Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How to Tell the Difference Between Fantasy and Paranormal

I've updated these a little bit.

When I first started researching genres, the difference between paranormal and fantasy confused me to no end. To me, they were pretty much the same thing. So, I looked around the Interwebs, compared as many different sources as I could, and interviewed all my writer buddies. Here is what I came up with:


Fantasy: Fantasy stories are set on other worlds or in other realities. You can have vampires or werewolves or fairies, but in general, fantasy creatures tend to be more…fantastic and mythological – dragons, gryphons, three-headed dog beasts. Magic is a huge element of fantasy stories. Here is a little test: if you can take away the “weird” in the story (i.e. the beasts, the magic) and the world you are left with is still not the normal, everyday world you know, it’s a fantasy story. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy.


Paranormal: Paranormal stories are set in the real world, the world as we know it…with a little extra thrown in. Vampires, shapeshifters, angels, demons, ghosts, psychics, mediums, telepaths…these all belong in the paranormal world. Use the same test as we used for the fantasy worlds…if you can take away the “weird” factors and you are left with our everyday world = paranormal. For example, if you take away the sparkling, gorgeous vampire, or vengeful ghost, and you are left with everyday Earth – your story is paranormal fiction. Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series and Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake vampire books are examples of paranormal fiction.


Then I came across Urban Fantasy…a delightful genre that is actually one of my favorite to read and, lately, write…but is probably the biggest pain for me to identify. Because Urban Fantasy is actually fairly similar to Paranormal. In fact, many writers I spoke to use them interchangeably. With UF, you have the fantasy aspects, but they are set in our world like a paranormal…which completely negates the test we used on straight Fantasy and Paranormal.

So, how do you tell if a story is Paranormal or Urban Fantasy? Well, I took a little poll of the writers I know and most of them seem to agree the difference is MAGIC. If the story contains magical elements, it’s an Urban Fantasy. If it doesn’t, it’s Paranormal.

Going by this, stories like Twilight and Vampire Academy would be Paranormal. There are vampires in both and in Twilight especially, some of the vampires have special talents (Edward reading minds, Alice seeing the future) but these talents aren’t really ‘magical.’ Now, the opposite could be argued if you view those elements as magical – in that case, this book could be and has been classified as UF…and this is exactly why this genre is a pain for me :D. But for me, those elements are not magical and I would therefore classify Twilight as a paranormal.

Stories like Harry PotterWicked Lovely, Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse booksand P.C. Cast's House of Night series (Marked, Hunted, etc) would be Urban Fantasy. Because in these books, there are magical elements with the fairy glamour and witches and wizards wielding magic and in the House of Night series, the vampires do some mystical magical stuff with the five elements and their ‘talents.’ I place the Sookie Stackhouse books in this category (I used to call them paranormal) because in the later books, fairy magic becomes a huge part of the storylines.

Fairies, dragons, witches wielding magic, for me, mean urban fantasy. Take away the magic and fairies and witches are normal people (or don't exist at all). Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, physics...there is no magic to take away. Take away their otherworldly elements and they are creatures who are, or were, human - with a little extra thrown in that is not of magical origin. Now if you are a werewolf because a wicked sorcerer cursed you, I'd place that in the urban fantasy category. If you were born that way with no magical intervention, you are paranormal.

Time travel is a bit of a different kettle of fish. Most people I've spoken with view time travel as a science fiction element. So I suppose if I were forced to choose between paranormal or urban fantasy for a time travel story it would depend on how the time travel occurs. If the characters can travel through time because of a spell or fairy magic, I'd call it urban fantasy. If the characters can time travel because of some innate, inborn ability (for example, if Edward in Twilight can time travel instead of reading minds) I'd probably call it paranormal. If the characters figure out how to bend the laws of physics and travel around, I'd call it sci fi.

Keep in mind, these definitions and tests are what I do and how I differentiate. As with many things in this business, there are few hard and fast rules. I’m sure there are others who do it differently and would disagree with my classifications, but for me, this is what works :)

(Here's a good post from Operation Awesome contributor Angelica Jackson on her take)

22 comments:

Jamie said...

Good observations. I never really got confused with fantasy vs. paranormal, but I've read quite a bit of each. Urban Fantasy is what I was wondering about - it seems like it's all the rage these days. Your explanation makes it much more clear.

I think I need to find a few UF books to read, just to get familiar with the genre...

Andrea said...

This is brilliant. I tended to just group everything 'out of this world' in fantasy and hope it stays there.

WindyA said...

Very insightful clarification, Michelle. Usually identifying genres is not too difficult, but as soon as we go a little deeper and start looking at sub-genres, it can definitely get confusing!

Thanks for the quick reference definitions. Handy to know.

Eric said...

Thanks for this post. While it's not always easy to tell genre (at least in my opinion), it's nice that there are "some" indicators that might help.

Cindy said...

Urban Fantasy is the one that always confused me. Thanks for defining these genres. I hate when people talk about them all the time and I am a bit unsure what they mean.

ElanaJ said...

You rawk!

Kat Harris said...

if you can take away the “weird” in the story (i.e. the beasts, the magic) and the world you are left with is still not the normal, everyday world you know, it’s a fantasy story. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy.That's a great way to put it!

Amber Argyle-Smith said...

I found your blog after you subscribed to mine and I'm loving it!
:)

Kristen said...

I really enjoyed your post. I love fantasy books but I had never thought about the difference between paranormal, fantasy, and urban fantasy before. I just read a book you might enjoy but I am not sure if you would consider it to be paranormal or urban fantasy. It's called Forbidden: The Temptation by Samantha Sommersby. What a fantastic book! It was the best shape-shifter novel I’ve read in a long time. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Michelle McLean said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one that had confusion with these :D And Kristen, I'll definitely put that book on my list! Thanks! :)

Danyelle said...

I was just wondering about this. Very nice definitions. They make a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing!

christinefonseca said...

Yet another amazing "how to" post...these are my favorite!

autumnvorgann said...

Thanks for the clarification! I just assumed that they well all jumbled together under one genre.

Yamile said...

All these genres keep branching out! Thanks for taking the time to clarify things for me.

JPM said...

That was very helpful and helped me nail down my genre a bit better. Thanks!

Mandy said...

I have known the headache that is genre confusion!!! Thanks again Michelle for breaking it all down. I'm working on an UF right now and I have to agree with you... it's quickly becoming one of my favs to read and write ;)

Marissa N. Berry said...

I googled "difference between paranormal and fantasy" and your blog came up. I appreciated the information because I'm trying to put the work I just finished into a genre. However, then I scrolled down and read your previous post about occupational hazards and I had to laugh. Great points! It made me feel a little better about life. Thanks!

Luan said...

Wow. Thanks. I wanted to know the difference between fantasy and paranormal. I had no idea there was a third choice. Urban fantasy. And luckily I found this site because UF is what my book would be categorized as.

Rebecca Hamilton said...

By what this says, my first novel, The Forever Girl, would be considered Urban Fantasy. But going by the books I've read in that genre, I'm not sure I really fit in with that. I've been using Paranormal Fantasy or Contemporary Fantasy in the meantime. Hopefully a publisher can sort it out for me--I really want to make sure I market the book to the right audience. Thanks for this very informative post. It gave me a lot to think about.
www.rebecca-hamilton-books.com
- Rebecca Hamilton, Paranormal Fantasy Writer - (at least I thought so lol)

Mary DeSantis said...

I have an urban fantasy in the works, but for a while I was calling it paranormal mystery. I stopped calling it paranormal because it seemed to me that paranormal was more things like ghosts, psychics, people being possessed--mine has none of that. I agree that urban fantasy can be a pain to categorize too.

Mary DeSantis - writer
http://outofthelockbox.blogspot.com

Winged Wolf said...

Of course, Dresden Files is actually solidly Urban Fantasy, because it's all about the magic.

I suspect Paranormal is not actually a 'real' genre though (hate to say it). I think using it was an outgrowth of the 'paranormal romance' genre. And I think THAT was named because 'urban fantasy romance' or 'dark fantasy romance' is horribly unwieldy, despite the fact that some paranormal romance is very clearly 'urban fantasy romance' instead.

Folks who came up with a story that was like paranormal romance, but wasn't a romance, decided to call it paranormal.

But a couple of decades ago, it didn't exist (at least, I never saw it mentioned anywhere). Urban fantasy certainly did exist back then. Paranormal romance emerged as a genre first (previously, books of that type had been simply lumped into dark fantasy (which is where all the vampire and werewolf novels that weren't horror were put), or just romance). 'Paranormal' didn't show up until some time after that.

I think what you have with 'paranormal' is really 'dark urban fantasy.' ^_^

Which brings up a rather important question. What, then, is dark fantasy? What defines it and makes it different from paranormal? (Possibly nothing at all).

Michelle McLean said...

Hmmm edgier? Horror elements? I suppose it could depend on your definition of "dark" :)

Hence all the headaches and confusion, and also why I wanted to point out that this is just my personal method for classification :) People will classify genres in different ways and classifications will change throughout the years.

And of course, like you said, new genres and definitions crop up, like paranormal romances and urban fantasies which were nowhere to be found (at least as a classification) not that long ago.

Agents I've spoken to say to try to classify books depending on where they'd be on a shelf at the bookstore (and while they've added a few new shelves, they still don't break it down nearly as much as I've seen writers do). But still...this is just as subjective as anything else.

I actually found my NF book on how to write essays shelved next to a book on werewolves at my local library. The only reason I can determine for that is because both books were sort of geared for young adults and/or students. Still a head scratcher for me ;) And I saw an interview with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon (whose books are historical fiction but with time travel and some romance) and she said her book has been shelved from everywhere from romance to horror to NF history (which is just hilarious) :)