What is Paranormal Romance and why should I care?

What is Paranormal Romance and why should I care?  One would think that is a simple enough question, it’s a sub-genre of romance with paranormal elements (like vampires) and it’s incredibly popular with readers.  But…the more I read about the genre and within the genre, the more I realized that a lot of paranormal romance isn’t romance…at least not what we traditionally think of as romance.

In a short 30 minute presentation, I need to cover:

Paranormal Romance (Keep scrolling to get to the presentation)

  • Is it Romance? If it isn’t Romance, then what is it?
  • What do your patrons want when they ask for it?
  • What do we need to know about it to help them?
  • Who do we need to have in the collection?

For readers like me, who came at PR from the Romance genre, we have certain expectations…

According to the end-all, be-all of Romance, the Romance Writers of America say:

  • Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.
    • A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
    • An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
  • The sub-genre of Paranormal Romance is:
    • Romance novels in which the future, a fantasy world, or paranormal happenings are an integral part of the plot.
  • Just so you understand about Romance readers – In 2010, Romance generated $1.358 billion, estimated to go up to $1.368 in 2011.  Romance Market share compared to other genres – $1.358 billion v. $759 million (Inspirational) v. $682 million (Mystery) v. $559 million (Sci-Fi/Fantasy) v. $455 million classic literary Fiction (Romance Literature Statistics)

Paula Guran’s “What is “Paranormal Romance”?” Intro chapter to the anthology Best New Paranormal Romance helps clarify Paranormal ‘r’omance versus Paranormal ‘R’omance.  She actually helps us understand what it isn’t…

  • “To be paranormal a romance needs to involve the supernatural – magic, the occult, ghosts, shapechangers like werewolves, psychic powers, superhuman abilities, travel through time, fantastic or legendary creatures (vampires, fairies, gods and goddesses, angels, demons, and the like), a fantasy world or alternative-Earth or -reality setting, relationships that continue to exist over eras and eons, etc–or have futuristic or science-fiction element.” (p.7)
  • Guran differentiates between traditional Romance (happily ever after for the hero/heroine) and paranormal ‘romance’ which does not follow the ‘rules’ of the genre.
  • First big hit for Paranormal Romance was probably Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series – won the 1991 RWA Best Romance award for a new “Futuristic/Fantasy/Paranormal” category.
  • Here is where it gets confusing:
    • Readers, reviewers and booksellers call books by Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Christine Feehan, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Lynsay Sands ‘paranormal romance’ while most of these authors write Fantasy or Mystery.
    • Who writes Romance? Guran says the Nielsen Bookscan identifed these three: Feehan, Sands and Kenyon…That’s it! (p.9)
  • So…”many of the most popular paranormal romance novels are not Romances, yet they are often marketed as “paranormal-romance-the-subgenre-of-Romance.” (p.10)
  • “Further, although some paranormal romance readers prefer Romance, not all of the do.  Some do not read Romance at all.
  • Note to self–be sure to ask if a person wants a Romance or a romantic fantasy story…
  • So, she helps me identify:
    • paranormal but not Romance: Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Underworld series, L.A. Banks’s Vampire Huntress series, MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead books, Laurell K. Hamilton’s series, Kim Harrison’s Hollow series, and Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Series
    • More info about lead characters, courtesy of ottothefangirl:Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series, (only 1-9, mind you), by Laurell K. Hamilton | Rachel Morgan, The Hallows Series, by Kim Harrison | Mercy Thompson Series, by Patricia Briggs | Otherworld Series, by Kelley Armstrong | Sookie Stackhouse, Southern Vampire Series, by Charlaine Harris | Kitty Norville Series, by Carrie Vaughn | Anna Latham, Alpha and Omega Series, by Patricia Briggs | Meredith Gentry Series, by Laurell K. Hamilton (at least the first bunch) | Betsy Taylor, Undead Series, by Mary Janice Davidson
    • Romance authors who write paranormal: Amanda Ashley, Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle, Nora Roberts/J.D Robb, Lynsay Sands, Mary Jo Putney, Christin Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Maggie Shayne.  She calls those last 3 “a rather dark shade of Romance.”
    • Guran has a theory about the popularity of paranormal romance – “Adventure–books like [Laurell K.] Hamilton’s were fantasy adventure stories for women.
      • Anita Blake = Conan the Barbarian (p. 14)

Thankfully, Library Journal helps to clarify – I think a lot of this stuff is “Contemporary Urban Fantasy”

This is what your patrons are looking for when they request “urban fantasy.” Common characteristics include tough female protagonists (often with supernatural powers or superhuman strength), stronger distinctions between good and evil, grittier urban landscapes, first-person narration, and sexual tension, often between the female protagonist and a male character who toes the line between good and evil. A pioneer in this subgenre is Laurell K. Hamilton, whose “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” novels were among the first to play on these themes.
From: Donohue, Nanette Wargo (1 June 2008). “Collection Development “Urban Fantasy”: The City Fantastic”Library Journal.

In the Intro to Fang-tastic Fiction by Patricia O’Brien Mathews, she has some definitions and clarifications of her own:

  • “Where are they shelved?  Whether you search online, at a bookstore, or in a library, you will find no consensus as to where paranormal fiction titles are shelved.”  (Kelly just made her own stickers and created a new section at Tonganoxie.)

  • “According to Tim Holman, head of the science fiction and fantasy publisher Orbin, the rise of urban fantasy has been ‘the biggest category shift within the sci-fi/fantasy market in the last ten years in the U.S.'” – In July 20o9, 28 of the top 50 fantasy best sellers in the US were Urban Fantasy titles.
  • PR are often series – “Read them in series order–not in random order.”
    • When sharing authors/series info with readers, give them the FIRST book in the series.
    • Many of these books will not be comprehensible if read in random order.”  It’s called World Building for a reason…it needs to be built over time.  Much plot and character development is in the early titles, too.
  • Main Characters:  Human,  Walking Dead (zombies and vamps), Weres (shape changers and werewolves), Representatives from Heaven and Hell (Angels, demons, mythic gods/goddesses), and the Fae (fairies, elves, ghosts, ghouls). (p. 6)
  • Plots: corruption, religious fanatics, demonic invasions, mad scientists, government kindnapping, and “an ancient evil is reborn and must be stopped.” (p. 6)
  • Plot Types: Soul-mate romances (deeper), urban fantasy, chick lit (humor), cozy mysteries (PG-rated), historical series.
  • If you have this book to guide you, you can find a read-alike by asking
    • Do you want romance or urban fiction? Vamps or shifters? Is humor important? Sensuality? Violence?”  Then find a series to match.

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2 thoughts on “What is Paranormal Romance and why should I care?

  1. Based on a good deal of research and the reading of literally thousands of paranormal fiction novels, I believe that modern paranormal fiction can be broken down into three main sub-genres: paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and paranormal chick lit.

    Paranormal romance has the same basic characteristics as the traditional romance genre: the plot centers on the romance and there is always an HEA. Paranormal romance heroines are frequently virginal human woman, and the heroes are frequently ancient supernaturals who believed that they would never find love. Amanda Ashley, Nina Bangs, Kresley Cole, Christina Dodd, Christine Feehan, Jacquelyn Frank, Larissa Ione, Virginia Kantra, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Angela Knight, Sharie Kohler, Lora Leigh, Marjorie M. Liu (DIRK & STEELE Series), Katie MacAlister, Erin McCarthy, Cheyenne McCray, Karen Moning, Lynsay Sands, Maggie Shayne, Gena Showalter, Nalini Singh (PSY-CHANGELINGS Series), Vicki Lewis Thompson, Lynn Viehl, J. R. Ward, and Christine Warren are all writers of paranormal romance series. This is just a partial list.

    In other paranormal sub-genres, the romance is not the primary focus of the plot, although the hero(ine) may have some type of romantic relationship.

    In urban fantasy (UF), the hero or heroine is generally a city-dwelling, cynical loner with some type of supernatural powers who may or may not have a romantic relationship. He or she is generally involved in hunting down bad guys (usually supernaturals) and/or solving a supernatural mystery. Here are some of the most popular writers of UF series: Ann Aguirre, Ilona Andrews, Kelley Armstrong, Keri Arthur, L.A. Banks, Lyn Benedict, Laura Bickle, Jenna Black, Allison Brennan, Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine, Mike Carey, Karen Chance, Mark Del Franco, Carole Nelson Douglas, P. N. Elrod, Jeaniene Frost, Terri Garey, Laura Anne Gilman, Simon R. Green, Justin Gustainis, Laurell K. Hamilton, Lori Handeland, Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, Charlie Huston, Stacia Kane, Julie Kenner, Caitlin Kittredge, John Levitt, Marjorie M. Liu (HUNTER KISS Series), Seanan McGuire, Richelle Mead, Devon Monk, C. E. Murphy, Lind Robertson, Diana Rowland, Lilith Saintcrow, Gena Showalter, Nalini Singh (GUILD HUNTER Series), Thomas E. Sniegoski, Jeanne C. Stein, Anton Strout, Rob Thurman, Carrie Vaughn, Rachel Vincent, Jaye Wells, and Linda Wisdom. This is just a partial list. In a UF reader’s advisory interview, one important factor to determine is which gender the protagonist should be. The list above includes both hero- and heroine-driven series.

    MaryJanice Davidson and others write chick lit paranormal fiction, which meets the same definition as the traditional chick lit genre except that the heroine generally has some supernatural powers that she uses to thwart demonic bad guys in between shopping trips with her girlfriends. She may or may not have a boyfriend. (Davidson’s heroine, Betsy, does have a soulmate-type vampire boyfriend, but after the first few books, their romantic relationship moves to the background.)

    Most paranormal fiction books of all types involve the solving of a supernatural mystery of some sort. The differences between the sub-genres lie in how important that mystery is to the main plot. In the paranormal romances, the mystery is a slender secondary plot thread (I call it a plot interruption), while the romantic relationship is the real focus of the story. In UF, the mystery is generally part of a story arc that encompass several—sometimes all—books in the series. That’s why it is so important to read UF books in chronological order. Here are a few paranormal chick lit authors: Marta Acosta, Madelyn Alt, Gerry Bartlett, Amber Benson, Annette Glair, Maureen Child, Casey Daniels, MaryJanice Davidson, Angela Fox, Molly Harper, Nina Harper, Candace Havens, Mindy Klasky, Victoria Laurie, and Cara Lockwood.

    There are even a few cozy paranormal mystery series, with amateur sleuths in small towns who solve dead-body mysteries among gossipy townsfolk. Annette Blair, Shirley Damsgaard, and James Dean all write such series.

    In addition to plot differences, the paranormal sub-genres also differ in their levels of violence, sensuality, and humor. Paranormal romances almost always have high levels of sensuality, mid-levels of violence, and low levels of humor. UF is frequently high in violence and low in humor, and unless there is a romantic interlude, the sensuality tends to be low as well. Paranormal chick lit has extremely high levels of humor, but its sensuality and violence levels are dependent on the particular supernatural mystery and the romantic relationships of the heroine.

    One more difference comes in the tone of the books. In paranormal romance, the hero and heroine are prone to melodramatic, angst-filled protestations of their undying love for one another, and sensuality pervades the narrative. In UF, the tone is dark and gritty, and the hero(ine) communicates through sarcasm and profanity. Paranormal chick lit is breezy and irreverent, with lots of wisecracking humor, which can frequently be profane.
    All in all, I believe that paranormal fiction falls rather obviously into these sub-genres. Some series blur the line, particularly in the importance of the romance. Frequently, the first books of such series have a heavier emphasis on the romantic relationship, but later books focus more on the plot. This is true of series such as Jeaniene Frost’s NIGHT HUNTRESS Series and MaryJanice Davidson’s QUEEN BETSY Series. Sometime, a publisher markets a series as one thing when it is really another. Cover art, also, is sometimes deceiving. The reader (and the reader’s advisory librarian) must delve deeper to ascertain just what kind of book it is. Jeaniene Frost says that “when she sat down to write her novel, she knew it had to have her two favorite elements in it: urban fantasy and romance.” (Source: http://www.harpercollins.ca/author/microsite/about.aspx?authorid=32208) Although Frost considers NIGHT HUNTRESS to be a UF series, it does have plenty of romance. I wouldn’t call it a “paranormal romance,” though, because the central plot is always more important than the romantic relationship between Cat and Bones (the protagonists).
    As you can tell, I could talk about paranormal fiction all night if anyone would sit still long enough to listen. For more author lists and lots of reviews, check out either my book (Fang-tastic Fiction: 21st Century Paranormal Reads at http://www.alastore.ala.org/SearchResult.aspx?KeyWords=fang-tastic/ ) or my blog (FangFiction.Blogspot.com).

  2. I wondered why some books were shelved under paranormal romance when there was little to no romance in them LOL. Maybe the science fiction/fantasy section wasn’t a big enough selling section of the bookstore because we all know, the romance section (whether it’s romance or not) IS the biggest selling section in the bookstore. Just goes to show, the lines blur and it’s all about selling :).

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