Paranormal vs Contemporary Fantasy: What’s in a Genre?

I could really use some help here.

How would you define paranormal vs contemporary fantasy?

I’m curious because my post on ‘Paranormal Romance in Decline?‘ brought forth a slew of people asking me this on Twitter.

Here’s my take:

At it’s most basic, I think, perhaps, the definition is vampires (paranormal) vs fae/magic (contemporary fantasy). Anne Rice is paranormal, Harry Potter is contemporary fantasy, given this definition.

But there’s a deeper question here. What is it about vampires that make them the ‘definition’ of paranormal? Some sites seem to say it’s the ESP/mind control. One or two others say it’s the ‘no-longer-human’ element  and/or the fact that their powers arise from their no longer being human. No-longer-human, hmm, no soul? cessation of main body functions (i.e. vascular or respiratory)? inability  to procreate? Some combination of these, I’d think.

Does this then mean that contemporary fantasy is then creatures who retain their humanity – their human body functions for the most part as a human body is designed to do?  Which, I think, would then place shifters in this category/genre. That does work.

Huh. Okay let’s name some popular non-human elements and see, given these definitions where they fall.

  • Demons- Have to go paranormal with this one.
  • Angels- Also paranormal
  • Elves- Contemporary fantasy (remember, I’m only looking at stories with contemporary settings)
  • Witches- Also contemporary fantasy
  • Demigods – I guess this would depend on the mythos the author creates, might go either way.
  • Biogeneticially altered humans – Contemporary fantasy.
  • Zombies – I’d have to go with paranormal for this one.

For now, this seems a good working definition. What do you think? Any creatures to add?

(Please note, for the purpose of this discussion, any stories are assumed to be in a contemporary setting. Historical stories are beyond the purview of this particular discussion I’m afraid.)

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A follow up post to this discussion is here.

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18 thoughts on “Paranormal vs Contemporary Fantasy: What’s in a Genre?

  1. Pingback: Paranormal vs Contemporary Fantasy: Sub Genres Pt 2 « Ellie Writes 2

  2. Interesting discussion. I’ve been wondering about this lately, so your post came at a great time! I have a book with witches and demons based in a contemporary setting and I’ve been wavering about whether or not I can consider it paranormal. I guess there’s no clear-cut line and these two genres can overlap. The debate rages on…

  3. Great question. But let’s approach this in a different way, instead of looking at it as Contemporary vs. Paranormal. Have you considered main genre and sub-genres? Because Contemporary would be considered the “Main Genre” and after that, paranormal, romance, suspense/thrillers, sci-fi, urban fantasy and so on would all be considered sub-genres or sub-plots. And for obvious reason you would never have Historical and Contemporary together. Unless you were writing a story about time travel, in which case time travel would be the sub-genre, not historical.

    Let me make clear that these sub-plots/genres are not independent of the main plot or themselves. But weave throughout the story to cause conflict and to deepen the emotional level.

    • Oh! I didn’t realize I’d get so many new people to my blog with this post so I didn’t think to preface this and state that I’m looking at these subgenres through the eyes of a romance writer.

      However, you raise some really good points. I think I need to do a follow up post.

  4. Here are my personal definitions:

    Paranormal – Ghosts, spirits and psychic phenomena.
    Supernatural – Demons, angels, miracles, unexplainable by science religiously related stuff.
    Preternatural – Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters and other not human sort of critters.

    I wrote a blog post about this a couple of years back, after one of my books was tagged as paranormal romance, and I didn’t think it fit that genre. If you’re interested: http://feralintensity.com/2010/01/11/paranormal-supernatural-or-preternatural/

    • Good point! I was also thinking about when publishers have calls and they say they want ‘contemporary fantasy.’

      And, of course when you are pitching and querying!

      Thanks for the link. :-)

  5. See, now I think it’s the SETTING not the types of characters that define the genre. Everything you mentioned, if in an alternate, contemporary “earth” is paranormal to me. Contemporary Fantasy to me is more stuff that has characters traveling through different realms or dimensions (think, Stephen King’s “Talisman”).

    I’d never really considered it from the standpoint of different character species, though that definitely makes a lot of sense. My biggest problem with that, though, is that there’s often times a blending of those types of characters — Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega series for example have shifters, vampires, AND fae.

    Great post! :)

  6. • Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies and Demons belong to horror along with any other creatures that have been mutated from their natural form by unnatural means
    • Paranormal is reported phenomena that cannot be explained, e.g. ghosts, moving lights, ESP, miracles, angels etc and can stretch to demons due to possessions etc.
    • Elves belong to fantasy along with wizards, dragons, unicorns, dwarves, trolls and other assorted creatures – mystical beings that were born that way
    • Witches belong to fantasy or horror depending on the style of the story
    • Gods and Demigods are myth but would come under fantasy for most novels
    • Biogenetics is science fiction as are UFO’s and any other paranormal, horror or fantasy subject that has been explained by futuristic science within the story

    Hope that helps

    • My understanding is Urban Fantasy is typically a series with one main protagonist in all the books. Typcially, in an urban setting. Mecry Thompson by Patirica Brigss is urban fantasy. Yes, there is a romance, but it’s not resolved in a single book.

      • Yes, one of my faviroate urban fantasies! And all that is true, but they don’t have to be series. Most of the early urban fantasy – War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, for example – are not series.

  7. I didn’t know there was a big difference like that. I’ve always thought if the characters were just regular human beings, the story would be listed as “contemporary”. If there’s at least one character who has anything going on with him that’s non-human then it would be considered paranormal (vamp, were, demigod, all of that) There are so many different levels, its hard to keep track of them all.

    • Snort. The bunnies are clearly paranormal and evil incarnate!

      I think all the fae: Dwarves, gnomes, trolls have to go under contemporary fantasy.

      Dragons. Hmmm, I assume you mean dragons who are also human? Then they’re shifters, right? Contemporary fantasy. And if they don’t have a human like form, why the *heck* are you asking me? :-) So if one of GA Aiken’s Dragons were to make an appearance in a contemporary setting, it’d be a contemporary fantasy.

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