Jane at Dear Author asked me about the definition of paranormal romance, about what that definition might include and what it doesn't. I was surprised at how much I actually ended up writing, and thought that some of my ideas were worth blogging, so here you go.
I think the RWA's definition of romance as a story containing both a central love story, and also an emotionally satisfying AND optimistic ending has to hold true for any romance, no matter the sub-genre. So, as much as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series may be all about the relationships she has (with SOOOO many men/males), the central focus of each story is not on that one relationship (even if it's a threesome) that can be resolved with a HEA, so the books don't count as romances per se (although I certainly think their success can be attributed to romance readers' interest in the stories because of the focus on relationships, but that's a whole 'nother blog).
So, if we're going to discuss paranormal romance, it is important to remember that the romance is vital to that combination. More on this later.
Paranormal, of course, means "beyond" normal, or anything that cannot be explained by science. I would personally add "in our world," meaning that a totally different world, with magic or whatever, is not paranormal by my definition. For example, then, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake world is paranormal, because it's an alternate expression of our world with paranormal elements. The Lord of the Rings is not paranormal, even though it has magic, because it's an entirely different world. Matthew Haldeman-Time's serial m/m erotica, In This Land (sorry, had to do the plug because it's too incredible not to) is not paranormal, because it's a different world/planet. Other-world novels, then, are Science Fiction or Fantasy, depending on the novel--and I am by no means an expert on that designation. I tend to avoid SF/F.
So, if it's set in any version of our world, in recognizable cities or towns or countries, or in a community that is recognizably "Earth" but Earth that has "beyond science" elements, it's paranormal. There's different levels /types to the definition of paranormal. There's the choice of paranormal elements: stuff that humans can do (telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, magic, etc.) and/or paranormal "monsters" (were-animals, zombies, ghosts, ghouls, fairies/faeries, vampires (oh, the vampires!!), etc.). There's also the choice of level of paranormality: alternative histories, where everyone knows and accepts the paranormal elements (a la Hamilton) vs. stories where paranormal elements are something only a few people possess (a la most of Nora Roberts' and Linda Howard's paranormal stories).
I think, however, that my reason for the distinction between of-this-world stories being paranormal and not-of-this-world stories being SF/F is that a *primary* theme of all paranormal novels is the interaction between the "normal" of our world and the paranormal, between the mundane and the unexplainable. How does the normal woman respond, for example, when she finds out her lover is a vampire/werewolf/witch? How does a normal man respond when he finds out he's not normal when he comes into his previously latent powers or is turned into a paranormal monster? That's the distinction between paranormal and SF/F, for me. If that tension between mundane and paranormal doesn't exist, it's not a paranormal novel, even if it is set in our world. If it were an alternative history of our world where EVERYONE were paranormal, that would still be fantasy because the tension between mundane and paranormal would not exist. Hamilton's Anita Blake stories are paranormal because there are normal people and the tension of most of the novels is Anita dealing with the fact that her powers make her increasingly paranormal, increasingly "one of the monsters" rather than a normal human being. Her Merry Gentry series is not paranormal, for me, but rather fantasy, because although it starts in "our" world, most of the action takes place in a totally other world (like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series), and, more importantly, the tension of the books is not located in the clash between mundane and paranormal.
(Time travel novels, then, would seem to straddle this divide. The primary tension is in the clash between two mundane cultures separated by time, rather than by mundane/paranormal elements. So both the time traveler and the non-time traveler are mundane, but their meeting is brought about by paranormal elements. I don't consider that true paranormal. I think they're a very different genre from paranormal. But that might just be me. Suzanne Brockmann's Time Enough for Love is a brilliant time travel that is more science fiction based than the "magickal" elements of time travel in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, but in both of those, the hero and heroine are both mundane. The culture shock aspect is there, and the decision to live with the world-out-of-synch is there for the characters, but it's somehow fundamentally different for me from paranormal romance.)
My favorite paranormal series at the moment is J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood books--and I'm obviously not alone there. While the stories take place mostly in the "world" of the Brotherhood, that world is still hidden from the "normal" world and one of the tensions is the need to keep it hidden from ordinary humans. And all the relationships so far (and the future relationships that we know of) focus on the tension of mundane meets paranormal. In Dark Lover Beth might be vampire, but she doesn't know it until she makes the change. The heroines in Lover Eternal and Vishous's book (although NOT, as has been pointed out to me, Lover Awakened), and the hero in Lover Revealed are all human and the tension between human and vampire represents much of the tension in the novels. (It'll be fascinating to see if Ward ever does a book in which both characters have always known they're vampires.)
Putting these two elements together, then, 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.
The climax of a paranormal novel can be the mundane partner in the relationship accepting the paranormal aspects in their lives, or it can be the antagonist getting what comes to him/her, usually with the help of the paranormal elements, after the mundane partner has accepted the paranormal, but the tension of the main relationship needs to be heavily invested in the tension between the mundane and the paranormal.
So there you have it. Does anyone else have a more or less inclusive definition of paranormal romance? How do you separate paranormal romances from Science Fiction romances or Fantasy romances? Is paranormal just anything that isn't perfectly normal? What about Time Travel romances?