A Three Dimensional Model of Genres

This is not an exhaustive model and it will inevitably break under the weight of counter examples (which is a good thing). However, like all models it helps to conceptualize underlying ideas and so allows us to see how reality departs from the model.


The axes are:

  1. Reality distortion: Magic versus science. How is the fundamental reality different from the one we know about? Is it via new scientific principles (faster than light drives etc) or magic? What if it is both? (then the work is a line rather than a point!)
  2. Plot interaction: is this story driven by interaction with things or people? Aliens, elves all count as ‘people’! More action orientated plot events counts as ‘things’ i.e. shooting at people doesn’t count as interaction with people! What I mean by ‘people’ is interpersonal interaction, social interaction, smooching etc.
  3. Fictional setting: Fictional future or fictional past?

The blue rectangle projected onto axes 2 & 3 shows a space in which the story doesn’t play with magic or science. A blue dot shows a possible position for a historical romance. A book like 1984 would sit in a near future space (ignore the title date – it is set in the reader’s near future).

In the next graph I’ve shaded a rectangle projected onto the space which shows only stories set in the present. A blue blob shows a position for a paranormal romance story.


7 thoughts on “A Three Dimensional Model of Genres

  1. Fascinating! This will inspire many conversations/arguments. I’d tweak it a couple of ways.

    The Axis of Plot Interaction might work better with people vs. events. Or maybe have its ends be plot/character and call it “Axis of Emotional Involvement” (I don’t like that name, though — too long. “Axis of Story Drivers,” mabye?).

    And I’d add another dimension (in SF, the more dimensions the merrier, right?). Maybe Art/Adventure. But that may not be orthogonal to the Axis of Plot Interaction (and I dunno what to call it.).

    Anyway, it’s a great post. Please don’t take my suggestions as criticism, but rather as a measure of my engagement.


  2. What, no Axis of Evil Legion of Evil? Upon reflection, it may be coterminous with the Axis of How Quickly the Name-calling Begins.

    To take your ideas more seriously though, this model really made me think about the how much of our epistemology is framed through binaries (good/evil, sinner/saint, male/female, past/present, light/dark, civilization/barbarism, thesis/antithesis etc). The 19th century positivist linear framework is tough to dislodge.

    I’ve recently had cause to spend some time in the pre-Columbian indigenous cosmology and it is quite fascinating and challenging to try to set aside our deep substrates of belief (cognition?) and try to place oneself in a culture that had no concept of sin (Mexica) or Mayan astronomy where 0=1, and where deities can and do change gender and physical presentation.

    Sometimes when I travel, I stand in a place and try to imagine all the feet that have stood there before me. Like layers of time on top of one another. I am not sure what D(imension) that would make it. How do you feel about Pythagoras and the musical harmony of the universe? It’s good to balance Thucydides with a bit of Pythagoras on occasion I think. Or Leopold von Ranke with Warren Zevon, if you prefer.

    Model was fun. ** makes note to learn programs **


    1. I’m a lapsed pythagorean but you know what they say once a pythagorean always a pythagorean.
      ( the standing imagining who else stood there is a thing I do as well)


  3. Ha! I bet you like fonts too, just like I do.

    I will say that in all my many travels, I have had at least three encounters with ….. I don’t know what to call it (hence the Pythgoras). The Divine? That which is eternal? Neither of those are quite right because I am an atheist and don’t believe in an afterlife. Best I can do is call it a fleeting moment of profound recognition and/or human connection. Two felt like expansive warm hugs carrying the message that everything will be OK (Costa Rica, Thailand) and the third literally made me gasp with apolitical solidarity when it happened (Amsterdam/ Mongolia/ Palestine). I hope you’ve been as lucky, Felapton old chap.


  4. Oh, I like this!

    Totally agree that science as a basis of reality distortion is important; a lot of people claim that science fiction is about the possible (and, if they’re consistent about this, conclude that time travel isn’t science fiction), whereas I would prefer to say that it’s about worlds that differ from ours in scientifically understandable ways.

    I’m a bit worried, though, that the blue plane seems to include both works with no reality distortion (like the historical romance you mention) and works where there is a reality distortion, but its basis is neither science nor magic – like 1984, perhaps, or like (simple) alternate history, or something like The City and the City.


    1. That is a necessary difference between writing about the future versus writing about the past. Put another way all fiction is a distortion of reality – even historical fiction supposes that people had thoughts or said things that in reality they did not, or invents people and events that did not exist.


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