately they don’t want a romance. They may not mind a romantic element, but that’s not the kind of book they’re looking for.

The more categorical information we can pull, the more precise our recommendations can be.

And that’s where the broad-strokes genre categorizations fall short. But they still get us a step or two closer to what we want to read.

It’s also a useful tool for communicating some of the elements within a story. If I say my book is a romance, people will come to it with certain expectations. They’ll want the HEA; they’ll demand the central focus on the relationship.

If I bill it as action-adventure, then people are going to come in with a different set of expectations.

Even broad categories like “young adult” or “LGBTQ+” can help us delineate what we’re likely to find in a story. I get frustrated with “YA” as a label though, because it doesn’t tell me much about the story itself—am I going to get contemporary high school stuff like Love, Simon or am I going to get dystopia action-adventure along the lines of The Hunger Games? “YA” just tells me we’re dealing with characters who are a particular age. LGBTQ+ is similar, in that it tells me yes, there are queer characters, queer content within the book—but it still doesn’t tell me what kind of story I’m getting.
Both labels are still useful, to a degree. They set certain expectations. If I walk into a YA novel without knowing it’s YA, I may judge the book against a different set of expectations.

Genre is thus a tool for communicating between authors and readers. But it has to be used correctly.

And we have to remember that these labels are imprecise, that their edges are fuzzy. I’m calling my work a blend of SFF and romance, but some readers may find it too much romance or too much SFF for their tastes. It’s still helpful to have that designation, though, because it helps to set expectations.

It also sets expectations for writers. If you know what you’re writing—or at least have a broad sense of whether you’re writing a romance or something else—you can use those expectations to structure your work.

If you don’t … then you’re likely to end up like the authors who think they’ve invented genre fiction, that they’re doing something new and groundbreaking.

Genre Can Hinder

There is a point, of course, where genre expectations can seem to hinder. That’s mostly in perceptions of categories like SFF and romance, which are often considered “lesser.”

These genres tend to be written off as formulaic and unartistic. People think that romance must hit all these points, never veer anywhere else. And that’s where we end up with the problem of people not realizing romance is actually quite a flexible and diverse genre. That, yes, there are romances that are solely about two people falling in love, but there are a whole bunch of them that also deal with murder mysteries and mythological creatures and so much more.

Genre can also hinder when it comes to trying to explain what the heck a story is—or isn’t. Is my work more SFF or more romance? If I explain it as romance, will someone be disappointed when they grab it up and find the heavy dose of SFF and action-adventure in it because they were expecting something else?

Genre, in that sense, can hinder, because it encourages us to put books in little boxes. And, again, what one person’s idea of romance is may not be what another person’s is, so even if I say Riding the Dragon is primarily a romance, some readers may be disappointed when they actually read it. That’s simply because they disagree with the designation.

Genre hinders when we can only add one or two categories on Amazon, when we have to stick our work in “LGBTQ+ fiction” as much as SFF or romance. We begin missing elements, losing the nuance of the work.

Hitting Genre Blender

I’ve never much ascribed to “neat little boxes” theories about categorizing pretty much anything—you can see that in my thoughts on gender and sex. The world is a messy place, and I’m someone who likes exploring the “gray spaces,” the in-betweens—things that aren’t quite this or that.

And that ends up extending to my work as well. So even if my work is primarily one thing or another, it’s not likely going to be “just” this or “just” that.

So Riding the Dragon is both a romance and not; it’s SFF and it’s action-adventure, and it will be enough of these things for some readers. It won’t be enough for others, and it will be too much for yet others.

What remains from this is that I can try to label it as accurately as possible, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and that’s that.

Want to find out if Riding the Dragon is a genre blend that suits your tastes? Click here to grab a copy from Amazon!

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By Cherry

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