Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance

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Someone recently asked me what paranormal romance was, and I said it was romance where at least one of the players wasn’t human. Works for me. Still, as I try to figure out where my current work-in-progress might fit into the grand scheme of publishing, I find myself pondering the differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, or UF vs. PNR in acronym land.

I’m a member of both Romance Writers of America and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, so I looked to them for guidance. 

RWA defines paranormal romance as having three criteria: 1) A central love story that is the main focus of the novel; 2) an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” which to my mind leaves a lot of room for interpretation; and 3) a plot where the future, a fantasy world, or paranormal happenings play an integral part. SFWA is a bit fuzzier on definitions. It is what you make it, I guess.

My call is: As both urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres mature, the lines between them are getting more blurred. At its best, urban fantasy pulls the character development of epic fantasy and the sharp plotting of science fiction and mashes them up into something rich and addictive. PNRs, at their best….do the same thing, but it’s harder.

Here’s how I see the difference:

Paranormal romance has a front-and-center relationship, which generally gets resolved in a single book. Maybe not in a traditional “happy-ever-after” sense, but resolved. I think of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series as falling in this category. There is an ongoing conflict between the Brothers and their enemies, but a key romance is threaded through each book, with that particular romance getting wrapped up by the end. In the next book, a different brother and his romance takes center stage. The endings are sometimes happy, sometimes frustrating. I think it was in Lover Unbound where Ward got a lot of flack about how her Happily Ever After worked out. I won’t spoil here, but I had mixed feelings about it since it involved one of my favorite Brothers.

Urban fantasy is often first-person (but not always). There usually is a hero/heroine relationship, though it isn’t always front-and-center, it might not have a happy ending, and it very rarely gets resolved in one book because most urban fantasy falls in series with the same hero/heroine in each installment. Sometimes one of them even dies. I’m still mourning Kisten in Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series, although I’d put it firmly in the urban fantasy genre. Although since another aspect of urban fantasy is that the dead don’t always stay dead, I suppose there’s always the possibility he’ll come back.

Where does  Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series fall? Sookie’s romances and relationships are certainly a huge part of the novels, but they also certainly don’t get resolved or have happy endings.What about Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series? Both of these seem to fall right in the middle to me.

And then there’s Neil Gaiman, who’s in a genre all his own–LOL. He might be the most “pure” urban fantasy writer around.

If I use those criteria, my post-Katrina series falls firmly into the urban fantasy genre. My heroine DJ has a couple or three potential relationships but she’s too busy dodging voodoo gods and crazy water creatures to focus on them. The contentious work-in-progress? The jury is still out. I think it’s going to fall on the paranormal romance side of the fence, but till the last page I can’t be sure.

So, what’s your take on urban fantasy vs paranormal romance? Are you all one or the other, or are you just looking for a good story?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

8 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance

  1. Mostly looking for a good story, but I soooo LOVE the romance. I’d have to lean toward paranormal romance as my fav, then.

    Great post.

  2. Mainly looking for the story. I kind of lump UF and PNR together as one.

    I’m reading the Black Dagger Brotherhood series now. I’m on book 4 so now you’ve got me chomping at the bit to get to Lover Unbound.

    I miss Kisten too! I really liked him and honestly, I’m behind in the series now because I stopped reading. Didn’t stop buying, just haven’t read them yet.

  3. I love the romance and the HEA. But really I am just looking for a good story and will read both sides, depending on my mood at the time. And seriously I dont think I will ever get over Kisten.

  4. LOL, I thought I was the only one missing Kisten! I re-read that chapter three times hoping I’d misunderstood, then in the next book I kept waiting for him to come back. I still stubbornly hold out hope.

    Riley, I’m behind too. I have the last two of them, but haven’t had a chance to read them yet. “Unbound” is Vishous’ story and I can’t wait to hear what you think of the ending.

  5. I mostly read UF, but I love a good PNR. I love a good story with some romance and action, other than that I could care less what genre it falls in. It seems like most books fall in the middle anymore and I’m perfectly OK with that 🙂

  6. I mostly read more PNR than UF. Like you said, they kind of tend to blur together… To me, PNR is more “high fantasy” where anything can happen, and UF is more of an URBAN setting, like a city, or maybe even Steampunk. PNR: Vampire Academy, Hush Hush. UF: Mortal Instruments series, etc.

  7. Really interesting post, which got me thinking about the PNR and UF books that I read. With PNR books I do expect a happily ever after-and most times I get it-versus UF books where I understand not getting a perfectly gift-wrapped ending.

    And yes I too still mourn the loss of Kisten. Maybe that’s why I can’t warm up to Pierce.