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?