Urban Fantasy Versus Paranormal Romance: What’s in a Label?

- by Chris Marie Green

I decided to blog today about a question that I’ve been hearing more and more during signings and online interviews. What’s the difference between “paranormal romance” and “urban fantasy”? I thought it’d be worthwhile to ask other authors for their opinions, too, and if you have anything to add, I hope you’ll respond in the comments section!

The first difference seems pretty obvious–there’s a different focus on romance. In paranormal romance, the highest stakes element is the romance itself while in urban fantasy, the highest stakes element is saving the world. Both categories can contain either element, but there’s a different emphasis.

Also, urban fantasy usually has a more acerbic voice, and most of the time it uses first-person point of view, although this isn’t always the case. For instance, my Vampire Babylon series utilizes third-person POV for the heroine, and the vampires plus other characters get POVs, also. Paranormal romance generally seems to maintain a third-person POV balance between the hero, the heroine, and perhaps a villain or subplot character(s).

Some other differences? Urban fantasy can contain more graphic, grittier violence while paranormal romance usually has a lower level of it. (Maybe that’s why urban fantasy can be shelved in the horror section. To date, I haven’t seen paranormal romance alongside RED DRAGON or a Stephen King book.) Also, for urban fantasy, the supernatural element is ominous, whereas in paranormal romance, the supernatural can be more intriguing and alluring. (Think the original, ruthless DRACULA compared to Edward in TWILIGHT.) However, urban fantasy does contain its share of the alluring, as well. I suppose that’s why people ask what the difference is between the labels.

I’d never really considered these differences before. Truthfully, when I first started writing urban fantasy, I had no idea I was doing it. I only wanted to write about a female Van Helsing who faces down survival-minded vampires. There was no question that the romantic element would support the plot, action, and character growth of my heroine, and I never targeted Vampire Babylon to fit into any particular category. That was liberating. However, as I continued with the second book in the series, a sense of expectation did settle in, but it wasn’t because I was trying to shoehorn my work into the urban fantasy category. It’s just that, after the first book in any series, there are things you’ve got to live up to with each story, no matter how the book is labeled. It feels like you, in effect, become your own category, because your readers know you now and have certain expectations. In any event, I suppose labeling affects the way I market my books more than anything.

So here’s a question for you writers out there: how much does “your category” affect what you produce? How much do you really think about it when you’re writing?

11 comments

  1. I write an urban fantasy series for DAW Books, a well-known science fiction/fantasy imprint under the Penguin Books umbrella.

    As someone who has previously written contemporary genre romance (under the pseudonym Laura Leone) and also traditional sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy (under my own name, for Tor Books), I’m always strongly aware of the crucial, fundamental differences between the two genres. I think that “crossover” fiction such as paranormal romance and urban fantasy has tremendous potential appeal to an audience BEYOND the core-genre audience… but it only succeeds well enough to -find- that ADDITIONAL audience if it fulfills the essential elements of the genre it’s grounded in.

    And you’ve stated the differences well. Any romance novel (whether paranormal, historical, suspenseful, etc.) is fundamentally about the pair-bonding love story. And any fantasy novel (whether urban, historical, sword-and-sorcery, etc.) is fundamentally about the struggle between good and evil.

    In a fantasy novel, personal happiness and the protagonist’s love story can be back-burnered for the Greater Good, and can even be permanently sacrificed for same. This is just as true of urban fantasy as it is for all other subgenres of fantasy. Whereas regardless of what challenges it encounters, the love story in a romance novel must triumph in the end. This is as true of paranormal romance as it is of any other subgenre of romance.

  2. P.S. I should add, btw, that the reason I’m a much better (and much happier) fantasy writer than I was a romance writer is that, in fictional terms, I find the struggle between good and evil, and saving the world, MUCH more exciting than resolving problems in a love story. I’ve always had the attitude, as a writer, that this character can always find another man, but there’s only ONE world she can save.

  3. Thanks, Laura–well stated. I really love the “wider scope” of urban fantasy, too, but when I return to my romances, there’s a definite comfort factor in concentrating on the couple. I guess that’s why I keep writing both!

  4. not a writer, but I read both genres and honestly it has always been the ‘romance’ factor that makes me distinguish the two (on my overly obsessive bookshelves and book database). A friend of mine scoffed because I considered Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels to be UF (which it is labeled under I believe) because there’s romance in it. To which I replied ‘But the romance isn’t her main priority. In fact Kate doesn’t want it 90% of the time. Its there, but hell she’d be just as happy to tell Curran to get castrated as she would to go to bed with him’. Even the UF that has a high amount of sex in it–if that’s just incidental to the character/situation I don’t consider it a Paranormal romance. So the lead char is a lusty guy/gal? Does no one remember the Conan types from the old days of fantasy?

    Plus if I find myself more interested in the world building/details then if the two love interests get together that also defines it (S.J. Day’s Marked series, for instance, is under Paranormal Romance from Tor, but I could care less who she ends up with, I just wanna know about being a Marked!).

    ‘Paranormal’ can be such a broad, general term too. If there’s a ghost in it–whoops its a paranormal, I don’t see that in UF too often. Though I guess its also kind of like the whole ‘You’s a Christian if you’re Catholic, but you’re not necessarily a Catholic if you’re Christian’ for UF and Paranormal Romance. You can be a Paranormal Romance if you’re a UF, but you’re not necessarily a PR if you’re in UF’ you know?

  5. Lexie, what a great post. That’s a good point about being more interested in the world than the romance–excellent way to distinguish UF from PR. One of the things I like about writing UF is that the heroine can be in a love triangle (or square) and by the end of any certain book, there can be no promise of a commitment. (Of course, I do like the Happily Ever After in my romances, LOL. The change of pace is liberating!)

    I just bought the first two books in Sylvia’s series. Can’t wait to read them. :)

  6. Ms. Green,

    I have to ask you this because I have looked all over the internet to find the answer. My son is big into vamps, shapeshifters and the like. here is my ??? He has read the Babylon series, is this appropriate for his age? He will be 13. I have asked him and he says its ok, but his version and my version of ok most likely differs.

    Please let me know what you think.

    I myself am a paranormal romance reader and I can definately tell the difference between Urban Fantasy and pararomance. To me Urban focuses more on the story like end of the world type stuff and para-romance focuses more on the couple.

    Thanks,
    Deanna

  7. Hi, Deanna!
    The VB series can be pretty grisly, and it contains graphic sexual situations, as well. I get mail from quite a few younger readers though. At first, that surprised me, because the series certainly isn’t targeted to the YA market. However, I recommend that parents take a look at the books just to see if they would be okay with having their children read them, as the comfort level differs with everyone.

    Just as an aside, when I was 13, I was already into Stephen King…. (Wow, it seems so long ago!)

    All the best to you and your son. :)

  8. i was just wondering if any of you guys have a first hand experience about Paranormal in real life.”:.

  9. Ms. Green,
    Thanks for this great post, and thanks to the others who added their information. I have been trying to figure out the differences myself and you all said it so well.

    Jennifer Dyer

  10. Great post, Realy looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  11. I see Urban Fantasy as being grittier with the romance being more of the subplot than the plot itself.

    Paranormal Romance on the other hand, I see as the relationship being the main plot, and the rest of the plot is just what affects their relationship and keeps them together until the end (like any romance, really).