Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vampires and Werewolves and Ghosts, Oh My!

Like many Americans over a certain age, my fascination with vampires and werewolves began with the Dan Curtis soap opera Dark Shadows. I'm talking the original series that ran every afternoon from 1966 - 1971. Looking back on it now, it probably set into motion my quest for good novels that place these mythical creatures in every day situations where their special abilities became both a boon and a bane.

And that brings me to the eternal question: What is the difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance?

On the surface, the answer seems simple enough, especially with regard to paranormal romances. To fall into that category, your heroine falls into lust, and then love, with either a vampire, a shapeshifter of some sort, maybe even a ghost. There's sex, romance, more sex. A book for women, in other words (don't throw anything yet. I'm not through.) Urban fantasy, on the other hand, has a smart ass narrator who is usually involved in solving some sort of crime with a supernatural bent to it. He, or she, is either assisted by a supernatural creature or the bad guy is the evil vamp, shifter, etc.

Like I said, simple. Right?

Wrong, with a capital WRONG!

So, how do you know if you're writing, or reading, a paranormal romance or an urban fantasy? Agent Nathan Bransford has written a blog post about genre distinctions. He recommends going to your local bookstore and checking out where books similar to what you are writing are shelved to help determine how to classify the book when marketing it. That is sound advice for most genres and even most sub-genres. But it doesn't really work in the case of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

Take Laurell K. Hamilton's books for example. Her Anita Blake series is nominally Urban Fantasy. I say nominally because it started out firmly in the UF corner before Anita's sex drive took center stage for a number of books. I've seen that series shelved in Horror as well as in SF/F. The latter makes sense, especially because UF is a sub-genre of SF/F. But horror? Then there's the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. I've seen them in SF/F and Mystery. See my dilemma?

Laura Miller has an excellent article about this at Salon.Com. One observation she makes in the article is one I've heard discussed, and have discussed myself, over and over again: that the fan reaction to the increase in Anita's sexual escapades in direct correlation to the decrease in her kick ass, mystery solving activities "exemplifies a perennial argument in urban fantasy: the ratio of crime to sex, or more broadly, of mystery to relationships."

So, where do we draw the line? Or do we draw the line?

Miller goes on to write that the best urban fantasies don't "just set a detective story in an alternate world where vampires, werewolves, demons and fairies are real. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it also uses the supernatural material to reimagine the challenges of young adulthood...Class as much as sex is an urban fantasy preoccupation...Where working-class characters in literary fiction are often depicted as tragic and helpless, the urban fantasy heroine gets to surprise everyone by using her talents to save the world...."

While this definition fits a number of books that are classified as UF, it also fits those classed as paranormal romance. And it causes confusion when a reader picks up a book termed UF, expecting these factors and finds something else.

For example, Nocturnal Origins, a book I shopped around as UF (and which I'm waiting to see if it is picked up by a certain editor), brought about a comment from one reader who wanted to know if my main character, a female cop who is, to her horror, a shapeshifter, liked guys. The reason for the question -- there was no sex in the book. Sure, she enjoyed looking at a good looking guy here and there. But, because it is UF, this reader thought it had to have sex in it. Forget that it followed the kick ass, smart assed female lead. Forget the crime/mystery that had to be solved, all the while Mac was having to accept and adjust to the fact that she sometimes shifted into a jaguar.

Another example of how wide open the genre is, is Kate's ConVent. It is filled with mystery, humor -- lots of humor -- and a cast of supernatural creatures ranging from angels to vampires to succubi to werewolves to demons. Oh, and let's not forget the human fen. But no sex. At least none on-screen, so to speak. Oh yeah, one more little thing. Her narrator is male.

I think John Levitt said it best in a Genreville post last November:

...defining UF is an exercise in futility. Everyone has their own particular take. Mine is simple – it’s like the old quote about pornography from Justice Potter Stewart, where he admitted he’d be hard pressed to define pornography, but nonetheless, “I know it when I see it.” Jim Butcher is classic UF. Neal Gaiman, who also sets his fantasies in contemporary society, is not. Rob Thurman is. Sean Stewart is not.

Now there’s another line of UF that owes much to Romance. Rachel Caine, Charlaine Harris, and early Laurel Hamilton come out of that tradition – smart mouthed, kick ass heroines who owe a lot to Buffy, and are not to be trifled with. But the romance tradition is clear – no matter how complex the world building is, no matter how convoluted and surprising the plot, an essential element always remains about whether or not it’s a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both.

So, is there a clear line demarking the difference between UF and PR? No. Just like Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, I'll now it when I see it. The only thing is, what I see and what you see may be two very different things.

Now that I've thoroughly muddied the waters, what is your favorite UF novel? How about PR novel? Do you see any difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Finally, and from a writer's standpoint, WHERE SHOULD THEY BE SHELVED AT THE BOOKSTORE?


Anonymous said...

I say just lump 'em in with everything else in the SF/F section. To try to separate them into different sections is going to cause confusion -- like you pointed out, we can both look at the same thing and see them differently. My UF might be your PR, and vice versa.

Also, I figure if books on cyborgs and elves can share the same shelf-space, then the books with steamy werewolf nookie can share shelf-space with the books without steamy werewolf nookie. Right next to the books with cyborg nookie and elf nookie.

Kate said...

RJ Cruze,

Seconded! If it's not in the SF/F section, chances are I won't find it. I tend to look there first, then maybe at the mysteries, a cursory glance at general, and possibly YA to see if anything decent has been slipped in there.

Then I head for the various non-fic sections I haunt.

Anonymous said...


Have you noticed that nowadays the YA section tends to bear a striking resemblance to the SF/F section? I consider this a Very Good Sign.

Francis said...

And then there's stuff like Wen Spencer's work. Lots of Romance but as far as I am aware its all filed in SF/F....

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I get told that my Shifters' series isn't UF but my Magical British Empire is Historical UF.

Don't ask. Don't even ask.

Amanda Green said...

RJ Cruze, I happen to agree with you. Still, you have to admit the way some of the books get shelved is mind-blowing. I smile every time I find Kildar in Mystery or, heaven help us, Romance.

As for letting books with steamy werewolf nookie share shelf space with books with cyborg nookie and elf nookie, I'm all for it. But then, do we really want to contemplate them then deciding we need books about cyborgs AND elves having steaming nookie together? Eeep!

Amanda Green said...

Kate, it sounds like you cruise the bookstores pretty much the same way I do. Well, with one exception. I tend to stay out of the YA section right now because I go into diabetic shock around all those sparkly vampires there these days.

Amanda Green said...

RJ Cruze, it is a very good thing that the YA sections are beginning to look more and more like SF/f sections, imo. One of the problems I'm hearing more and more parents discuss is how they can't get their kids to read. Not that I blame the kids when so much of what they are assigned in school is nothing but PC pabulum. But give them a good sf/f book and many, if not most, of them will start reading for enjoyment, something that is almost a foreign concept to their age group.

Amanda Green said...

Francis, that's the only place I've found Wen's books. Of course, I don't put anything past the bookstores these days. That is especially true with a certain big box chain that has been "downsizing" of late. I was in one of their local stores last week an almost died. Half of their shelf space is now gone. They've all but done away with genre fiction, at least as separate shelving. SF/F being the exception. And I think that's only because they haven't figured out if it's fiction or non-fic.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, you know better than to tell me not to ask. So I'm going to. If the Shifters series isn't UF, what do they say it is and why?

And you bring up an interesting point with your MBE series. When is a book Alt. History, Historical Fantasy or Historical UF? And have the lines between these sub-genres blurred as much as they have between UF and paranormal romance?

Anonymous said...

Amanda, I have a hunch that Kildar getting shelved with romance might be a result of unintended consequences regarding a certain Preditors and Editors award...

And you had to go and mention sparkly vampires. Thanks to you and Kate, from this point hence, I can only think of the "Twilight" series as "The Sparkly Vampire meets the Glittery Hoo Ha." ;-)

Amanda Green said...

RJ Cruze, I think you're right about Kildar. Still, you have to admit it is more than just slightly funny to think of anything by Ringo shelves in Romance.

And as for the sparkly vamps and glittery hoo ha, we are glad to be of service [VBEG]

Anonymous said...

Especially the Kildar books :-D

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, your post is very timely. I've just had this discussion trying to define the difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance with the Australian Romance writers sub-group that writes this genre.

I'm running a workshop on World Building at the RWA Conference. I've divided the notes into three areas, fantasy, SF and ... do I call it Paranormal or Urban Fantasy?

Basically, from a World Building point of view the two are interchangeable. Contemporary setting with variations.

And yes, RJ, they all belong under the SF/Fantasy/Horror section of the bookshop. But a lot of die-hard SF fans regard the UF and PR sub-genres with fear and loathing because it has its origins in romance.

Now, I know Urban Fantasy really has it is origins in the Noir Detective story, but there is nearly always a love/attraction thread woven into the narrative, if not some hot and heavy sex.

And this is what puts the traditional SF fan off. They tend to be (cliche alert) old, white males with very high IQs and (in correlation) poor social skills.

Anonymous said...

Though, IMO, Unto the Breach was a damn fine read. Leaving aside the gratuitous sex (which wasn't quite as gratuitous as it was in the previous novels), UtB as a pure technothriller was a lot better than anything Tom Clancy has turned out since at least the early '90s.

Not bad for a "romance" if I do say so...

Kate said...

Amanda, RJ Cruze,

Perhaps the store got an unusually literate person shelving, who used the original definition of 'romance' in literature (quoting from
a. A long medieval narrative in prose or verse that tells of the adventures and heroic exploits of chivalric heroes.
b. A long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place.
c. The class of literature constituted by such tales.

Anonymous said...

Rowena, I believe the term you're looking for is "greybeards" -- the guys who like their SF hard and completely free of "girl cooties." And keep that funny stuff with the elves as far away from the hard stuff as possible. After all, some cute little elf girl might give that rock-ribbed, square-jawed spaceman cooties!

Oddly enough, while I am an SF fan at heart, and the first -- and only (so far) -- story I had published was pretty much straight-up SF, I have no problem whatsoever with Fantasy, urban or otherwise, sharing the same shelves as my SF books. Ditto for the SF with "girl cooties" -- I've read the entire Vorkosigan Saga cover-to-cover and haven't noticed even the slightest drop in testosterone, nor have I found a single cootie on me. Well, except for one, but it's really cute and doesn't eat much, so I let it stay. Kinda brightens up the place. ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, good luck with your workshop. As for why UF/paranormal romance puts off the usual SF/F reader, I think you're on the right track. Some of the stereotypical fans are put off by the romance and/or sex. But I think it goes one step further where books typically classified as UF are concerned. I think the fact that some of the "UF" authors started with the noir aspect and then became more focused on sex turned them off. It sort of changed the rules in midstream and no one likes that. It's not fair.

Amanda Green said...

RJC, lol. I like your idea of a "romance" -- the kind where more than one type of "gun" can go off. [VBG]

Amanda Green said...

Uh, Kate, have you been IN a big box bookstore lately? I don't know about your neck of the woods, but down here, you're lucky if they know what fiction is, much less having them know the original definition of romance.

Now, before someone yells, I don't mean it -- much. Experience has shown that the younger the employee, the less well-read they are. The exception being if you want to know about a graphic novel or manga. But my thoughts about the reason for that would take me right back onto my soapbox and I promised myself I wouldn't go there today. Maybe another day on another forum.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, apparently Shifters is JUST "adventure fantasy" As I understand it, urban fantasy has to be first person -- usually by a woman -- and it has to have a sexual component (as in, a hot male) even if there's no sex. I have the second, but not the first, and I have multiple POVs, which I understand is a no no.

The MBE CAN'T be UF unless people are high. I mean, it's not URBAN.

Anonymous said...

So, by using Third Person Narrative, making it that much richer a story (and avoiding the all the pitfalls and limitations of 1st Person), it's disqualified from being UF?

Doomed by good technique -- that's just surreal. And let me guess: they've told you "not edgy enough" too.

Well, look on the bright side: whenever the UF subgenre eventually decides to implode (like any subgenre, it is a matter of "when" not "if"; that's the big downside to overspecialization) -- you'll be a writer of "adventure fantasy" and escape being stigmatized by the resulting backlash. As for "Heart of Light," it can hop safely into the Alternate History camp to weather the storm -- AH has such a big tent that it's pretty much a genre unto itself.

Chris McMahon said...

I always through Urban Fantasy was any contempory setting with fantastical elements.

Looks like I am in for some trouble trying to find a place for Warriors of the Blessed Realms. This Heroic Fantasy in Storyline, SF if you include the tech of the bad guys, but loaded with magic - Oh and half occurs in contemporary Australia. Gulp.

Any ideas?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I think that's the question most of us writing that sort of thing wonder. My suggestion -- when you figure it out, let me know. Because I sure don't have the answer. [G]

Actually, I think RJ Cruze might have the right of it. The UF definition is getting so twisted and expanded and blurred that soon it will simply blend back into the more standard sub-genres of SF/F.