I first entered writing through science fiction and fantasy, and still read from that perspective when, these days, I read paranormal romance. I enjoy deconstructing the elements of the genre, and comparing and contrasting paranormals to non-romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s because I don’t have cable.
Here are some of my thoughts. There’s a theory I’ve heard from various writers that the Romance and Mystery genres are based in plot, while the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are based in setting. It’s easier to blend one of the plot-based genres with one of the setting-based genres, so it’s not uncommon to find science fiction mysteries and romantic fantasies. Paranormal Romance is different from straightforward fantasy most obviously because it’s intended to be Romance, with the central focus of the story on the relationship between two people and how it grows and develops. The paranormal element is integrated but must be secondary to the Romance plot. Worldbuilding is used to support that central plot, and might even be subservient to it; for instance, I think “destined mates” is so often part of paranormal worldbuilding because it offers so many opportunities for relationship conflict and/or plot complication.
I’ve recently been reading Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, which discusses different ways to categorize fantastic literature. An aspect of paranormals I find interesting is that they’re often intrusion fantasies, in which the fantasy element (werewolves, psychics) intrude into our world where they are supposedly impossible. I think this serves multiple purposes. First, for a reader who’s new to fantasy, it offers an “in.” The paranormal element is introduced to the reader just as it’s being introduced to the hero or heroine. Second, it offers a way to isolate the hero and heroine from their everyday lives; they might be in the midst of a city, but if they’re on the run, and she’s trying to hide her vampire boyfriend, the emotional intensity is increased, just as when the protagonists are isolated in a cabin in the woods, or in a road novel. The fantasy element thus helps to make the plot happen. Third, there’s an added element of, well, fantasy. It’s often more enjoyable to the reader to be taken far away from their daily lives when reading; I think that’s one of the reasons for the continuing popularity of historical romance, as well. If it’s not our world, it’s easier to suspend our disbelief. Fourth and last, I think it’s a matter of structure. There’s only so much room in a novel, and we already know most of the room in a Paranormal Romance must be given to the romance. There’s less room for worldbuilding, so if the setting is non-fantastic, all the better. The writer can imply a great deal about the society from which the werewolf hero came but it isn’t necessary to show it unless it’s relevant to the romance.
There’s also portal fantasy, which is less common in romance than it used to be. It’s almost the opposite of intrusive fantasy. First, the protagonist is shown in his or her normal world, doing normal things; then they step through a door (or glowing blob, or cave) and enter a fantasy world. For instance, the heroine is bored with her life as an ad executive, but finds a mysterious amulet at a flea market and is transported to Medieval-World, where she falls in love with a centaur. Time travel stories fall into this category, as well, if the protagonist goes back in time. This type of story requires more space given to worldbuilding in the fantasy world, and thus less to the romance. I think that’s why this type of fantasy more often becomes a fantasy with “romantic elements.”
Finally, some paranormals are immersive fantasies in which the whole world is different from our world–Nalini Singh’s futuristic paranormals are an example, or Eileen Wilks’ werewolf series—but that’s more rare. The immersive form often works best in a series, which has more space to explore the world. I think this type might be becoming more popular. Urban fantasy is a form of immersive fantasy.
I highly recommend Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, from which I borrowed the terms intrusion fantasy, immersive fantasy, and portal fantasy.
I would love to hear opinions, agreements, disagreements, with the ideas I’ve presented here. My thoughts are a work in progress!
Related posts: Romancing the Beast.