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What’s In a Name? Fantasy v. Paranormal

September 28, 2010

I’ve been wondering what makes a Fantasy a Fantasy and what makes a Paranormal a Paranormal, so I thought I’d do a little investigation. My first stop was where anyone goes to look up the meaning of a word: the dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online defines Fantasy as imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters. Paranormal is fiction containing that which is not scientifically explainable; supernatural. These answers give new meaning to the word “vague”. I could argue that pretty much every book ever written falls under one of these two categories. I mean, what makes a character grotesque? Is a troll grotesque? Okay, I buy that. But what about books that feature vampires? In some books, vampires are sexy, alluring and altogether the hottest men and women around. In other books, vampires are revolting, dead, shambling grotesque creatures. Is the former kind of book a Paranormal and the latter, Fantasy? How do I decide? How does the publisher?

It took me a long time to be willing to try Paranormal Romance because I associate the term with mind-reading, ghosts, possessed houses that try to kill people and telekinesis. What I wanted was Fantasy: witches, werewolves, vampires and lots of magic. I’m not sure when it occurred to me that Paranormal Romance is basically Fantasy (often Urban Fantasy) by another name. The major difference is that Paranormal Romance features the love story as the central plot. In a Fantasy, the world-building and plot takes center stage. For me, the perfect book is one that combines the two. It has an enthralling new world for me to explore, some kind of fantastic element, be it vampires, wizards or Valkyries, a good plot and a delicious romance. What I hate about the decision to label books is that it’s limiting. There are all kinds of Paranormal Romances out there that are just as fascinating as the Fantasies, but because of the name, people won’t read them. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. I often do the same thing with Fantasies–assume I won’t like them because I think they won’t include a romance. And while this is sometimes true, there have definitely been times when I’ve come to a book or series late because I avoided it because of the way it was categorized. If only there was some way to accurately cross catalog everything. Then I’d know what I was getting into every time I picked up a book. But what would be the fun in that?

My father argues that the difference between a Paranormal and a Fantasy is that in a Fantasy, the whole world knows about the magic or the vampires or what have you. To take magic as an example: In a Fantasy, magical ability is an accepted thing. Everyone either performs magic or knows it exists. It is the norm. In a Paranormal, only a limited group would know that magic was real. The truth would be concealed from the rest of the world.

I’m not sure I buy this theory, but I like the idea of drawing a line between Fantasy and Paranormal. What do you think?

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