There seems to be a prevailing belief that paranormal romance is purely a romance involving some kind of supernatural creature, be it vampire, were, angel, demon, or what-have-you. And the sheer numbers of these stories out there help reinforce this conclusion. Many of them are wonderful explorations into what it means to be different, or human, and synthesizing or creating complex myths and worlds.
It’s so pervasive, I can’t tell you the number of times my time travel romance MUST LOVE BREECHES was dinged by a contest judge for “not being a paranormal romance” and so shouldn’t have been entered in that category. But let’s step back. What is the definition of paranormal? If someone hurtling through time is not “beyond the range of scientific explanation [Wikipedia]”, I don’t know what is, LOL.
So what are some other kinds of paranormal romance? The now defunct P.E.A.R.L. awards had the following categories, which I think sum it up pretty well:
- Fantasy/Magical: Story takes place in the natural world but featuring beings [mythical or real] with unnatural abilities. Stories may include visits to other realms. This category also includes ghosts and psychics.
- Futuristic: Stories in this category require the main plot to be set in a time far enough into the future for there to be significant developments (changes) in culture as we know it, or the introduction of an otherworldly culture which affects the contemporary world – plot involves two romantically linked central characters.
- Shapeshifter: Books in this category include beings that have the ability to take on different forms one of which must be human. Werewolves, Selkies, and others.
- Time Travel: Stories in which main character[s] travel to a time period other than their own. Can be historical, contemporary, or futuristic in setting.
- Vampire: Darker and generally more sensual, these stories feature preternatural beings who subsist on human and/or animal blood, or life force (in the case of psychic vampires) often having magical powers and the ability to transform.
- Romantic Fantasy: This category includes traditional Fantasy which is set in wholly imaginary landscapes, and alternate history (a.k.a. historical fantasy). Stories draw imaginatively on speculation in the plot and setting.
- Science Fiction: Stories involve speculations based on current or future science or technology as the plot focus or involve a futuristic setting which is significantly different from the world as we know it.
- Romantic Urban Fantasy: Fantasy in which supernatural elements are introduced into contemporary, real-world, urban settings.
I think this is more inclusive than the definition given by Prof. Sarah S.G. Frantz:
a paranormal romance is a novel focusing on a close relationship in which the primary mundane vs. paranormal tension is explored between the partners in the relationship. So while a story in which both characters know of, understand, and believe in the paranormal elements of the world would technically be “paranormal,” it might not be a paranormal romance because why have a romance with paranormal elements if the mundane/paranormal tension does not effect the relationship? In a paranormal romance, then, by my definition, at least one character must believe they are mundane (whether or not they are) and have to struggle within the relationship with the tension between mundane and paranormal. This definition can be represented in any number of ways, but that’s what I come to when I actually try to parse out my personal understanding of the combination phrase “paranormal romance.” If you think of most of Nora Roberts’ paranormals (I haven’t read the Morrigan’s Cross series, so I can’t speak for those) and Linda Howard’s paranormals, each and every relationship has to get over the “I don’t believe you are a ______/I don’t believe you can do ________” stage. That’s what makes them paranormal, in my opinion.
Which precludes a lot of what was defined by the P.E.A.R.L. Time travel would not be considered paranormal by her, then. One of her main arguments is that, to her, a true paranormal must have the tension between the mundane and the paranormal, but a time travel has that, though she only concedes it straddles the line. I think two mundanes struggling with a paranormal aspect that has suddenly happened to them fits with her definition of having that tension between the mundane and the paranormal, it’s just not the two characters that are representing the paranormal/mundane divide, but rather the situation. However, her definition would definitely not include fantasy, science fiction or steampunk (which I would argue is a subset of paranormal romance, since an alternate history is definitely ‘other-worldly’) as everyone in the story is aware of the otherworldliness.
Perhaps that’s why I really like the name of the RWA special interest chapter “Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal” (FF&P) and a few RWA chapter contests are changing the Paranormal Category to FF&P, so that it can include sci-fi romance and fantasy romance, and the like. To me, I see Paranormal as the big umbrella, with fantasy, futuristic, time travel, reincarnation stories and creature stories as sub-genres. So then Frantz’s definition would be for that particular sub-genre and represents the type of paranormal she is drawn to. But that might just be me.
What do you think? Feel like hashing it out? Do you see paranormal romance in the strict sense like Frantz or more inclusive? Do you consider time travel romance and other non-creature-but-other-worldy stories as sub-genres of paranormal romance like I do? What are some of your fave non-creature paranormals?
- Are non-creature but otherworldly stories paranormal? Is there room for time travel and the like? Stop by @ParaUnbound! (click to tweet)
- There’s More to Paranormal Than Fang and Fur and Wings says @AngelaQuarles on @ParaUnbound, what do you think? (click to tweet)
This is an interesting topic for me. I write the “Fiction Affliction” columns each month for tor.com, highlighting upcoming releases in what i call “speculative fiction.” Traditionally, time-travel, alt history, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, historical fantasy, and steampunk have been shelved in science fiction, and I still get people commenting on my columns and grousing about those sub-genres being taken out of the sci-fi listings, which to me they don’t belong in. So I created a “Genre-Benders” category where I lump all those categories together. Those types of books I’ve honestly never seen categorized as “paranormal” because in paranormal romance and urban fantasy (which is also a mis-label because it’s not always urban at all) there is that expectation of a beyond-normal character. So “Genre Benders” is not a good solution, but for whatever it’s worth in the bookstores and in publisher catalogs, your time-travel would not be considered paranormal romance; it would be considered science fiction. Now, how’s that for muddying the waters!?
I like the term ‘speculative fiction’ as well, it really seems to cover all of it. And it’s so hard to figure out where to shelve things. I know at my bookstore, we put all romance together, so even sci-fi romance we put in romance. Lately I divided it up into: paranormal, contemporary and historical.
Reblogged this on Angela Quarles | Geek girl romance writer and commented:
Today I’m over at Paranormal Unbound with a post called “There’s More to Paranormal Than Fang, Fur and Wings.” Are non-creature but otherworldly stories paranormal? Is there room for time travel and the like? Come on over and visit and give your opinion!
I’m with you on the is Time Travel paranormal argument. According to Merriam-Webster, paranormal is defined as “not scientifically explainable.” And since science has no way of explaining how time travel can and WILL happen (could–doesn’t count in science if it cannot be proven), then time travel is paranormal.
Yay for time travel stories. Love to read them. 🙂
Hi Mary, thanks for stopping by and adding your voice! Yep, as Phyllis says below, the actual definition would seem to give it the justification for being an umbrella term. I guess the problem has to do with current perception and expectation. We need to work on pushing this perceived definition so it more closely aligns with the Latin root…
Uh,this may be an overly simple observation, but the very word, “Paranormal” speaks to anything outside the realm of what is the norm, what we know to be possible. So, that being said, if one does not put Time-Travel Romance, SciFi Romance or Fantasy under that umbrella, are they then concluding that those very things exist and are possible?? We could only wish! Just realized that Mary ^ said the same thing. My Paranormal reading encompasses all the above, including Alien Romance, Futuristic and Cyborg! Frantz’s definintion stifles the creative mind of both the writer and the reader!! Thanks for a very interesting post Angela!
I agree. In my reply to Mary, I wonder if what we need to do is push the perception of what paranormal means so that it more closely aligns with the actual definition?
Great post, Angela. I think paranormal romance, more than any other subgenre, has a real label problem. If you think of genre labels as a way of setting up reader expectations, how do we deal with the fact that everyone seems to have a different definition of what the label means? I run into this a lot with urban fantasy, too, which has diversified and changed to the point that “urban” isn’t the right word anymore. I say, “Let everybody in!” It might make discoverability harder, but that’s why we have sub-subgenres. 😉
Yep, and that way boundaries aren’t set and creativity can fly free 🙂 We are Paranormal UNBOUND after all 😉
Thank you for this post, and I agree with you completely. I’m not a spring chicken and I originally became a big book fan by reading the old “gothics”. Were they really only $.99? Today I would classify these stories as paranormal even though there were no vampires or shifters in them. They still dealt with an aspect of existence that was outside the mundane, usually ghosts.
True! That was probably the first paranormals, those old gothic romances of the 1800s. Thanks for commenting!
Thanks for this post. I agree with Frantz’s definition of “paranormal romance”. If I had my way, RWA’s category, “Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal” would replace “Paranormal” as a major romance genre decription. Within FFP, sub genres would be paranormal, fantasy, time-travel, sci-fi, ghost, demon, urban fantasy, and whatever else awesome writers are adding to the pool.
I think it’s a case of genre categories not catching up to current trends quickly enough. When I think of paranormal romance, like Frantz, I think of “otherness” being a major source of tension in the romantic relationship. My brain hears “paranormal romance” and it automatically goes to vamps, weres, dragons, fae, psy-changelings, and other paranormal alpha males having relationships with human women (usually. That’s not to say it can’t work with a paranormal female and human male, but I think the draw of paranormal romance for female readers tends to be the aplpha male with paranormal abilities that extend into his passion for his female.)
I write time-travel and contemporary romance with paranormal twists (supernatural help for two humans destined to be together), two sub genres I consider distinct from paranormal, but on my website, I’m billed as a paranormal and fantasy romance author. Why? Becuase readers “get” those categories.
I’ll be honest, it’s been a problem for me in querying. Fortunately, I’ve found a fabulous editor at a small press that doesn’t mind when I pitch with: It’s a romance between a construction worker and a ghost with amnesia, like a paranormal-ghost-contemporary romance, if that makes sense. She’ll say, I love the idea. But we’ll have to call it paranormal romance because there’s no “shelf” for paranormal-ghost-contemporary. Maybe one day there will be! Or readers who peruse the “paranormal” shelves will understand that there’s a lot more available than otherworldly alpha males. We humans have our sexy alphas too, and maybe sometimes they need a littlt time-travel or paranormal shove to “make it hap’n cap’n.”
Jessi, I think you have a great point here about genres not catching up with current trends. It takes a while, and sometimes it never happens or happens as the trend is ending. Romance has divided into a lot more subcategories than it used to have. This is true of other major genres. Science fiction used to contain all fantasy works without the distinction even though fantasy had not one bit of science in it. Now, the horror genre has become blurred into science fiction and fantasy, probably because the horror has become a major element of those genres. In fact, horror used to be where all the ghosts, weres, and vamps hung out. Now, they’ve slipped into the pages of genres like romance where “horror” seems far from fitting often times.
I suppose, stories are what they are. Trends shift like tides, and it’s all we can do to try and put order to it all before the tide shifts yet again.
Great points, Jessi! Perhaps it is a matter of changing the perception of what paranormal is…
Angela, this is a great post and an important topic.
First off, let me point out that the big names in any sub-genre tend to define what qualifies as that sub-genre, whether this is fitting or not. Writers like Charlaine Harris, Karen Marie Moning, and Laurell K. Hamilton have set an expectation for paranormal beings as romantic partners. Therefore, that’s what most people expect. After reading Hamilton, for example, they go to the store or browse online looking for something like that Anita Blake book. Booksellers and publishers try to make it as easy on them as they can so they can sell more books, hence the frequent confusion and shifting of genre definitions. If we writers had a choice, the bookstore would probably have more sub-genres than there are fish in the sea. Not really, but you get the idea. Either that or there would be far fewer. Our books would just be what they are, take it or leave. No, no, I mean just take it. Don’t leave it. 🙂
I agree that paranormal should simply indicate a story that contains elements beyond the scope of the real world. When I see paranormal romance, I link it in my mind as the counterpoint to real world romance. However, because of the prevalence of seres, vamps, and so forth, I am surprised when I hear of something different, though pleased.
In any case, I think we need more general genre titles for things like this. Bookstores cannot possibly be expected to list every sub-genre invented, and it would be a disservice to readers and writers as it would severely cut down on the number of books found by browsing through a more general section. To me, romance should have broad categories like contemporary, paranormal, and historical. I’m not saying further sub-genres shouldn’t exist. They’re helpful in their own right, but I think paranormal is a good overall name for romances that take place with people, places, or elements that cannot actually be found in the real world.
Again, thanks for the post and the interesting discussion.
So true, and this totally explains the perception of the genre definition for paranormal since it’s based on what’s big. And it’s funny you mention what, at most, the romance section should be divided into at a bookstore, because this past year, I did just that at the bookstore where I work–I divided it into paranormal, historical and contemporary–and it’s really helped out in discoverability for our customers… Under paranormal, I include all romances not based on ‘normal’ stuff.
I love time travel romance. I have since I was a teenager. One of my all time favorite books is A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux. It was the first romance to make me ball my eyes out. It’s a nice change from the vampire/were/whatever stories. Not that I don’t love the creature features, it’s just sometimes you want something more subtle. And you get the added bonus of historical material. Along with time travel romance, I’d throw in the ghost or gothic romance into the paranormal category.
I agree, Buffy! The trapped in time stories are their own brand of intense. The Time Travelers Wife, though not a romance, is one of my favorite books of all time, and deals with the lovers at the mercy of time in a trafic and beautiful way. And the otherness of people from two times is fun in a similar way to the creature/human dynamic.
Yep, that’s definitely a classic in the time travel romance subgenre! I think the other thing I like about time travel stories is the Fish Out of Water trope. I find it such a great way to explore a new setting/historical period…
Great post. 🙂 I’ve actually usually understood “paranormal romance” to cover the larger category, including things even as broad as dystopian romance and indeed, time travel. I like to think of “paranormal” and “supernatural” as the idea that it’s more than the ordinary, it’s outside of the “normal” parameters. Literally, the “Other.” What’s also interesting about the inclusivity of the genre – and that definition – is that other paranormal readers I’ve met also fall into that category, in that we’re often not entirely exclusive (ie: some historical romance fans only read historical romances), whereas many paranormal readers I’ve met read across the board. Maybe we’re open for whatever comes our way. 🙂
For some fav non-creature paranormals, I’d have to include some of the awesome dystopian stuff (yes, “Hunger Games” included). And time travel, like some of Katie MacAlister’s books “Blow Me Down,” and “Improper English.”
Katie MacAlister is one of my faves! The Viking ghosts crack me up every time. And that’s an interesting observation about paranormal readers–I too will read outside the paranormal genre. Thanks for stopping by, it’s been interesting to see what people consider included in paranormal!
I must admit I’m a big fan of the critters, but I’m with you all the way. A well-told story with unexplained phenomena, psychics, etc has its place in the genre as well and they can be a lot of fun. 🙂
Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series has quite a few psychic-type characters mixed in with the creatures… I lean toward creatures, but I definitely admire psychic characters too!
My favorite stories are the ones without critters. Sure, fangs, wings, and fur are fun–but I still prefer the basic conundrum of humans and magic. Steampunk, fantasy romance, etc are my favorites, and I definitely call them paranormal. It’s not the genre’s fault it’s been overwhelmed by mostly vamp/demon/angel/shifter books; that’s a fad. But it does make it hard to sell any other kind of paranormal romance, because people have that stereotype in their heads. It’s part of why I bill under “urban fantasy” or “fantasy romance.” I say “paranormal romance” and the first question I get asked which do I write: vampires or shifters? (And when I say neither, I get the wide-eyed look, and frequently the asker shows more interest than before. Which tells me readers do like things just a little different!)
Just some thoughts I had on this post as I went through my day since this is first opportunity to sit down and write a comment.
The thing of why vamps etc so popular in romances is partly the alpha male issue mentioned earlier but also supernatural/ paranormal is a device that can be anything the author wants it to be
Where do witches fall in?
Expectation of readers implies readers don’t want to be surprised
Pigeon hole for publishers to sell their product. Well not many publishers are willing to take risks so they would want the specific categories
My WIP involves a group who work as soul collectors for the devil. What sub genre is it? Yes romance is part of the story
or my project for writing class which involves a time traveling werewolf
I find it fascinating that the paranormal/supernatural is such a large component of romances
Perhaps these genre wars are publishers and authors marking their territory rather than allowing the reader to choose their own preferences
And good for you Angela putting in a paranormal section. I dislike our book shops – so many books and not categorized as I would like. Hence I shop on amazon
LOL, prime example just occurred. Got my Golden Heart scores back, and my steampunk got marked by one judge as the wrong category for ‘paranormal’, even though the category description says: “Romance manuscripts in which the future, a fantasy world or paranormal elements” and if an alternate timeline isn’t fantasy, what is?
Whoops!!! maybe she thought it was historical? With airships and steampunk guns? LOL
As I said – it’s a matter of territory not genre
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