Urban Fantasy versus Paranormal Romance
Both are types of speculative fiction, involving fantasy elements (vampires, weres, shifters, demons, succubus, magi, etc.) in a real world setting. Both appeal to not only fantasy readers but also to romance readers, which gives them the power of crossover strength.
Before the rise of these subgenres, vampires were feared, to be avoided. No one would consider letting one close enough for a kiss. But now, some of the best romantic characters are the monsters themselves. Writers of each type lead the reader to overcome that natural aversion to danger to make monstrous characters attractive, if not desirable and seductive.
For some, the critical difference is setting. Most agree urban fantasy must take place in a city, but the setting can be historical, modern, or even futuristic. The key is that it’s in an urban environment.
Paranormal romance does not dictate any particular setting.
Others look to how the element of romance is dealt with in the plot. 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. For this reason, some believe the romance element of urban fantasy does not need to follow the requisites of true romance, adhering to the happily-ever-after ending.
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. Paranormal romance, like regular romance, can cover the whole genre spectrum. These works can also include comedy, historical, futuristic, contemporary, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, gothic, or erotica along with their fantastic themes.
Based upon the difference in how the romance element is handled, many place urban fantasy as a subgenre within fantasy, while paranormal romance is placed under the larger heading of romance. I tend to disagree; simply the presence of imaginary beings makes it fantasy for me.
Point of View
Often, but not always, urban fantasy novels are written in first person while paranormal romances are written in third person, balanced between the hero, the heroine, and possibly an antagonist or subplot character(s).
Urban fantasy creatures, such as vampires, tend to maintain their more traditional reputations rather than being vegetarian, sparkly, and/or romantic as they are in paranormal romance.
Urban fantasy usually has a more acerbic voice; the style is often more severe to match the fast-paced action. It often contains more graphic, grittier violence, while paranormal romance usually has a lower level. That may account for why sometimes urban fantasy is shelved in the horror sections of bookstores. For example, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels are dark enough to almost qualify as horror. Also, for urban fantasy, supernatural elements tend to be more ominous, whereas in paranormal romance, the supernatural is typically more intriguing and alluring.
Dark urban fantasy, fast becoming its own subgenre, contains the same elements as urban fantasy, but usually has more serious leanings towards horror elements. Dark and bloody events can and do happen in these novels, and a happy ending is not a necessity.
Appearance of the Book
Urban fantasies typically feature the main character looking tough or a viewed with a whimsical approach to that concept. Paranormal romance cover art differs, tending to be more sexualized, with varying degrees of nudity.
The back-cover blurb of urban fantasy is largely about the character’s situation, while paranormal romances focus on relationship issues stemming from some dilemma.
Examples of Both Genres
Many believe urban fantasy began in the late 80s/early 90s, when Laurel K Hamilton gave the genre its distinctive voice with her Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series. It introduced many fantasy readers to a darker, grittier, sexier kind of fantasy world, in which magic wasn’t a dream but a means to an end, a tool wielded by the protagonist to reach her goals. Anita was strong and able to defend herself, along with a soft side that allowed her to experience desire and love. Hamilton’s vampires were still dangerous, yet alluring at the same time.
Others credit Anne Rice as founder of the subgenre, with her 1976 release of Interview With The Vampire, although the book was originally categorized as horror. Or perhaps, urban fantasy came into being with Terri Windling’s collaborative anthology entitled Bordertown, about a city located between the realm of the fae and the world of humanity.
Yet another early and clear example of urban fantasy could be seen in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. His protagonist, Harry, was a wizard working in Chicago as a private investigator and cooperating with the Chicago police. He also became involved in relationships, sexual and platonic, but the goal of the stories was not the romance. Saving his world was paramount.
Other examples: Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series; Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series; Marjorie M. Liu’s Maxine Kiss series; Keri Arthur’s Riley Jensen series; Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series; Jeanine Frost’s Night Huntress series.
This subgenre defined itself during the same time period as urban fantasy with the first futuristic romance by Jayne Ann Krentz, released in 1986. It was a “classic road trip romance” set in a new and novel setting of another galaxy.
Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander series would be considered paranormal romance. In the stories, humans were unusually affected by time and space. The hero and heroine found themselves thrust backward and forward in time. These supernatural happenings occurred apart from an urban setting.
Twilight was a good example of paranormal romance. A vampire male lead and a human girl met at school and, given their complex friendship, attempted to lead normal lives. That the male lead was a vampire provided the fantasy element to the story, but the main plot was their love story, how they fell in love. Because the goal was love, that clearly placed the work in this subgenre.
Other examples: JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood; Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changelings series; Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series; Marjorie M. Liu’s Dirk & Steele series; Meljean Brooks’ Guardian series; Lori Handeland’s Nightcreature series; Lara Adrian’s Midnight Breeds series; Alexis Morgan’s Paladins of Darkness series.
Some series are less easy to categorize, showing dark, hard-hitting action along with well-defined romantic elements.
For example, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series contained many paranormal, supernatural and mythic elements. The dark adventure plot was similar to urban fantasy. However, in nearly every book, the Dark Hunters fell in love with their true loves, a clear paranormal romance element.
While at first glance Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson series seemed urban fantasy, an involved romantic triangle between Sam, Mercy and Adam leaned heavily toward paranormal romance. However, the goal of these stories was not to determine where Mercy’s heart lay, but to follow the twists and turns of her destiny.
Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series showed another urban fantasy with definite elements of paranormal romance. Although many characters did form relationships (Clay and Elena, Paige and Lucas, Jeremy and Jaime), their romances were only small parts of the overarching mysteries and adventures.
More and more often blending is occurring, creating new subgenres within each of these two categories. Humans continue to interact in new ways with the usual vampires and werewolves, along with fairies, fallen angels, shapeshifters, and part-human creatures of new imaginings to delight scores of new and old fantasy readers.