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Urban Fantasy versus Paranormal Romance

Neon Dragon by Nigel QuarlessThese two extremely popular sub genres are so often confused and debated, I thought a closer examination would be useful and interesting.

Similarities

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.

Differences

Setting

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.

Plot

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.

A wie armageddon by danirolli

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

Diabulus by Victoria FrancésOften, 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).

Characters

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.

Style

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

Urban Fantasy

Staked (cover art)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.

Paranormal Romance

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.

Twilight (cover)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.

Blended Works

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.

Moon Called (cover)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.

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14 Comments

  1. Julianne says:

    Where does the work of Charles De Lint fit in the history? I thought he was one of the first to actually be termed “urban fantasy”. Just curious.

  2. songofsorrow says:

    i guess the ‘urban’ setting, the creation of a ‘world’, and the absence of romance as a guiding force for the narrative set urban fantasy apart from PR.

  3. Jamie Wyman says:

    While I think you’ve got a decent start on this, I feel you’ve pigeonholed both genres by focusing on tropes. My full response is here on my blog: http://jamiewyman.blogspot.com/2011/10/picking-nits.html

  4. Ella Gray says:

    Love the article, Marsha! Very interesting for me to note that most of the series that I really like fall into the ‘in between’ category.

    Julianne – I am a big fan of Charles de Lint, too! His stuff is usually classified as ‘contemporary fantasy’, which I would say is sort of like saying ‘urban fantasy light’, LOL. Either way, he was definitely another genre trailblazer :-)

  5. Nice post that highlights some of the distinctions between the two. As a writer of urban fantasy, I’m having a tough time with editors who want to turn it into PNR by creating a HEA. My MC is still too screwed up for HEA. Just figuring out her place in this new world of magic and creatures she’s fallen into is a full-time job. There are potential romantic interests but….

  6. Valerie says:

    I believe Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde books came before the Anita Blake ones, by a few years. Charles deLint also wrote Moonheart well before that. Hamilton may have begun to popularize urban fantasy, but she was definitely predated by others.

  7. Mari says:

    I’ve read tons of urban fantasy and only a very small handful have been first person point of view.

  8. Talltree says:

    Hi,

    I was reading about UF heroines when I came across this post. About many authors whose books I have read. It really makes it easy to get the difference btw UF/PR.

    thanks, it answered a few questions for
    me.

    TT

  9. [...] romance that manages to identify unique elements and examples across many aspects of writing each: http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/urban-fantasy-vs-paranormal-romance Share this:Share This entry was posted in Interesting Links, Interesting People, Life, Promoting, [...]

  10. All of the information about Urban Fantasy is taken from what seems like a very narrow subset of the Genre. American Gods (or Good Omens) by Neil Gaiman or Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig are two that come to mind that pretty much go against everything in this article about urban fantasy.

  11. Syahira Sharif says:

    but I have to disagree about putting Kresley Cole’s Immortal After Dark with twilight (which is a YA paranormal romance). The story follow the vein of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s worldbuilding involving supernatural creatures and war. If you take away the romance, its still an Urban Fantasy about a supernatural war apocalypse. And Patricia Briggs start to go sour now and Anita Blake is plain erotica after a couple of books. Not that paranormal erotica is bad though but when it focus too much on the primary main character, it can get stale. Besides, I stop differentiating these two genres. Some classified under Paranormal Romance are Urban Fantasy but not all UF can be classified as PNR. Its a generalized term for a book written by women who write in multigenre but don’t fit the usual singular big genre norm (Fantasy/Thriller/Mystery/Scifi/Romance/Contemporary/Historical).

  12. […] A look at Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. Their difference, similarities, and examples of both.  […]

  13. […] With new subgenres popping up in fantasy, science fiction and horror almost every day, it’s hard to tell one from another. If you’re looking for a new book to read, how do you tell paranormal romance from urban fantasy? You might be disappointed in your purchase if you want one and wind up with the other. Here’s how to distinguish the two. […]

  14. […] Most of you will have heard of paranormal romance – essentially a story with paranormal elements with a romantic storyline. Popular examples can be found here. Now I have to say, I don’t necessarily agree that all of these books have been classified correctly. Some of the books in this list I believe fall under urban fantasy which seems to be a lesser known genre despite the popularity of books within it. If you aren’t familiar with the urban fantasy genre then a summary of it’s differences from paranormal romance can be found here. […]

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