Dissecting Genre: Paranormal Romance

I tend to learn by taking things apart, and looking at all the pieces.

Lately, I’ve been poking around the paranormal romance genre. I think it has a nice blend of commercial appeal and narrative interest for it to be worth exploring. So I’ve been downloading and reading a good bit of it.

Basically a paranormal romance is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s a romance story, with paranormal elements. There seems to be some gray borders between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. The two subgenres share a lot of tropes. They both tend towards a contemporary, modern setting. It’s rarely a second-world fantasy. There tends to be a lot of action: werewolf pack/fae tribe/vampire clan wars, demon hunters hunting demons, ghost busting adventures and such like.

Let’s just be frank and say urban fantasy is aimed at guys, and paranormal romance is aimed at women. Because I’ve seen UF with a strong romantic plot line, and I’ve seen PR with a strong external conflict.


As near as I can tell, there are four basic protagonist arcs for PR/UF:

  1. Mundane, ordinary human gets randomly sucked into the previously-hidden paranormal world. (Twilight)
  2. Ordinary human is in active, intentional conflict with the paranormal world (Buffy, Supernatural)
  3. “Changeling” paranormal being is raised as an ordinary human, only to discover “Surprise! You’re actually a magical creature!” (The Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson)
  4. Magical being gets dumped into the mundane human world, often as punishment. (Fallen angels, the first Thor movie)

Okay, so that covers the “paranormal” part of the paranormal romance. Basically, the central protagonist arc is about the tension between the two worlds, mundane and magical. Now, let’s talk about the various romance plots.

  1. Ordinary human falls for unattainable magical being. Or is torn between two warring magical beings (vamps/weres, demons/angels, witch/wizard factions), in the case of the ubiquitous love triangle. This is usually a version of the traditional romance “choosing the good guy vs. bad boy” conflict.
  2. “Changeling” torn between human and magical love interests (and the world/life each represents). This is a version of the “choosing my past vs. my potential” conflict seen in traditional romances like Sweet Home Alabama.
  3. Magical being falls for hapless mortal. This, and the “ordinary human falls for magical being” romance, without a love triangle, is an extension of the “we’re from two different worlds” from regular romance, for example, Pretty Woman.

Aside from the protagonist’s inner journey and romantic journey, there’s also often a bigger external conflict arc. Here are a few of the usual suspects there.

  • It’s the end of the world. Pick a side. Your main character is the swing vote for the apocalypse!
  • You’re the chosen one! Your main character has an epic destiny to save the world from the prophesied evil one.
  • You’re a pawn, but a really inconveniently placed pawn. Your main character really is just an average Jane, but random coincidence has made her the focus of bigger forces.
  • Freak of the week ad infinitum. There is no big story arc, just a series of random monster encounters. The fantasy equivalent of Jessica Fletcher, your main character just keeps stumbling into weird crap.

If you’re considering trying out paranormal romance, and you don’t know where to start, try asking yourself which of these Chinese menu items you’d like to try from each column.

If you just pick these three plot decisions, you’ve got the bare bones beginning point for your outline. From there, you can make further decisions about your particular setting, the types of magical or mythical beings that populate it, and the specifics of your main character, love interest(s) and antagonists.

Good luck!

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