Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy
Defining two popular subgenres
by Keri Arthur
The two hottest genres around at the moment are paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Publishers can’t seem to get enough of them, and just about everyone seems to be writing them.
But what--if any--are the differences between the two? There’s plenty of small differences, but the basic--and most important--difference is the fact that one has its feet firmly planted in the romance field, and the other firmly planted in the fantasy field.
Basically, a paranormal romance is a romance with paranormal characters and events. It follows the same rules that apply to all romances and it has the build up of the romance as the heart and main plot of the novel. The only real difference is that either one or both of the main characters often aren’t human, and the story itself can dip into darker waters plot-wise than a regular romance. That said, the paranormal elements have to be a believable, intricate part of your plot. If you can take the paranormal elements out of your story (or swap them for something else—like a disease or an addiction), then they’re not ‘true’ paranormal romances, but rather, ‘paranormal lights’. I’m not personally keen on these type of paranormals, as they usually don’t delve too deeply into the whole mythos behind the paranormal element, but rather tend to keep to surface problems. For example, the somewhat common I’m a werewolf or a vampire, oh woe is me, how can anyone love such a monster? theme. Of course, there is a whole boatload of books out there that could be describe as paranormal lights, so there’s definitely a market for them regardless of how I personally feel about them.
Like regular romance, paranormal romance covers the whole genre spectrum. They can be humorous, historical, futuristics, contemporary, mystery, fantasy, urban fantasy, scifi, gothic, erotica—basically, if the romance is front and center, then it’s labeled a paranormal romance, regardless of the genre.
Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is fantasy that is set in a modern, urban environment (for example, Melbourne, New York, or even some made up city) and it can contain any and all paranormal or fantasy elements (such as vampires, weres, shifters, demons, succubus, magi etc). But in urban fantasy, romance and romantic entanglements are not the main plot element, though they are often present as a sub-plot.
Dark urban fantasy contains the same elements as urban fantasy, but usually has serious leanings towards horror elements. Dark and bloody events can and do happen in these novels, and a happy ended is not a necessity.
But if you’re going to write an urban or dark urban fantasy, please do your homework and make the world work. World building is even more important in urban and dark urban fantasy than it is in paranormal romance. In romance, the romance is the key, and while the world building has to be believable and real, it often doesn’t have to be as multi layered as what’s required in the fantasy genre. While in many ways it is easier to set a fantasy story in a modern day setting, you still have to integrate the fantasy and paranormal elements into your world in a very believable and realistic way. One key element to believability is making sure you include the history of your paranormal elements into the history of the real world. Make sure the paranormal or fantasy elements not only have a history of their own, but that their history entwines within the past as we know it. For example, in Full Moon Rising, I have an off-the-cuff mention of the Olympics, and how paranormal creatures have been competing in them since the birth of the Olympics—and that in modern day times, the paranormal were forced to have their own Olympics to offset their unfair advantage against humans. A tidbit like this mightn’t seem like much, but it gives the overall story a depth and richness that helps the reader believe.
Another important rule to remember is that there has to be limits. A hero or heroine—be they a wizard, vampire or a shapeshifter—who is capable of anything and who wins every battle not only strains our credibility, but often become boring. Unlimited or untouchable prowess robs the story of tension and suspense. Readers need to be worried about the outcome as they read, and if the odds are stacked in favor of your hero, then why would they worry, let alone continue to read? Make your characters doubt, make them make mistakes. Make them hurt. And don’t be afraid to inflict tragic results for weaknesses and poor choices—especially if you’re writing dark urban fantasy. Trust me, readers of these types of novel want and expect gore!
Keri Arthur is
Australia's first New York Times bestseller in urban fantasy. She's
published over 18 books, with Tempting Evil
and Dangerous Games, the third & fourth
novels in the Riley Jenson
series, debuting on the NYT bestseller
list. Her books will soon be available in Australia. Visit her
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