12 October 2011

Picking Nits

This morning I was linked an article on Fantasy Fiction's blog discussing the differences between the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres. It's a decent blog and the author provides several examples of both genres. However, I feel this article misses the mark and does a disservice to authors of both types.




Definitions: 
First off, let's start with the bare bones definitions of what we're talking about with these genres.

  • Urban Fantasy (UF) - This is a genre that generated from epic fantasy. By its very name and nature, these books have to have two main components: A) they must take place in a city and B) they must have elements of fantasy (eg. magic, mythical creatures, etc). 
  • Paranormal Romance (PR)- This genre spun off of romance. Like UF, there are two main things you need for a novel to be called "paranormal romance": A) Paranormal activity (eg. ghosts, mythical creatures, psychic powers etc) and B) a love story. 
"I'm on a dinosaur."
Obviously, both genres have similar elements by including mystical power sets and giving time to things that go bump in the night. What separates them at their base level is the importance given to romantic plots and setting. UF typically focuses on a larger problem while PR focuses on a love story. UF must take place in a city while PR can take place in any setting. 

These two genres are quite close to one another and are blending more and more every day. Also, they're growing. Off-shoots of speculative fiction continue to bloom and it's amazing to watch. 

Okay, so far, I'm with the article I linked above. After that, my ability to agree begins to break down. 

The author of the above blog, Marsha Moore, pigeonholes both genres by using blanket literary tropes to define them. 

 Urban fantasy plot is the same as for any fantasy, good versus evil, saving the world. 
I said I was nitpicking here and I'll start with this line. While yes, there is an element of good vs. evil, the idea that a UF protagonist must "save the world" is limiting. It's true that many stories see our Hero/ine battling it out for the sake of humanity, but, frankly, this is a trope. This is something a little too common. It doesn't *always* have to be about saving the world. Sometimes, it's about redemption, saving one person, or even revenge. 
Similarly, Moore limits PR writers by saying that their plots must culminate in the Happily-Ever-After. I disagree. While a romance story is expected to have at least some level of pay-off, the protagonist doesn't always have to get the girl/guy/vampire etc. And sometimes--especially in a series arc--it's better to stave off happily-ever-after. In books, like life, there is a time and a place for instant gratification and sometimes it's juicier to withhold.

Sookie could kick Bella's ass. 
Another beef I have with this blog is that while Moore provides several examples successful authors in both genres, she completely leaves out a hallmark of both. Charlaine Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series (you know, the books True Blood is based on). Her Louisiana vampire novels blend both UF and PR in that the love stories are central to the plot, they take place in a modern, urban setting and our protagonist isn't some wilting flower. 

In place of Harris, Moore chooses to use the Twilight saga as an effective example of Paranormal Romance. One could argue that Twilight is more widely known, I suppose. With all due respect, however, it is my opinion that Sookie Stackhouse is what Bella Swan wants to be when she grows up. I'll leave it at that as my rants on Twilight's flaws are another blog entirely. 

My biggest issue with this article comes when Moore goes on to describe what she feels are key differences in the genres' styles. 

Buffy. She saved the world. A lot.
Urban Fantasy, she says, is written with a "more acerbic" voice and features "graphic, grittier violence". It's true that many UF authors keep their stories action packed with multiple fights. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books see the protagonist, Harry Dresden, getting the shit kicked out of him on a regular basis. It happens. However, like the above comment about saving the world, I feel Moore paints UF into a corner by insisting that violence is an inherent part of the story. In fact, I've been part of several discussions saying that some UF authors use fight scenes gratuitously and that the protagonist is unaffected by his/her actions in those scenes. Put simply: in UF action does not equal ass-kicking. 

Likewise, I don't feel Paranormal Romance should be boiled down to sex scenes. Sex and love don't always walk hand in hand. If I applied the same blanket stereotype to PR that Moore does to UF, PR would be nothing more than fluffy female protagonists getting rescued by vampires and falling in love with them, then having mind-blowing sex (that you or I will never come close to experiencing, nanny-nanny-boo-boo.)

I think these are both pits that authors can fall into, and quite easily. These are the easier routes. Write a bunch of emotionless fights or rip off her clothes every 20 pages and you've got yourself a bestseller. Wrong.  If you're writing sex and violence just for the sake of an action beat, you're missing something serious: STORY CONTENT! 

And I think this is where my biggest beef with the article can be found: While trying to compare and contrast genres, Moore is forgetting the great unifying element. Story. In trying to distill each genre to its component parts, she seems (to me, your mileage may vary) to forget that Urban Fantasy isn't just a dark, broody hero shooting vampires in the face with rock salt. I think to paint both genres with such a broad brush is a disservice not just to the authors who write those stories, it's a disservice to the readers who love them. 

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