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Friday, January 21, 2011

Dark Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, or Paranormal Romance: Does a label matter?

Lately, I've seen a lot of great discussions comparing the labels Dark Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance: How are these labels defined by readers and writers, and how much of a difference do they really make?  
I thought it might be fun to chime in from an author's point of view -- of course, only THIS author's POV. :)
To give a few loose definitions...
Paranormal refers to that which is outside of the normal physical experience: This could include special powers, magic, or other-worldly beings (such as aliens, werewolves, and my personal favorite, vampires!).
Fantasy refers to the "other" world, itself: a physical setting that contains a different set of rules and realities. It may be under the sea, on another planet, or just plain one in which up is down and down is up (or the local bartender is a shape-shifter who puts magic dust in the drinks).  Hmm, is he cute?
Romance is more cut and dry: The story is basically boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love (overcoming internal and/or external obstacles); and ultimately, boy & girl live happily ever after.  In a romance, the relationship between the "boy and girl" must be the primary plot, and no other element should overshadow this.  Oh, and you can probably expect to find S-E-X, unless it's a Y/A (Young Adult).
Dark refers to the shadow side of humanity.  It may be as simple as shining a light on what goes on in metaphorical deep, dark alleys or as complex as exploring the darker emotions and actions of beings (human or otherwise).  In the archetype of good verses evil, a dark work of fiction will also include, explore, or delve into the more base emotions &/or behaviors.  (Note: This is not the same thing as horror, where the bad guy in the mask runs around on Halloween and chops off fifty teenager's heads: It doesn't necessarily contain graphic violence {although it might}, but it's not going to be a skip through the park with an ice cream cone either.)
Last but not least, Urban refers to a physical, urban setting: The world in which the story takes place is a traditional, urban world. The main plot involving the werewolf, faery, or shapeshifter will not take place under the ocean or on Mars (as it might in Sci Fi); rather, it will take place in a city or other urban setting. 
As an author, choosing a genre to write within helps define the boundaries of the story.  If I want to create only human characters, I will avoid paranormal. If I want to stay within the expected (and largely agreed upon) boundaries of human behavior, mores, and traditions, I will avoid Fantasy, but if I want to push the limits (or simply change them altogether), I will indulge in the latter.  
Along the same lines, if I want to keep it light, funny, or blissfully comfortable, I will avoid exploring the dark, and if I want to focus solely -- or primarily -- on a male/female love relationship, I will stay within the lines of romance.  (However, if I don't want to create a happy ending, I might have to move to mainstream fiction with very strong romantic elements. From there, I can make it more or less erotic  -- bringing in yet another sub genre: erotica -- but you get the point)...
The truth is...many (if not most) books cross over from one genre to another: They may contain elements of several genres at once as well as present a primary and secondary slant.  But overall, the reader who wants to explore space travel, does not pick up an urban fantasy; the book lover who can't wait to get lost in the laughter, joy, and love of an intriguing tale may want to avoid a Dark Fantasy (although there may be a fair amount of those things in there as well -- just not exclusively); and the person who wants to fall in love with an entire world beyond that of the main two characters might not go for primary romance.  In the end, these labels are only guidelines: The back blurb should give a reader a good idea of what type of content might be explored within the pages, as should any free excerpts on an author's website. When in doubt, check.  (Just as it's no fun for a reader to purchase a romance only to find a dark mystery, it's equally frustrating for a sci-fi author, bookstore owner, or publisher to hear from an urban fantasy reader: "Why do you always set your books in space?!") 
To that end, it's worth having at least a basic understanding of the differences...especially if you have a strong or even singular preference toward one specific genre over another.  
As for myself, I tend to write what I love to read: Dark Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Vampire Fictionwith strong romantic, suspense, & thriller elements!  (Yes, I will read paranormal romance, too, as long as it contains many of the above elements).
In short, storytelling is as old as time, and the limits should be as broad as the human imagination.  While labels should not restrict the rich diversity of the written word, they can help to define the limitless....

1. Janelle Madigan | January 27, 2011 at 08:57 PM EST 
Think I'll share this with some of my LiveJournal peeps. It's really helpful because the lines between genres often can be blurred, and a lot of writers write in multiple genres or walk the line between two. For authors writing in different genres, how do they best let readers know which type of book they're in for? Should they just rely on back cover blurbs, or do they write under a different name, etc.?
Thanks for sharing! :)
2. Tessa Dawn | February 02, 2011 at 01:39 PM EST 
I would love to have the address of your LiveJournal. :)
3. Janelle Madigan | February 03, 2011 at 12:07 PM EST 
Sure! It's