Paranormal Romance versus Urban Fantasy

Seeing Eye to Strange Brew
August 4, 2009
Sherrilyn Kenyon Live (Book Giveaway)
August 6, 2009

It’s a wonderful thing to run around all day and come home to a friendly discussion about paranormal romance versus urban fantasy. Essentially, the core of the debate is what separates the two genres? What makes a story paranormal romance and not urban fantasy? Or the reverse? I discussed my definition of urban fantasy in mid-July.

Paranormal Romance versus Urban Fantasy

Yesterday, however, I logged onto Twitter (You can find me on twitter at @HVLong, by the way) to see a question from my fellow writer and very good friend Shirin Dubbin (you may remember me applauding her book the Keeper of the Way a few weeks back). She was reading a post that discussed urban fantasy versus paranormal romance.

For many writers, what one author deems to be the definition of UF is not always the definitions others ascribe to it. The key sticking point, it would seem is the issue of sex. For some as for Shirin, urban fantasy is fantasy in a modern setting, usually a city—featuring mythic creatures: elves, dragons whether it comes with romance or not.

For me it’s not about the sex (although arguably books with a high sex content lean more towards erotica, which is yet another sub-genre) or whether the characters fall in love: it’s whether the goal of the story is about the characters falling in love. If the goal is for the characters to find love with each other or in spite of each other, then it’s paranormal romance.

Twilight is paranormal romance. It has a vampire as the male lead and a human girl as the female. They are both living ‘normal’ lives and meet each other at ‘school.’ That the man is a vampire is an important element in the story, but it’s about their love story, how they fall in love. So the goal is love, that makes it a paranormal romance.

In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Harry is a wizard working in Chicago. He has a P.I. license and works with the Chicago PD. He’s getting pulled more and more into the Wizarding world, particularly with his work as a Warden, his apprentice and the war with the Red Court. Harry also has relationships, he has sex and he has great friendships. But the goal of the Harry stories is not the romance. Most often it’s saving the world (or at least Harry’s piece of it) before it can all go to hell. With the supernatural elements, the magic and the modern world, that makes it urban fantasy.

Meeting in the Middle

So what does that make Sherrilyn Kenyon? Her books have a lot of paranormal, supernatural and mythic elements. In nearly every one of her Dark Hunter series, the Dark Hunters fall in love with their true love. Even Acheron eventually does. So are her books paranormal romance or urban fantasy? I think her books sit firmly on the fence with one leg dangling on either side. But if I were forced to choose — yep, paranormal romance.

Patricia Briggs Mercedes Thompson series: urban fantasy. Despite the romantic triangle between Sam, Mercy and Adam, the goal of these stories is not where does Mercy’s heart lie — it’s where is Mercy’s destiny taking her. That may change, but I’m still pretty convinced it’s UF.

Kelley Armstrong? Urban fantasy with definite elements of paranormal romance. Why? Because although characters do hook up (Clay and Elena, Paige and Lucas, Jeremy and Jaime), their romances are only part of the overarching mysteries and adventures. With the characters constantly recurring, we keep dropping in on their lives and their adventures, that’s more urban fantasy than romance, too.

So tell me, do you have an opinion on what really separates paranormal romance from urban fantasy?

Quick Note:
Be sure to stop by Romancing the Blog for another look at this debate. I’m telling you, it’s hot stuff!


  1. RKCharron says:

    Hi 🙂
    Thanks for the great blog post.
    UF vs Paranormal Romance.
    For me if the novel is primarily about the romance and the HEA, then it's a PR.
    No HEA? It's UF.
    Love and best wishes,

  2. Heather Long says:

    I think urban fantasy's can have a happily ever after, but urban fantasies tend to be more series based. I haven't seen a lot of one offs — except for War for the Oaks. So maybe the type of ending is a strong influence on the genre.

  3. Megs says:

    I kinda disagree… :O

    I always thought that Paranormal meant something of a spiritual/alien/reallifemonster type nature. So it has angels, ghosts, vampires, greys, bigfoot – anything that people have seriously speculated as existing. Vampires fall in this category, because of the known behavior and possession pattern.

    Urban Fantasy (to me) is anything you would find in a traditional fantasy (witches, wizards, fairies, unicorns, giants, trolls, etc) but it is in a contemporary setting.

    There are novels in-between – like novels with witches, for example. They could have elements of both Paranormal and Urban fantasy. Same thing with fairies. I think it's how 'realistic' the writer makes the 'creatures'. :]

  4. Heather Long says:

    Megs, what a tremendously good point and I like that definition. Urban Fantasy should have elements of pure fantasy in the modern world.

  5. Megs, I'm so glad to meet someone who shares my definition. I feel much the same and am surprised it comes down to 'sexxoring' for so many.

    Like you said the definition, for me, lies in the terms Paranormal and Fantasy with the Urban and the Romance classifying the sub-genre.

    Great post Heather!

  6. Megs says:

    Not a problem. I do think that those in-between novels do confuse the issue a little bit for people. Especially those with vampires. Like Twilight seemed to have a lot more fantasy elements than paranormal – at least with the vampires vs werewolves thing. :]

  7. Heather Long says:

    Megs and Shirin, I agree. I also think when you take vampire mythology and shake it up (like Meyer did with Twilight), you make it fantasy or at least remove it from the horror/paranormal realm. Also, alternative histories can do the same thing. I read a book years ago (can't remember the title now) that featured Mina Harker as the Queen of the Vampires in London – so is that fantasy or paranormal? Love the debate and discussion nevertheless

  8. Megs says:

    Yeah. I was also thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how people never know what genre the series was.

    I've heard it categorized as Horror (which is weird), but I think that were it a book series, it would have been definitely categorized as Urban Fantasy.

  9. Heather Long says:

    Absolutely, I agree with Jordan over at Romancing the Blog too where she says that some readers get burned by misleading genres or mis-labeled genres. I can definitely sympathize with that frustration.

  10. Heather and Megs, I think people had such a hard time categorizing Buffy because we didn't have the Paranormal TV genre back then. It definitely would be labeled that way now along with shows like Supernatural. If BVS were a book, I think, it would firmly straddle the line between PR and UF because romance played such a huge part in it.

    (love that Spike by the way)

    For me Twilight is still YA Paranormal Romance. It didn't feel as much like a fantasy when I read it.

    Heather, that whole mis-labeling thing goes back to what we were saying yesterday. With so many varied definitions of PR and UF we as readers really have to use the book blurbs as a guide because I've picked up some stuff and had that 'what the heck!' feeling. =giggle=

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *