I’ll admit, this post stems from a Facebook discussion I was part of yesterday. A friend of mine mentioned a “paranormal romance” he was reading and my first instinct was to yell, “It’s not PNR!”. The problem was that book is on this year’s shortlist for a RITA as a PNR. Except it’s not. Or is it?
So, what is a paranormal romance and why does the sub-genre leave such a nasty taste in the mouths of some readers?
Let’s start with what it’s not. It is not urban fantasy. There was a time when you could safely walk into a bookstore, pick up a title filed under urban fantasy and know you would not be hit with a major romance plot. More than that, you wouldn’t be skipping — if you’re wont to do so — page after page of explicit sex. You’d get a fun mystery or suspense read, maybe humor but romance? Nope. It wasn’t in your urban fantasy, at least not as anything more than a passing plot point.
Then things started to change and your werewolves and vampires turned into romantic heroes or anti-heroes. Humans were having sex with paranormals. The tightly woven mystery and suspense plots took a backseat to romance and — gasp — sex. Bookcovers had sexy women and barechested men.
Oh no! Romance had found urban fantasy and it would never be the same!
Except, slowly a new sub-genre found its name. It didn’t happen fast enough for a lot of readers. There are some who haven’t yet forgive some of their favorite authors who went from writing fast-paced, well-plotted UF and turned the kick-ass heroines into sluts more interested in getting laid than in beating the bad guys. But we finally started seeing the PNR sub-genre heading. The problem? Authors and publishers continued to label their books under both sub-genres, confusing the issue more.
Today, if you ask most readers what a paranormal romance is they’ll tell you something like this: it’s a story where there are supernatural elements to it (shapeshifters, elves, fairies, witches, vampires, etc) but the primary plot element is romance. Usually, one of the romantic partners is human while the other is a paranormal but that’s not always the case. They key, however, is romance. It has to be the primary plot drive in the story.
Sure, you can have other elements in there but it’s the romance that rules and, almost always, there is a happily ever after or at least the potential of one. After all, it’s romance and romance readers love their HEAs.
Using my own writing to show the difference — yes, this is also a shameless plug — my Nocturnal Lives series is urban fantasy. Part police procedural, part shifter politics, it is mainly about the dangers those who shapeshift in a world where their existence isn’t known have to live with. Yes, there is a romantic element to the books but it is a minor part of the overall plot and doesn’t even play a part in the series until the second book. Those books (Nocturnal Origins, Nocturnal Serenade, Nocturnal Interlude, Nocturnal Challenge and Nocturnal Rebellion) use the romance to help show character development as Mackenzie Santos learns to live with her new life as a shapeshifter. But it is only one part, a minor part, of the stories overall. This series is about the crimes she investigates, the challenges of being a new shapeshifter and the need to keep their existence a secret until the world is ready to learn “monsters” are real.
In my latest series that can be considered to be PNR, magic is a real part of the world. There are those who can shift from human to animal. One family even has its dead returning to the old homestead, not as zombies but not quite “alive” either. This supernatural aspect of the world is known. Not everyone is a paranormal and there are more than a few who would prefer things to go back to how they’d been before the supernats stepped out of the shadows. But, in each of the books, romance is a driving force behind the plot. The HEA happens with the romantic couple either marrying getting engaged. These books (Witchfire Burning and Light Magic) and the titles that will follow in the series are different from the Nocturnal Lives books because of the emphasis on the romance and, yes, sex.
So why the confusion about what a PNR is when checking the RITA nominees?
Simply put, that confusion rests solely with RWA. A quick check of their website shows this definition for paranormal romance: “Romance novels in which fantasy worlds or paranormal or science fiction elements are an integral part of the plot.” See, there it is. Science fiction elements.
This definition might have worked several years ago, before there was an increase in the number of science fiction romance titles. Now, it only confuses the issue and muddies the waters when it comes to readers and booksellers. “Paranormal” doesn’t send most readers into the realm of sf, no way and no how. Yet, for RWA’s purposes, science fiction romance mixes and melds with PNR.
Is this the only definition? Far from it. One site defines PNR this way, “For a novel to be a Paranormal Romance, a simple thing must occur: love must begin between a human and a supernatural being (whether wholly supernatural or partially, just as long as there are supernatural elements present)”
Another site has this to say: “Most people hear the words ‘Paranormal Romance’ and visions of sparkly vamps and bare-chested wares seeking virginal human mates spring like crack-addicted leprechauns from the recesses of their minds. While these have certainly been the topic of many a novel **cough** Twilight **cough**, there are so many more topics joining the ranks of Paranormal Romance today. Among them: Shapeshifters—half-human, half-animal beings with the ability to transmute between forms on cue, Angels, Demons, Nephilim, Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Ancient Greek mythology, and even the occasional Ghost or Alien thrown in for good measure. And I would be amiss in not mentioning the perennial time-traveling, kilt-wearing highlander with the rippling biceps and the heart of gold. His broadsword isn’t the only steely thing about him, if you know what I mean.” Where I have a dispute with the site and its definitions is when it say UF is a sub-genre of PNR. Nope, totally different.
Fantasy Faction has a very good description of the two genres, where they are similar and where they differ. Check it out. Where they really get it right is when they discuss the plot differences:
An urban fantasy’s plot is the same as any fantasy: good versus evil, saving the world, etc. The subgenre usually involves a city-dwelling protagonist who is able to work magic and/or is of supernatural heritage. It may or may not have a romance element. Most do, but as a subplot or backdrop to the main action plot. . . Oppositely, in paranormal romance, the primary goal is for the characters to fall in love. It’s all about the love relationship, whether light or steamy. There must be a HEA conclusion.
That brings up the last question: which definition should an author follow? For marketing purposes, follow the one most readers use. If you are going to call your book paranormal romance, make sure it isn’t a science fiction romance. Unless, I guess, you have werewolves in space. That could be both PNR and sf-romance. Classifications for awards have little to do with what a reader considers when it comes to genre. (Look at some of the titles that have found their way onto the Hugo short list the last few years.) Finally, keep an eye on the keyword lists for Amazon. That will help you as well. In the meantime, write.
Worry about genre and sub-genre when you finish. If you aren’t sure, ask your alpha and beta readers what they think the book is. Why? Because there will be times when you sit down to write one sort of book and it turns into a different sub-genre altogether.
Now it’s time for me to go write. Until later!
well heck, there are instances of UF turning into PNR in the same series…
Yep. I alluded to but didn’t name one of the worst — or best, depending on your point of view — offenders. VBEG
Every now and then I ask a friend who still reads her: “Has the sex stopped being the plot, yet?”
“No, but in the latest book, there’s almost a point when you think it might for a chapter or two!”
Bring back the “S” – Vampire Slayer, not Vampire Layer!
I miss the action of the early novels.
But Patricia Briggs does a good job of not letting her heroine become overpowered. In My Humble Opinion. So she’s getting some of those dollars that St. Louis isn’t.
As did I….
I wonder if we are reaching the point where you can use a 51%/49% rule – more than half of the work is romance with a supernatural thing = PNR. Less than half the plot is kissing et cetera = UF? Probably not.
And then you have people like Charles DeLint and others who have supernatural rural stories… UF without the U. Contemporary fantasy [like balanced federal budgets?]? Speculative fiction? UF in a rural setting?
We’ll probably see it called something like “Redneck Strange” by effete coasties.
I’d classify deLint as urban fantasy simply because it’s usually either in modern human living spaces of city size or tied to that world space. I mean, most of his fantasy is inter-related to his fictional city of Newford. He is, of course, one of the pioneers of that style of fantasy, so the “rules” weren’t there when he started writing those sorts of stories.
Hey, hey! A lot of the classics, like Lovecraft or M.R. James, were contemporary urban or rural fantasies when they were written. Poe, too.
Genre is reader cookies, partly.
I’m supposed to be working on nonfiction, and I’m going to switch in a second.
One of the things my muse has been tempting me with is set in Pennsylvania, as rural as I can manage. I’m informed that the genre and cookies will be Isekai. (I’m pretty sure it can be done. Should it? I dunno.)
I think the “sf” elements that were initially in “paranormal romance” are more your X-Files horror, psychic powers, woowoo mysterious aliens, cryptids and monsters, etc. Stuff on the show In Search Of, rather than hard or soft sf elements.
Obviously this has changed.
I have a friend who writes fairytale-inspired paranormal romance. It’s a very different bird than fairytale-inspired urban fantasy, to be sure.
Anne Bishop’s latest series blurs the line for me whether or not it’s pure urban fantasy (it’s set in an alternate Earth like place) fantasy, or PNR and paranormal horror; attractions and emotions run high, but the closest thing to a romantic love scene is at the end of the series proper, and no sex is mentioned while nudity is. (It seems to be also a bit of a subversion to the usual PNR genre, so…)
It’s also a series where I’d put LOOOOOTS of trigger warnings; it’s a much, much more brutal world than her Black Jewels series setting, and yet she manages to put cute, amusing and heartwarming scenes that do not break one from the reading, showing that despite how bleak the world setting seems, there’s hope and warmth and love.
I often see one of my favorite manga and anime of he past few years, ‘The Ancient Magus Bride’ by Kore Yamazaki classified as a Paranormal Romance, even though the “romance” element progresses at an extremely slow burn, is not explicit in any way, and often is just one thread in an increasingly intricate story.
I think it’s the title.