Today I chaired a panel on Fantasy and Fantasy Romance, together with author and editor JoSelle Vanderhooft. The panel focused on genre definitions and trends, and I thought it would be interesting to summarize the points made there, combining the points made by myself and JoSelle.
1. Definitions of the fantasy and fantasy romance genres.
Romance, whether it’s contemporary, historical, fantasy, erotic, or anything else, has a few qualities that must always be present. First, it’s about how two (or more) characters navigate a romantic relationship; and second, the ending either needs to be happily ever after, or happy for now (though with erotica this isn’t necessarily the case for all publishers). As far as sex content goes, traditional romances tend to be light on explicit sex while more contemporary romances can include it. Again, the distinction largely varies with publishers and isn’t hard and fast.
As far as fantasy romance itself goes, it is largely a blend fantasy with the above things. It can be high fantasy (Lord of the Rings), fairy tale, or just about any permutation of fantasy out there. As high fantasy tends to be pretty epic in scope, this lends itself pretty well to romance in general.
In modern fiction, the borders between fantasy and fantasy romance tend to become more and more vague. Any romance with magic in it can technically be a fantasy romance. Conversely, fantasies with romance elements tend to sell to the romance market. This may be due to the fact that romance still constitutes a large percentage of today’s fiction market, and other genres can tap into this market by blending romance elements into the story.
2. What are the boundaries that separate the two genres (if they exist)?
It probably goes without saying that a fantasy book without any romantic elements won’t ever fall into the romance category :). If the story doesn’t end happily for the characters involved in the relationship, then it won’t be a romance. I think aside from that, it probably honestly comes down to how much of the plot is centered on the relationship. If the main thrust of the book is the characters getting together, then it’s a romance. If the main thrust of the book is defeating the evil sorcerer and avenging your sister’s death with a sidebar of the relationship, then you’ve probably got a fantasy or at the very least something that will have “fantasy/romance” on the back, making it shelvable in either section.
Traditionally fantasy is supposed to focus on higher goals, such as changing or saving the world, and romance is more about a relationship between two people. However, recently these borders tend to become less and less defined. Not all fantasy has such an epic scope and sometimes it is difficult, even for an editor, to make a distinction. At such times, the needs of the market often win out, and a book is marketed according to the current trend either as a fantasy or a romance.
3. What are the urban/paranormal fantasy and romance?
Urban/paranormal genres are a subset of fantasy, often verging at least somewhat into horror. Paranormal romances tend to involve at least one half of the pairing as a supernatural creature, such as a vampire (really popular choice!) or a werewolf. Witches get included in this too, despite not necessarily being supernatural (often they are humans). Urban fantasy, to be very brief and really boil it down, tends to take place in an urban setting rather than, say, the sweeping pre-industrial landscapes that a lot of fantasy books have thanks to Daddy Tolkien. Both are really popular and have been for years, long before Twilight, which is a recent striking example of the genre. In fact, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series did a lot to popularize paranormals.
A big element of urban/paranormal is the fact that these genres, unlike traditional fantasy, intertwine with what we think of as “real life” — as opposed to fantasy, which is supposed to take place in imaginary worlds. So, these genres also bring in cross-genre readers who prefer realistic fiction but enjoy some magical elements in it. Of course, romance is important in these genres from the book-selling point of view, as it brings in readers from three different genres. This was part of the reason for such a huge success of Twilight, because readers who don’t normally read romance enjoyed it too. The same readers got sensitized to fantasy by Harry Potter — which is, of course, not a romance, but does fall into the urban fantasy genre.
4. Where do you think the genre is going? Is the blending going to continue, or are the genres of fantasy and romance are going to stay separate with some overlap?
There is no stopping the blender once it’s been turned on :). Things tend to develop anyway rather than stay in one place. We’re ultimately going to see even more diversity and variety. But I don’t think one genre is going to devour the other any time soon.
I don’t think most genres decline–with the exception of, maybe, 19th Century utopian fiction –but they change. A big (and largely unpredictable) component in the success of each genre is when a big hit comes out in this genre that creates a hype, and a trend, and can really emerge anywhere. This happened with Harry Potter for urban, Twilight for paranormal, and to some extent The Lord of the Rings movie for the traditional fantasy.
Not to mention Fifty Shades of Grey for erotica in general.
Romance is going to continue to seep into other genres, particularly SF/F/H, because really? people like SF/F/H but they don’t know that they do. See, for example, how many people went to see the Avengers. They weren’t all fanboys and fangirls.
5. Can you give a brief definition of romance versus erotica?
It’s actually kind of hard to define with how much romance these days has erotic content. JoSelle’s *personal* definiton, which many would disagree with is focus. Romance is about the relationship whereas erotica is primarily about the sex, with the relationship as a secondary factor if any. This is why it doesn’t always need to end happily or with both characters together (or all three characters, as there are a lot of multiple partner romances).
6. What are the most effective ways you’ve found for making a romance read as believable?
If you want to write a romance according to the pretty hard definition most romance publishers have set, it’s best to make the main character (or characters) the ones in the relationship, have them meet pretty soonin the story, and make the story primarily about how they get together.
To make a romance believable, well, it’s good to avoid cliches in the genre, and to incorporate real issues that couples/triads/moresomes face, such as: trust, class divisions, sexual compatibility, how disability issues impact sex and intimacy, etc. little everyday things. Spontaneously getting together can work, especially as you often need to get the ball rolling soonin the story, but I find myself bored by romances that don’t really deal with any real issues that human beings face.
To read the full transcript of the session, visit http://coyotecon.com