So there’s fantasy and science fiction...what exactly is paranormal, and why isn’t it just urban fantasy?
Renee Frey, CMO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
As we wrap up our speculative fiction overview, let’s take a closer look at the niche genre of paranormal fiction.
How is Paranormal Fiction a genre?
When I started researching for this blog post, there wasn’t a whole lot of information. There seems to be a consensus that yes, paranormal fiction is its own genre—but there weren’t the robust genre definitions that exist for fantasy or science fiction. Additionally, the genre is grouped with fantasy and science fiction in bookstores and libraries, further blurring the lines. You can read a lot about why this confusion exists in this Refractory article, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to summarize and suggest some new definitions here.
What makes Paranormal Fiction not fantasy or science fiction?
So according to the Oxford English Dictionary, paranormal is:
Designating supposed psychical events and phenomena such as clairvoyance or telekinesis whose operation is outside the scope of the known laws of nature or of normal scientific understanding; of or relating to such phenomena.
Not exactly helpful. However, in the etymology, or history and meaning of parts of the world, para means “parallel or analogous to, yet separate and going beyond.” To me, this suggests that paranormal consists of things that exist in an alternate plane that runs along our own reality.
So for the sake of this blog, let’s decide that paranormal fiction:
- Takes place in our world, not a made up or fantasy world, but at a place where our world joins that parallel world.
- Has a character who is from the parallel world, exists simultaneously in both worlds, or has a power or ability gained from the parallel world.
- Or the plot is driven by what happens when the planes two worlds conjoin or overlap.
If one or more of these elements apply to the story, the story is either paranormal fiction, or paranormal and another genre, such as paranormal romance.
So let’s unpack each of these definitions.
Going back to our original idea of paranormal, it is something that is analogous to, yet separate and beyond. How would we see this in a setting?
- We might see graveyards, religious sites, or other places that are used as gateways to transfer between our world and the parallel world, such as heaven or hell, a spiritual plane, or other form of existence.
- The characters may experience dreams, out of body experiences, or catch a glimpse of the parallel world.
So the story where a character who falls into a well and is transported to the spiritual plane is paranormal, whereas the story where the character falls into a well and is transported to a magical land is fantasy. However, the ambiguity occurs when the world at the other end of the well could be either option, or both. This is one reason why separating paranormal from other genres is difficult.
Let’s look at some examples of how a character might be paranormal.
The character is from a paranormal place.
This is probably the easiest way to determine if a character, and thus the story, is paranormal. If the character is from a place that would count as a paranormal setting, the character is likely paranormal. Angels and demons are good examples of this.
The character exists in both the real world and the paranormal world.
OK, to make this work we do have to be a little creative. In this instance, I would say that characters who were originally from our world, but are now influenced by or swayed by the paranormal world, would fit. An example would be vampires, who were once humans, but were converted to a semi-demon existence. They now exist with one foot in the real world, and one foot in hell. Ghosts, werewolves, and other demi-humans would fall into this description.
As with setting, here is where ambiguity between paranormal and other genres can occur easily. An android or cyborg could come close to meeting this definition, but for the sake of genre classification, we say it doesn’t. Instead, we would look at the presence of as of yet undeveloped technology and classify it as science fiction.
The character has a power or ability gained from a paranormal location.
Like the origin of the character itself, if we understand what makes a setting paranormal, this is relatively easy to extrapolate. Examples would be a seer or prophet, someone with ESP, a medium, or other human characters who can access the paranormal world or plane in some way, even if it’s only communication.
Please note that this would not include characters who claim to have these abilities but do not. Likewise, if the power is in the context of a fantasy setting—for example, the power comes from a deity of the made-up world—that is still a fantasy.
Paranormal plot occurs when the plot point is a direct cause of the intersection of the real world with the paranormal one. An example might be a superstitious day like Friday the 13th or Halloween, where tradition suggests that the barriers between our world and the paranormal one are thin or overlapping, allowing creatures from the other world to influence ours in some way. Even if there is no paranormal setting other than the one alluded to in the conjoining of worlds and no paranormal characters, a plot driven by these conjunctions would be considered paranormal.
That’s still a lot of overlap…
Yes. Even with the definition we used in this post, there are still examples or instances where none of the points are met, but the argument could still be made that the work is paranormal. Take Phantom of the Opera or other gothic novels. While none of these elements are present, it certainly *feels* paranormal. The best I could do in this instance is argue that, since the cast of characters believe the villain is paranormal (a phantom or ghost) that it does count as paranormal, even after as readers we learn that the villain is, in fact, human. It’s another reason why the genre is so difficult to define clearly.
This genre is also open enough that it can overlap with a lot of other genres. The most popular overlap is probably romance, where the otherworldly elements of paranormal add excitement to the romance tropes and structures. Another popular crossover is with urban fantasy, since urban fantasy uses fantasy elements in an urban setting, and let’s face it, it’s far easier to reference and use an existing city and existing character types than to make up an entire world and its urbanization and religious or occult beliefs. The paranormal characters lend themselves well to the urban setting, which already suggests the isolation of high population with few social and community connections, and the ability to blend in despite being abnormal.
Probably my favorite overlap is paranormal and comedy. Ghostbusters and Good Omens are great examples of blending two very unlikely genres together.
This is still a rather open definition. How can I learn more?
The paranormal genre is a spinoff of the Gothic subgenre of Romantic English (British) literature. A great place to start is with the works of Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont.
The meeting of this subgenre with the Victorian themes of urbanization, modernization, and industrialization helped further shape urban fiction and the existence of paranormality inside it. For this, reference The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Grey.
These characters have stayed alive in pop culture, and are continuously reinvented in our stories in adherence to the dictate that they exist in the real world. Recent adaptations include Anne Rice’s vampire series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Twilight series.
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