Yesterday I tried tracing the evolution of the term “urban fantasy.” Here are three recent attempts to pin down that butterfly from an author, an agent, and an editor.
Novelist Patricia Rice suggested:
So here’s my very limited take on the genre: it combines mystery, horror, and fantasy, often with a touch of romance, but not necessarily any satisfactory resolution to the relationship. Paranormal romance is all about the relationship. Urban Fantasy is all about the world building and the escalating threats to the protagonist and to her world.Rice thinks a “touch of romance” is enough, but in an interview on the Spectacle agent Mary Kole opined:
The “urban” in the name isn’t just a setting clue, it’s a state of mind. I think the name evokes the dark and gritty nature of the genre, as well as a modern or near-future time setting. The biggest factors in urban fantasy, for me, are a paranormal bent and a romance in the plotline.So by this model “urban” is merely a buzzword for “dark and gritty,” and a romance is necessary.
Finally, I’ll go back to the remarks from Paula Garon, editor at Juno:
...“urban fantasy” has come to mean: Contemporary, urban setting with female or male protagonist usually (but not always) with a certain amount of “kickassitude” and supernatural powers or connection. Primarily a detective plot with (usually but not always) a romantic relationship subplot. Action-oriented; often has strong horrific elements balanced with humor. . . .Finally, don’t miss Gwenda Bond’s comments on my post yesterday, noting that “urban fantasy” means something different in children’s and YA lit from what it signifies for adult readers, in particular the adult form’s tie to the police procedural, and probably the level of grittiness or sweatiness.
“Paranormal romance”, on the other hand, generally relies on a plot that pivots on the romance more than any other element and adheres in other ways to the “romance-according-to-romance-genre” expectations. (Some exceptions made for series books in which the HEA is only eventually accomplished.)
This parsing of terms leads me to argue that there are different types of genres; I’ll discuss this more in a workshop at SCBWI New England’s annual conference in May. Some of what we call genres, such as fantasy and science fiction, work in what I prefer to call “modes”: readers bring certain expectations about the fictional world, but not about the plot.
Other genres, most notably romances and mysteries, must also satisfy readers’ expectations about the plot, or at least offer very good explanations why the couple doesn’t get together happily ever after or why the murderer doesn’t get caught.
Authors of “urban fantasy” might tell stories with a lot of paranormal romance, but want more freedom in choosing how to end their romantic subplots than the “paranomal romance” genre allows. But if the influence of the mystery/procedural genre is high, they might nevertheless feel an obligation to end that plot as readers expect.