Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance?

Or "Other than flipping a coin, how do I tell what genre my book is?"

I've heard this question a lot in various incarnations. (Is such-and-such urban fantasy or paranormal romance? What's the difference between them?) It seems to me that it's not really an either/or question; there's a spectrum between UF and PNR. But there is a difference between the two. And it matters.

It's easier to start by defining PNR. Paranormal romance books are those where the romance is the focus of the story. This would be your standard boy meets girl, (fill-in-the-blank issue) interferes with their being together, (same issue) is resolved, boy and girl live happily ever after romantic novel, but since it's paranormal, boy and/or girl are vampires or werewolves or demons or witches or something.

In urban fantasy, there may (read: probably will) be a romance, but it grows over the course of several books, and the more central plot is whatever else is going on. Maybe the characters have to save the world or find a magical artifact or kill someone. There's a lot more action (no, not that kind of action) in UF than PNR, and that, rather than a ride off into the sunset, is the point of the story.

So there are your definitions, but how do you tell before you even start reading a book what subgenre it is? It's actually pretty easy, and will take you five minutes or less and spare you from accidental romance purchases (just kidding PNR fans!)

1. Look at the cover

You know that saying "don't judge a book by it's cover"? Yeah, that one's a lie, at least if you take it literally. Most of the time you can get a pretty good idea what genre the book is just from the picture on the front. If your book looks like this:
it's probably urban fantasy. If it looks like this:
it's probably paranormal romance. So to recap: cover with boy and girl = PNR, cover with girl (especially with a weapon) = UF. Got it? Good. Moving on.

2. Check the point of view

Found an ambiguous cover? That's okay, that was only step one. Now open up the book and read the first couple sentences. If the story is in third person (he or she), it's more likely to be PNR, especially if it switches between male and female protagonists. If the narrator speaks in first person (I), it's likely UF.

Two caveats: 1, this rule doesn't apply to YA, which is harder to split between PNR and UF, and 2, there are definitely exceptions.

3. Glance through the rest of the series

If the other books in the series are available for your perusal, just glance at the blurbs for the next few books. Is the protagonist the same? Great, it's more likely to be UF, since most UF series don't bring their main characters together in the first installment. Different main characters in each one? That's probably PNR, and each one is a new love story. (I can think of at least two exceptions off the top of my head, but in general, it works.)

4. GARS Score

For this post, I tried to arrange all the books I've read that fall into these categories in order from UF to PNR, and immediately ran into difficulties. What if a book has a lot of action and a lot of romance? What if it has very little romance but lots of *ahem* action (yes, this time it's that kind of action)? To make the task easier and because there were lots of other things I didn't want to do, I created a quantitative way to determine where books fall on the scale. I call it the GARS scale.

GARS stands for Grittiness, Action, Romance, Sex. I gave each series a score from one to five, then took the ratio of G and A to R and S. The lower the score, the more the book is weighted towards romance. Higher scores have less love than war. Here's a list of everything I've read on this spectrum and their GARS scores, but first, a few notes:

a) The categories: Grittiness refers to the graphic depiction of violence in the story. Action, of course, involves fighting, pursuit, explosions, etc. Romance is mostly of the Happily Ever After variety, though shorter relationships did get a couple points. Sex should be fairly obvious; the higher the score, the more detailed the description.

b) These scores are completely unrelated to how I felt about the book, or at least I tried to keep them objective. If a book got a one in every category, that wouldn't mean it was bad, nor would fives across the board necessarily indicate a great book.

c) Scores can change. Most of these series haven't yet been completed, and I haven't read all the currently extant books in every one of them. The scores I've given the books reflect what I've read so far, and I tried to avoid giving scores to series without having read at least the first two books (unless there's only one book out).

d) Scores are relative. I started out each category by assigning a one to the book I though had the least of it and a five to the book that had the most. That means that a one in action, for example, actually had a reasonable amount of action, it was just less than everything else. (A one in sex pretty much means no sex scenes, though.)

So, now that this has become the longest post in the history of the world *cue drumroll*, I present you with my (quasi-)official GARS scores.

Aisling Grey, Guardian by Katie MacAlister: 0.57 (2/2/3/4)
Alex Craft by Kalayna Price: 1 (3/3/3/3)
Alpha and Omega by Patricia Briggs: 0.57 (2/2/4/3)
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (through book 8 or so) by Laurell K. Hamilton: 1.29 (5/4/3/4)
Black Dagger Brotherhood by JR Ward: 0.4 (2/2/5/5)
Cassie Palmer by Karen Chance: 1.14 (3/5/3/4)
Charley Davidson by Darynda Jones: 0.88 (3/3/4/4)
Chicagoland Vampires by Chloe Neill: 0.67 (1/3/3/3)
Dark Swan by Richelle Mead: 1 (4/3/3/4)
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher: 2.25 (4/5/2/2)
Dorina Basarab by Karen Chance: 1.17 (3/4/3/3)
The Edge by Ilona Andrews: 0.78 (3/4/5/4)
Elemental Assassin by Jennifer Estep: 1 (3/3/3/3)
Elemental Masters by Mercedes Lackey: 0.5 (1/2/5/1)
Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff: 0.5 (1/2/4/2)
Fever by Karen Marie Moning: 1.33 (3/5/3/3)
Georgina Kincaid by Richelle Mead: 0.56 (2/3/4/5)
Guild Hunter by Nalini Singh: 1 (4/4/4/4)
Haven by Kalayna Price: 1 (3/2/3/2)
Highlander by Karen Marie Moning: 0.3 (2/1/5/5)
The Hollows by Kim Harrison: 1.33 (3/5/3/3)
Insatiable by Meg Cabot: 0.57 (1/3/4/3)
Iron Druid by Kevin Hearne: 1.67 (2/3/1/2)
Jazz Tremaine by Linda Wisdom: 0.57 (3/1/4/3)
Kara Gillian by Diana Rowland: 1.17 (4/3/2/4)
Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews: 1.14 (3/5/4/3)
Kitty Norville by Carrie Vaughn: 1 (3/2/3/2)
Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs: 1.2 (3/3/3/2)
Night Huntress by Jeaniene Frost: 0.88 (3/4/4/4)
Night Huntress World by Jeaniene Frost: 0.4 (2/2/5/5)
Psy-Changeling by Nalini Singh: 0.6 (4/2/5/5)
Riley Jenson, Guardian by Keri Arthur: 1 (4/4/3/5)
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey: 5 (5/5/1/1)
Shadow World by Dianne Sylvan: 0.75 (4/2/4/4)
Sunshine by Robin McKinley: 1.6 (4/3/3/2)
Women of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong: 0.75 (3/3/4/4)


  1. Oh my gosh, this is incredible! I agree with your categories and love the GARS score. I gives me a much clearer idea of these series and books.

  2. I even tweeted about this post. I am so impressed by it.

  3. Wow! Thanks so much, Alison!


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