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Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance

*Cross-posted from my blog, where I've been talking about some of the thoughts and ideas that came up at Romantic Times last week*

One really interesting RT panel was devoted to defining the (often blurry) line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Jackie Kessler (who, by the way, just sold an awesome-sounding YA that you can read about here) suggested that in urban fantasy, the focus is usually on good vs. evil. It could be an external struggle, it could be an internal struggle, there may or may not be an apocalypse at stake, and shades of gray can abound, but at the end of the day, she suggested the heart of UF was good vs. evil; whereas the central focus in paranormal romance is usually the evolution of and relationship between a primary couple and their eventual happy ending. Jeaniene Frost came back and countered, ever so gently, that there are some paranormal romances that center as much or more on good vs. evil as on the couple in question and identified the romance genre expectation of an HEA (Happily Ever After) as the driving difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. In other words, in a paranormal romance series, at the end of the series, the couple has to be together; in an urban fantasy, they don't. So if you're going to blow up your primary love interest (not that I've ever come VERY, VERY close to doing that or anything), your readers will probably react less violently if you're shelved in fantasy than if you're shelved in romance, because the HEA expectation is built into the romance genre.

There is a very good chance that I've completely butchered what both of these fine ladies said (and I'm sure they might weigh in here themselves!), but I was super interested in the progression of the panel, and over on twitter, some of my Castle buddies requested answers, so I thought I'd try to reconstruct some of the dialogue from the panel AND throw out a couple more pieces of food for thought.

Piece the First: I spent a lot of the panel thinking about the role that secondary love interests play in a lot of the Fangs/Fur/Fey type books I read (and, for that matter, on a lot of the television shows I watch). If romance requires that "the" couple gets a happily ever after, it seems like the identity of "the" couple would have to be a lot more explicit; whereas, in a non-romance genre, you might still get a happy ending- just not the one you anticipated in the beginning. In other words, I was wondering if secondary (and tertiary) love interests are more common in urban fantasy than paranormal romance and if they actually present more of a threat to the initial couple, and then I got to thinking about whether or not that might give a heroine more room to evolve independently of her hero(es) or if it just lends itself to a different kind of growth.

Piece the Second: I realized, during the course of the panel, that when I tried to mentally translate this debate into the YA realm, I stumbled. I think there are several reasons for this- first, because YA generally isn't broken down into genres for shelving (ie there is no YA "romance" section), publishers don't have to distinguish between fantasy and romance, and readers might come into a given book with fewer genre expectations. Second, YA romance- in general- seems less focused on HEA, because there's something seemingly odd about having ANY "ever after" at the age of fifteen, especially in contemporary fiction. Recently, there's been a surge in historical romance and supernatural romances in YA, and I think those do tend to offer a little more ever after, but at the same time, I wonder if the age of protagonists in YA lends itself to a blurring of paranormal romance and urban fantasy lines.

Here ends my rambling- I'd love to hear what all of you think.

-Jen Barnes


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's many things.

Sometimes its the amount of horizontal hokey-poking that goes on in the pages that make it more paranormal romance, but not always.

Sometimes its the package and how much skin on the cover that makes it more paranormal romance, but not always.

Sometimes a books is heavier on action and fighting evil than it is on the developing romantic relationships that make it more UF, but not always.

Sometimes it's a sales team deciding they could get a better buy from the urban fantasy buyer for the bookstores than they could from the paranormal romance buyer, but not always.

Sometimes the noir detective style of the story with that cleverly worked first person perspective plants it down in urban fantasy, but not always.

Sometimes its an arbitrary choice to fill the monthly slots in a publisher's schedule, but not always.

These panels are great because the world will never truly know, but they do get people talkin!

(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
It's cute you think you get a choice where it goes. :P
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 29th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
A romantic subplot doesn't make your book a romance, and since whether or not it's shelved as a romance often has a lot to do with who buys it, and if the romance in your book is a homosexual one, you'll be more likely, in the current market, to sell it to a fantasy house than a romance house.
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Apr. 28th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
"Sometimes its the amount of horizontal hokey-poking that goes on in the pages that make it more paranormal romance, but not always."

Anton, I know you're being very clear that this isn't a definitive explanation, but as an author shelved in romance, I'll take this and expound on it a little for those people who DON'T add "but not always" at the end of the comment. I have one sex scene in my first book. Two in my second. One in my third - and I'm in romance. I think many readers can immediately think of several UF books that out-sex mine from here to Sunday with those percentages. The amount of sex in a book does not determine whether it's a romance versus a UF. Some romances have no sex, in fact. Romance does not automatically equate to multiple sex scenes, just like sex does not automatically equate to porn, or fantasy does not automatically equate to epic journeys in quest of a magical object.

I will agree that marketing and the publisher are the final voice in genre labels and shelving for a book. I've read some UF's that are more sweetly romantic than many books shelved in PR, and some PR's that have more action and ass-kicking than many UF's. Why are they shelved where they are? Because that's what the publisher decided, for whatever reason. The only thing the author can control is writing the best book possible. Everything after that is a crap shoot, IMO.
Apr. 28th, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)
pretty much! Oh, the meetings I've been in as both an author and as a part of a publisher. Sometimes it makes my brain hurt.
Apr. 29th, 2009 12:42 am (UTC)
I'm actually very confused/fascinated by the distinction. I consider my adult books to be urban fantasy, because if you take the romance (subplot) out, the plot still holds up. It's not the focus of the novel.

For reference, my Shifters books only have one sex scene each, and if I wind up writing one that doesn't need a sex scene, it won't get a sex scene.

If someone else read what I just wrote, I would assume his or her books to be urban fantasy, as opposed to paranormal romance. Yet mine are shelved in romance.

And I honestly have no idea why. I don't promise an HEA (either for individual books or the series itself, at least in terms of the romance), though I do promise a definite conclusion.

So, I remain confused.

Edited at 2009-04-29 12:43 am (UTC)
Apr. 28th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
You've raised an interesting point. Considering that I've recently started reviewing paranormal romance in order to get to grips with the genre, I'm trying to look at the genres to see the differences (and the similarities).

I pretty much write the kind of stories that I like to read, where the hero isn't always a nice person and he/she experiences some sort of transformation but the love interest may end up going home with their best friend . . . that sort of thing.

It's my intention to "keep it real" as much as possible because you're already dealing with supernatural powers of some sort. And, real life doesn't go for the HEA.

It's difficult because on the one hand there's a trend of readers wanting HEA but also those who're happy if you give a bittersweet bite to your last words.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
As for the HEA expectation in romance, be it at the end of a single-title book or the culmination of a series, I find it no more unrealistic of a genre expectation than for the villain to be defeated in a UF, or the killer caught in a mystery. Do killers and villains sometimes get away in UF or mysteries? Yes, sometimes, but across the board in the genre, most readers expect the villain to be defeated (even if it's temporary) or the killer to be stopped (even if it's temporary). And in the same way, most romance readers expect the book (or series) to end with some form of the couple being together. Granted, if it's not done properly - just like endings of books in any genre - the HEA or HFN can seem unrealistic. Just like the hero suddenly catching the serial killer after being outsmarted for the whole book, or the UF superhero suddenly finding the One Weapon that will defeat the villain after being clueless through the whole book.
Apr. 29th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
We don't have to worry about if it is paranormal romance, or Urban Fantasy (got to have the caps), it's the YA we have to watch out for and stop. I tell you, it's corrupting our children and turning them into....us.
Apr. 29th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC)
Heh, and if the writers are confused? Think how us readers must feel. ;-)

For myself, I have always thought of those terms as pertaining to two completely different elements of a book: "Urban Fantasy" denotes a particular tone/style/environment of the book, while "Paranormal Romance" is more an indication of what the main focus of the plot is all about (i.e. the romantic relationship). So basically apple and oranges, and books can be both at the same time, or just one and not the other. But then you toss "Contemporary Fantasy" into the mix, and I start getting a headache. ;-D
Apr. 29th, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
In general, I think where things are shelved or classified probably have more to do with how the publisher thinks it can best sell it. For instance, you hear a lot of arguments about the more recent JR Ward novels being more about the boys relationships, and not necessarily about the One True Love Story of each book -- even that the HEA is "grafted on" or whatnot -- but the series started out para romance, sells well in the para romance community, and thus continues to be pushed as para romance even if, taken objectively, it seems to fit more into UF.

I know authors who had multiple offers for the same manuscript -- some from romance houses that would publish it as romance, some from fantasy houses that would publish it as fantasy.

I consider this a step up from a few years ago, when a friend of mine was trying to publish her admittedly fantasy romance, and was getting rejections from romance houses that it was too much a fantasy (otherworldly wars and political machinations) and from fantasy houses that it was too much a romance (soulmates and other lovey dovey stuff). Ended up published as a multi-volume romance --- and went NYT.
Apr. 29th, 2009 04:27 am (UTC)
And sometimes, I get a bit hot under the collar when I find the likes of Christine Feehan set in the fantasy section, which I firmly feels belongs straight in the romance section.
Apr. 29th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
I'm a reader of fantasy, science fiction and urban fantasy and I enjoy a romance as long as it isn't the main focus of a novel. That's what defines a romance for me, not the HEA. Many of these non-romance relationships will also eventually arrive at their HEA - it might not be as rosy, it might not be as quickly, it might not be with the partner they started out with, but they will get there. Leaving two people in a better place is not the prerogative of the romance genre.

For me it has grown difficult to find an urban fantasy. Take Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre for example. It's a good book with a solid story and it is sold as urban fantasy. However the romance angle is so dominant, I couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I didn't expect the constant "I want him - I don't want him" and because my interests lie elsewhere it got on my nerves. In my eyes Blue Diablo is a paranormal romance, even though it doesn't end with a HEA (but I suspect the series will close with one for the heroine)

Apr. 29th, 2009 09:07 am (UTC)
YA romance- in general- seems less focused on HEA, because there's something seemingly odd about having ANY "ever after" at the age of fifteen, especially in contemporary fiction.

I think it depends on the book. I've read a lot of trilogies/series that have ended HEA, but dark seems to be the new Miss Popularity in the genre and I've seen a few YA books recently that haven't gone HEA BUT those haven't been in the fantasy genre.

Hmm ... this needs more thought.

And apropos of nothing, damn, Jackie's YA sounds good. It's been a long time since I was excited at the premise of an upcoming YA novel, but now I'm one of those people who just want it to be out now, dammnit!
Apr. 29th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
It's always fun to read opinions on this topic, because they are so varied. I tend to fall into the "if the relationship is the main focus and the story falls apart without it, it's PNR" camp. UF can still have an HEA, but if you remove the romance aspect of the hero/heroine relationship and the story stops working, it's usually PNR.

Last year, when I was still querying agents, I queried TDTD as UF and got a bunch of nibbles. The two agents who read the full manuscript, however, had very different reactions to what it actually was. My fault, really, because I was a little confused as to what I was writing. Looking back on the draft I queried, I shudder at how muddled it was.

One agent saw the UF potential and his revision ideas matched that vision. The other agent saw the Romance potential and her revision ideas...well, were not in synch with mine. I signed with agent one, cleaned up the muddle, established the book as UF, and the relationships in the book reflect that.

Not saying there's no HEA in my heroine's future. I'm only two books into the series, after all. But it is a hard distinction to make for many people, and many books that fit into both categories. Which is why I visit both the Romance and SF/F sections when I'm in the bookstore. ;)
Apr. 29th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
I just squealed out loud when I read the hook for HUNGER. I WANT IT. I want it NOW.
Apr. 29th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
I know! Doesn't it sound FABULOUS?
Apr. 29th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
To me, I think that if the main plot of the book is about a couple then it belongs in romance. If the romance is just a side plot and the book could stand alone without it, then I don't think of it as romance. But this kind of thinking has led me to wandering around the bookstore lost not being able to find the book I wanted so I'm thinking that my thoughts must be flawed. :)
Apr. 30th, 2009 05:26 am (UTC)
As a reader, my main focus in shopping for books is that there must be something paranormal and the timeframe must be present-ish (ie, nothing too far in the past or future). It doesn't matter if I find that paranormal story in the YA section, the Fantasy/Science Fiction section, or the Romance section. The only time I'll ever shy away from a book due to its genre is if a book shelved in Romance has a cover that looks a little too graphic, because in my head a cover that makes me blush is probably a little closer to erotica than I'd like to venture.

I have found that different stores shelve books in different genres. One example is Richelle Mead's Georgina Kincaid series. I've seen this shelved in Romance at Borders and shelved in Fiction in Barnes and Noble. It actually took me about twenty minutes to find it in B&N because I didn't even think to look outside of Romance and Fantasy/Sci-Fi. Another example is Jenna Black's Morgan Kingsley series. I was at a Books-A-Million and the first novel was in Romance while the second was in Fantasy/Sci-Fi. I have also encountered this in libraries. I understand that publishers obviously aren't going to go around and make sure every single book is shelved right in every single location, but it does make it a little harder as a reader to know what genre they're reading.

Also, although most bookstores do not break YA books into genres, I've noticed a number of Borders have split YA into two groups: YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi and YA.
May. 8th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
Interesting conversation. I realize I tend to like paranormal romance much more than urban fantasy, possibly because I find a well-done romance a perfect escape from reality! But I do think that if you're going to have a romance, then it needs to end happily. Just recently came across (a friend, on the other hand, LOVES urban fantasy and shapeshifter novels) the "Forbidden" universe, by Samantha Sommersby. The latest is "Forbidden: The Temptation. If you're looking for a fresh new voice in urban fantasy, give "Temptation" a look. My friend had me read it -- just great! I'm going to go back to pick up the rest of the series.
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