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Defining Genre: Paranormal Romance

Posted on July 27, 2009 by alanajoli

Matt and I have been talking for a long time about me doing a column here at Flames Rising about different forms of urban fantasy. How can you tell if something is a paranormal romance vs. a true urban fantasy novel (and when it’s just vampire smut)? When is urban fantasy contemporary instead of urban (or is that term out the window)? Are superhero novels actually UF, or are they a different category all together?

The more I read other people writing about defining the subgenres, the more I think that no one actually knows a real, clear cut answer. Until we get more academic papers about the history of urban fantasy and all of its bits and pieces, it’s going to stay amorphous. (And even then, how many UF fans will read the papers on the subject? I’m not sure I will.) But sometimes the subgenre terms can be useful — or, at least, thinking about genre in specific ways can help navigate the genre terrain.

To start this blog out, I thought I’d talk about paranormal romance. Why? Because to me, it seems like the easiest one to get right. There are a lot of novels that could be paranormal romance, but when there are plenty of novels that definitely are that category. Starting from a definite always seems to me like a good thing.

Here’s what you might not know about romance as a category. First off, it’s extremely popular. Back when I was studying publishing trends in the early part of the decade, romance was the best selling category across the board. It sells in grocery stores, Hallmarks, superstores, bookstores, airports — you name it, they’ve got romance novels. The romance category targets a good market, typically adult women with cash to spend. Harlequin sells some novels at extremely low prices, meaning that for the price of one movie in a theater, you could get two or three paperbacks.

Traditional “category romance” (that’s a real, useful term) follows a very precise formula, intentionally. The hero and the heroine meet in chapter one or two, and are immediately attracted to each other, but they are tentative in forming an actual relationship. Once they get to a point where they actually hook up (not always through sex, but usually), something big happens to drive them apart. In the last half to third of the book, the hero and heroine have to overcome this larger challenge to eventually end up together and have their happily ever after.

The best thing about paranormal romance as a category is if it fits the category romance formula, and has supernatural elements, you’ve definitely found one! Plenty of traditional romance authors, including Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz (who writes her paranormals as Jayne Castle) have dabbled in the supernatural — Roberts with vampires and shape shifters and Krentz/Castle with a planet called Harmony where some people have a knack for hunting “ghosts,” or wild energy. A lot of paranormal romances form a trilogy or a series, where they’re all set in the same world, and may have one, large overarching plot (usually about saving the world, or, at least, a world), but despite that larger feature, the basics of the formula are the same: boy meets girl, boy and girl have issues driving them apart, boy and girl have end “HEA” (happily ever after — it’s such a common phrase in the romance world that it gets its own acronym).

Next time, I’ll talk about some borderline paranormals that aren’t that easy to classify. Until then, happy reading!

Alana Joli Abbott

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4 Responses to “Defining Genre: Paranormal Romance”

  1. Jeff LaSala says:

    Good column concept, Alana.

    Personally, the only type of romance worth reading an entire novel about OUGHT to have supernatural and/or fantastical elements in it. My favorite movie romance does: Ladyhawke. 🙂

  2. Alana Abbott says:

    Thanks Jeff!

    I actually got started reading romance with the “nerd” series by Vicki Lewis Thompson (the title Nerd in Shining Armor made me overcome my initial reluctance toward romance), and I went through a pirate phase, so I have to say, there are definitely category romances without the paranormal that I’ve enjoyed. 🙂 I know a lot of Regency fans, too, and there’s a whole series about hockey players…

    I may now have shared too much about my reading taste. Back to our regularly scheduled dark fantasy!

  3. Monica says:

    This post was pretty interesting, because I just had a conversation with Lori Devoti about that distinction. She had mentioned that in a paranormal romance, the main focus of the story is the romantic relationship between the two characters. In an urban fantasy, even if there is sex present, if the plot doesn’t focus on that relationship then it’s not technically romance.

    It is pretty challenging, though, to continually define these genres as they get more and more convoluted. 🙂

  4. Alana Abbott says:

    The line is definitely blurring all the time, and I think there’s actually quite a lot of romance-as-major-plot in UF, too. I remember how excited I was to finish Unshapely Things, because it was the first UF I’d read in ages where the plot didn’t hinge around the relationship between two characters. (No love interest at all in that book. How refreshing!)

    But I think the blurring is part of the fun, too. 🙂

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