Mob Rules, Publishing, Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

07.12.10 | 3 Comments

Recently, I’ve read and even participated in several discussions about the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. These discussions can get a little heated. No matter how careful you are, when you talk about how you like one thing and not another, it’s easy to come off like you’re running that other thing down.

However unfortunate that is, I think it’s something that writers, publishers, and booksellers should be conscious of. As I’ve said before, urban fantasy is a mashup genre and there often isn’t a stark line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. To a significant extent, I believe this is intentional: Romance is a hell of a lot more popular than the fantasy category, and much of the success of urban fantasy has come from readers moving over from the romance aisle. You can even see a movement across that blurry line in the course of a single series: I’d argue that Anita Blake transitioned from urban fantasy into erotic paranormal romance somewhere around book six.

The problem is that some readers don’t like romance novels, no matter how deep the supernatural or mystery elements run. To hear them tell it, more than a few readers have stopped buying urban fantasy novels altogether because they’re afraid they’re going to get a romance instead of what they consider urban fantasy. On the other side of the coin, some readers, a lot of readers, are specifically looking for paranormal romance — with all of its own genre conventions — and they’re disappointed when they pick up an urban fantasy that doesn’t meet those expectations.

A recent example of the fading distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is here, in a blog post from one of these categories’ major publishers. I’m not sure to what extent the generalizations flying in that roundtable are true of paranormal romance, but they clearly don’t work for urban fantasy (Hat Tip: Anassa via Stacia Kane).

I think our evident inability to define and distinguish these categories is unfortunate: Readers are in short enough supply in general that we should avoid alienating — or excluding — anyone who might enjoy our work.

So how do you tell the difference? John Levitt, an urban fantasy writer and all-around good guy, wrote an article on the subject for PW’s Genreville blog a while back. John focuses on the noir tradition in UF and distinguishes it from the romance tradition. He even points to a third possible tradition — fantasy itself — but then seemingly dismisses it. As he says:

UF is usually seen as an offshoot and subgenre of fantasy in general – but I don’t see it that way.  I think it’s squarely in the tradition of P.I. noir books, and of mysteries in general.

So if you want to draw a line between urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and maybe even traditional fantasy, how do you do it? At Absolute Write, both John and K.A. Stewart (whose UF novel, A DEVIL IN THE DETAILS, debuted last week) have suggested focusing on the central story question: What is the story about? If the story is about the supernatural mystery, it’s urban fantasy in the classic noir tradition. If it’s about the relationship between the protagonist and his/her love interest, it’s paranormal romance. Another way of looking at it is that, while many urban fantasies have romantic elements and many paranormal romances have mystery elements, you could remove those secondary elements and still have the story.

I think this is a very useful way to look at it. While I approve of the angle John takes, I think urban fantasy has moved beyond the noir tradition, so we have to expand on his approach while continuing to focus on what the story is about. Maybe some urban fantasy stories are about surviving internal and/or external “demons,” and thus draw most deeply on the horror tradition (Stacia’s Downside series?). Perhaps some of these stories are so intrisically about magic, the fantastical, and a battle between Good and Evil that they fit most snugly in the epic fantasy tradition. I’d suggest The Dresden Files is moving in that direction, quickly, and has been since Dresden became more a Warden than a P.I.

Likewise, MOB RULES pulls pretty heavily from crime fiction — from Puzo, through Leonard, to Tarantino and David Simon. The romantic relationship between Domino and Adan figures prominently in the story, but as one piece of a much larger plot. The story, ultimately, is not about the romantic relationship.

The point is, I guess, that urban fantasy stories can be about a lot of different things, and romantic relationships can figure prominently in them, but they are not romances. We do a disservice to our readers of both subgenres when we fail to make this distinction clearly.

I’m certainly hopeful that MOB RULES will appeal to fans of paranormal romance. But I owe it to my readers to let them know what to expect going in.

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