Thursday, January 11, 2007

Definition of Paranormal Romance

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?


  1. Lee Tobin-McClain's written a paper on paranormal romance, 'Paranormal Romance: Secrets of the Female Fantastic', 2000, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 11.3 [43]: 294-306. I think this must be the same article which is available online from Tobin-McClain's website. There she discusses 'paranormal romance—that is, romance including any element beyond the range of scientific explanation, like ghosts or time travel'.

    She's really focussed on gender issues, though, not on defining the sub-genre.

  2. Thanks for that link, Laura. I've got things to say about the inaccurate foundation of her analysis but that's another post.

    I was thinking about this post in relation to Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou which I'm slowly reading right now. It's a paranormal in which both hero and heroine seem mundane and it is the house that the hero buys and restores that has ghosts. There's not much conflict in the novel, but what there is centers on both hero and heroine figuring out the mystery of the house AND figuring out that they're both reincarnations of two of the ghosts who haunt the house. So although the paranormal conflict is not immediately between hero and heroine, but between hero and house, in the long run it is because the climax of the h/h confronting house is the denouement of their relationship as well. The paranormal element is specifically set up so that modern couple cannot have their HEA until the paranormal couple is laid to rest by recognition of the ancient crime.

  3. I've just suggested your discussion of the genre to my Senior Capstone students, Sarah, a surprising number of whom seem interested in paranormal romance, as well as the SF/F variety.

    I wonder whether paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love? I think here of a wonderful passage early in Emma Holly's "Hunting Midnight," in which Juliana, our "normal" heroine, sets out on her journey into the broader world:

    "Juliana did not mind being good. There was a kind of contentment in knowing precisely what was expected, in knowing she was able to do her duty well. But she also needed moments like this, incandescent bubbles in the regimen of her life. Tonight she was neither daughter nor future bridge, just a woman whose thoughts and feelings were her own" (12).

    The novel offers itself, at this moment, as an "incandescent bubble" in the life of the reader, so that while reading it, she too is temporarily freed from her social identities, and restored to something other, something deeper, more private and more free.

    Ah, it's good to be back!

  4. Eric, yes, absolutely. I'm reading Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou and it's doing exactly that in ways I think I'm going to blog about when I've finished it.

  5. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love?

    Yes, I think paranormal romances may satisfy those for whom the "fantasy" of the normal story of ultimate love and sexual desire is not fantasy enough. I mean, if a woman hasn't fallen in love yet, maybe she just hasn't met the right vampire. Is it a sign, an undercurrent, that real men in our society just aren't living up to expectation?

  6. Pssssst ... not a complaint, just a tip. If you turn off your feed while you apply labels, our blog-readers won't get bombarded with your old posts.

    Not that they aren't worth a re-read!


  7. As an urban fantasy reader, it seems like a bit of a false dichotomy. The vast majority of urban fantasy hinges on that tension between the modern, everyday world and this revealed (if only to the protag/s, sometimes) fantastical world.

    (Fantasy with this kind of tension that takes place in the past seems to be the real boggler: what is it? Historical urban fantasy? Fantastical alternate universe history? Dunno. I'm not in marketing.)

    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.

    I'd change "close" to "potentially sexual" or "intimate." Otherwise you've just described a chunk of urban fantasy, too. Charles DeLint, Holly Black, Jim Butcher, Laura Anne Gilman: only one of those is writing under a romance publisher's byline, yet all focus on significant, close relationships in which that tension is key.

    the tension of the main relationship needs to be heavily invested in the tension between the mundane and the paranormal

    I might phrase it more as, the 'focus' of the story is on the main relationship's intimate consumation (in whatever sense the individual author takes that), *within* a framework of the tension of fantastical vs. realistic. That would make it romance, for me; in urban fantasy, the framework is the same, but the 'focus' of the story is (more often than not) action-oriented, with intimacy sometimes sacrificed.

    And if you remove the fantastical/realistic tension altogether but keep the romantic element, suddenly you're writing magical realism!

  8. "If you turn off your feed while you apply labels, our blog-readers won't get bombarded with your old posts. "

    Thanks very, very much Spyscribbler. I hadn't got a clue what to do about that. I could see that old posts were coming up as new on the rss feeds, but I never thought of that solution.

  9. ksg: I like your tightening of my language. Thanks!

  10. This discussion seems to be continuing in various places, including here and here and Dear Author have just posted their follow-up on this topic, with a section written by Sarah, and it's here.

  11. No problem, and glad to help!

    My dayjob consists of analyzing what people want and putting that into the most unambiguous terminology possible. Sometimes it feels like having a philosophy degree might actually be useful, after all: every meeting, every day, at least once I say, "define your terms!" ;-)

  12. Wow... that was really thorough. I'm writing a paper about paranormal romance in teen fiction for my adolescent literature class. Some of things you said are very interesting, do you mind if I quote you? I realize this is just a blog but I could back up some of your statements further, and my professor wants us to have a variety of sources, not just peer-reviewed. Anyway, if it's alright that I quote you please let me know, you can email me at . Thanks!

  13. synthecstasy, it's not my post, but we're supportive of other romance scholarship, so I can't imagine that Sarah would object to you quoting from her post, as long as you include its details in your paper's list of works cited.