As an urban fantasy author, I often deal with coworkers and the like who are unfamiliar with speculative fiction and who have trouble understanding the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Do I write books like that one author with the vampires that are just soft core porn?? (I am always tempted to respond: which one?) I’m squarely on the urban fantasy side of the sub-genre divide, but that’s sometimes hard to explain since my novel also has romantic elements. I’m always working on a better way to convey the differences.
My personal definition of the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance was originally a little like the old joke “do you want a little burger with that ketchup?” where either plot or sex is the ketchup, depending on who’s reading it. Which do you want as the dominant part of the meal, and which serves to flavor and enhance (but not overwhelm) the other? And that’s definitely the main difference, but in some cases there’s more to it than that, I think.
Over the years, I’ve read a paranormal romance here and there, though urban fantasy is generally my taste for reading as well as writing. I wouldn’t want to generalize those books to the entire sub-genre, but I did notice something interesting about those in particular: their romantic arcs were full of reverses.
What I mean by reverses is this: when everything seems doomed to failure, and then destined for success, and then doomed to failure, and then destined for success…I differentiate it from the kind of romantic arc one usually sees in urban fantasy, which doesn’t have the back and forth. Everything seems pretty damn difficult or even hopeless until the final obstacle is cleared, and success is achieved.
For example. A romantic arc full of reverses might go something like this: Jane the protagonist has the hots for the Werebadger king, but his council forbids boinking humans. But maybe he doesn’t have the hots for her! But she finds out he does! But she sees him kissing another woman! But she finds out that woman was fey and ensorcelled him! But maybe ensorcelling doesn’t work without some attraction to begin with! But--!
And that’s when my neck feels a little sore from whiplash.
To some degree, I would expect that a romantic arc that’s the flavoring rather than the meal would be a little simpler—who has time for reverses when you’re desperately hunting down goblins, tracking them to their master, and closing his doom gate? But what interests me instead is comparing a dominant romantic arc to a dominant plot arc.
Plot arcs seem to me to more often have setbacks, rather than reverses. The doom gate isn’t where our mystical calculations said it would be! Perhaps our heroes feel demoralized, but seeing as they’re heroes, they start looking for the doom gate somewhere else. In contrast, after a romantic reverse, it’s all about self-doubt. Maybe it’s better for the Werebadger king if Jane leaves him alone. Maybe he is only playing with her. The heroine has to fight to decide what her goal should even be (fight to keep him or forget him), not how to accomplish it or whether to give up. That’s why I call it a reverse instead of a setback.
In thinking over the plots of the urban fantasy novels I’ve read lately, I can’t think of a single one that had more than one reverse, and most had none. There are cases of single reverses: the hero is betrayed by an ally, perhaps, so suddenly he or she has to change sides, and spend some time reevaluating their goal (fight for or against?). But the multiple reverses just aren’t there.
I think the cause of this is partially what kind of obstacles are available in the environment around the characters. It’s easy to keep your characters from locking lips during their coffee date if the goblins burst up from the drains, whereas sans goblins, you’re left with something like making Jane hold back because she’s worrying how sincere the Werebadger king is.
In a way, that’s a false cause, though. Authors build their novels’ environments, so if they want sewer goblins, they can put in sewer goblins. A fantasy romance novel I read with no reverses at all that I can remember got a lot of the tension by the heroine being kidnapped by an evil djinn. She didn’t need to see her lover kissing another woman when they were locked apart by the harem doors.
So I think there’s a difference in kind as well as degree between urban fantasy romantic elements and a particular kind of romantic plot arc. It’s a matter of taste whether a reader enjoys and expects setbacks or multiple reverses, and I think they’re different enough that getting one when you want the other can be frustrating. But recognizing that it’s not the same even though it all has sex in it somewhere (and really, who doesn’t like sex?) can definitely be helpful.
SilverTom Doherty Associates/Tor Books, June 5, 2012
Trade Paperback and eBook, 320 pages
Andrew Dare is a werewolf. He’s the enforcer for the Roanoke pack, and responsible for capturing or killing any Were intruders in Roanoke’s territory. But the lone Were he’s tracking doesn’t smell or act like anyone he’s ever encountered. And when he catches her, it doesn’t get any better. She’s beautiful, she’s crazy, and someone has tortured her by injecting silver into her veins. She says her name is Silver, and that she’s lost her wild self and can’t shift any more.
The packs in North America have a live-and-let-live attitude, and try not to overlap with each other. But Silver represents a terrible threat to every Were on the continent.
Andrew and Silver will join forces to track down this menace while discovering their own power and their passion for each other.
Silver - Publisher Page
Read the first couple of chapters of Silver
The boundaries of Urban fantasy, not only vis a vis paranormal romance, but other types of fantasy,is something I've been thinking about for a long while. I enjoyed your viewpoint, especially since it comes from a direction and a set of diagnostic tools--narrative structure, that I had not considered before.
I hadn't considered it before but the reverse/set back elemnt seems really clear to me now when reading UF & PR. On teh while I much prefer UF as teh continal reversing just seems to be annoying obstacles when the couple will end up together anyway. While UF there is always the option that they won't end up together or if they do, it won't last. Very thought provoking post - thanks! :)ReplyDelete
Oh, and I've added Silver to my wishlist - especially if it's on the UF side of the fence! :)
I don't want to hide my soft porn behind a vampire that is seductive. Honestly there have been enough stories about vampires ad nauseum. Thanks for writing about my all time favorite character "the werewolf."ReplyDelete