“You Have a Question? I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.
Q: I have a vampire novel. What is it, sci-fi? Fantasy? What’s the difference between these things? How do you tell them/their subgenres apart? -S.B.
A: At the South Carolina Writers Workshop this past weekend, literary agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe (Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation) and Suzie Townsend (FinePrint Literary Management) led a session on paranormal, dark comedy, dark drama, and horror, and similar questions came up.
One of the conference attendees wanted to know what is with all this urban fantasy business she’s been hearing so much about. Another asked about the difference between paranormal and supernatural.
All good questions.
Supernatural. I've never seen the show, but I do love me some Jensen Ackles!
Stampfel-Volpe and Townsend explained that writers often confuse these genres and subgenres because, in some cases, industry peeps use some of the terms interchangeably. I will mix a bit of what they said with a bit of what I’ve found in cyberspace in order to help answer these questions.
The sci-fi and fantasy genres confuse many because they tend to overlap in their most basic requirement: imaginary elements. Because of their common ground, bookstores often lump them into one section.
However, this rule should help you distinguish between the two: Although they both include fantastic or imaginary elements, which contradict our current world/our understanding of it, those elements in science fiction are generally based in scientific reality, while those elements in fantasy rely more on myths and fables.
Still lost? Here’s some help. Disclaimer: With all the subgenres out there, there’s no 100% hard and fast rule, but if you stick to the below, you should be on the right track most of the time.
- Is something different about the time? Think: Back to the Future.
- Is it set in the future?
- Is there time travel?
- Is it set in the past or the present, but there’s some element that is different from what we know? Does, as Doc Brown puts it in BTTF2, the timeline skew into a tangent, creating an alternate 1985 (or whatever year)?
- Is science or advanced technology involved?
- Do the words “time machine,” “anti-matter,” “cryogenics,” or “technology” appear? How about “flux capacitor” or “Mr. Fushion”?
- Is it set in outer space?
- Are there aliens? Robots or computers becoming self-aware?
"Pull out your pants pockets. All kids in the future wear their pants inside out." --Doc Brown, Back to the Future Part II
- Does anyone use magic or have supernatural powers?
- Is it set in a mythical world, or are the main characters drawn from a contemporary setting into such a place? Think: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe or Harry Potter
- Are there fairies? Trolls? Goblins? Centaurs? Basilisks? Rings or grails? Wizards with long white beards?
The Scary and the Hairy
Sci-fi/fantasy subgenres get particularly complicated because this is where a lot of terms are used interchangeably—much to the chagrin of, well, everyone trying to figure out this stuff.
The biggest head-scratchers for newbies at SCWW:
Paranormal vs. Supernatural
These are pretty much the same thing.
In the Stampfel-Volpe/Townsend session, we fleshed it out as a class, and here is what we came up with:
- Supernatural is more when a character is born with or discovers he has super powers—in other words, these powers come from within.
- Paranormal more has to do with ghosts, spirits—in other words, outside forces.
- However, we also said that, because you usually have one when you have the other, these terms often get tangled, and that is OK.
Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance
These are often used interchangeably as well.
Both are set in contemporary/real-world/urban settings, both can contain vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters (Oh, my!), but according to Publisher’s Weekly article “When Love Is Strange: Romance Continues Its Affair with the Supernatural,” the treatment of the relationship is the key element which separates the two.
- In paranormal romance, the romantic relationship is the primary focus of the plot (yes, Edward Cullen fans, I know you’re salivating all over your keyboards right now).
- In urban fantasy, the world the couple lives in takes center stage.
That shouldn’t be too hard to remember. Paranormal romance = romance, and urban fantasy = setting. So, they’re not just clever names! See? Not so difficult after all.
See Gwenda Bond’s article in Publisher’s Weekly for a more comprehensive look.
I know, I know, but he's still fun to look at.
To see a general breakdown of all literary genres, Writer’s Digest to the rescue. This link not only defines the above, but it also has a more extensive dichotomy of subgenres within sci-fi/fantasy (i.e., space operas, Arthurian fantasy, etc.).
I hope this gives you some basic insight as to how to classify your manuscript. Although, according to FinePrint Literary Management agent Janet Reid, authors need not worry about genre. She says the agent will be able to tell and will categorize accordingly, if she wishes to sign you.
So, if you’re still confused, fear not. The agents will set you straight.