Aug 6 2010 5:52pm

Editorial Roundtable: The Roots of Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy

To add additional perspectives to the paranormal romance/urban fantasy conversation, I approached a number of the editors who work in these categories to participate in an editorial roundtable of sorts. (The first one is here.) Of course, getting any group of editors together, even by email, isn’t as easy as you might think. Jury duty, vacations, overstuffed email inboxes, a tornado, and a power outage all took their toll.

My thanks to the intrepid editors who responded to our second topic:

Deb Werksman, Editorial Manager, Sourcebooks
Chris Keeslar, Senior Editor, Dorchester Publishing
Alicia Condon, Editorial Director, Brav

Melissa: When we were first talking about Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy month in the Tor offices, it was fun to think back about the modern roots of these genres (modern, of course, being a relative term). Everyone seemed to have a favorite television series, book, or film that he or she considered a seminal influence on the paranormal romance and/or urban fantasy as we currently know them.

Chris: It’s in some ways tough to answer this question, because I’ve been trying to blend these two seemingly disparate genres—romance and sf/fantasy—for most of my career, trying to figure out what really makes novels, movies, and television shows work for both audiences. Mostly I’ve trusted my instincts instead of following other media cues. (Forgive my heretical blending of science fiction and fantasy into one group, but in terms of current romance marketing it’s a valid perspective.) One category—sf/fantasy—is primarily intellectually-based, while romance is emotional. One is (or was) stereotypically male, the other female. But I knew that there was a crossover, because I found pleasure in reading both genres myself. It’s elating to watch the combined audience grow.

I didn’t read my first romance until after college—and at that point I did it for a paycheck. But then I looked back and saw that all of my favorite science fiction and/or fantasy novels—and quite a few of my favorite movies—had strong romantic themes. They were first and foremost about personal relationships, and I wanted to bring the joy of fantasy world-building to a romance audience. I wanted to give back a little of what I’d found with them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking any credit for the birth of science fiction and/or fantasy in the romance genre; it was there long before I got there. That said, I’ve done my best to nurture it. I wish I could nurture more romance reading in sf and fantasy readers! For fifteen years I’ve acquired books I think they’d like, too.

Some of my favorite projects were Susan Grant’s Star series, and later her Banzai Maguire (2176) books. Melanie Jackson did a fun set with goblins running large city centers such as Las Vegas and Detroit (my hometown!), and Liz Maverick’s Crimson City series was great early urban fantasy. Lisa Cach wrote a hilarious story about a pro wrestler sent back to slay a real dragon, called “George & the Virgin.” Susan Squires’s Body Electric was exactly that—electric. Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steele books are awesome, and the entire Shomi line tried even more to market to readers who felt the love of alternate realities (to perhaps use a tongue-in-cheek phrase), and I’m elated to see Michele Lang’s got a new book out with Tor this September, Lady Lazarus.

All of these stories are a huge part of why I’ve stayed in the business. I’d like to believe they’ve been part of why these genres are growing together. And we can’t forget the (entirely unrelated to me) obvious choices of Laurell K. Hamilton, Christine Feehan, C.L. Wilson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Kelley Armstrong. And there are many more. Our genre’s authors are all working together.

Today, of course, nothing’s changed—for me. Some of the most delightful books I have in my list are Leanna Renee Hieber’s The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and L.J. McDonald’s Sylph series. But these are even more fantasy-oriented than the books above, so they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Which just means that we’re succeeding, the audience is growing. I just hope we can keep piling up the titans.

Melissa:  While I did read romance before college, I most definitely grew up as a science fiction fan (2nd generation—thanks, mom and dad). So when I look back at books that seem to me to blend the genres, they tend to come from the sf/f side of things. Like Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness; the former is sort-of paranormal romance (but they’re married) and the latter is most definitely urban fantasy.

Restoree by Anne McCaffrey is one of the earliest examples of the futuristic romance. It’s always been a secret favorite of mine; I reread it recently, as a matter of fact. And I love the cover, which screams “science fiction romance!” Many of McCaffrey’s science fiction novels have strong romantic plots, and she began writing them back in the 1960s.

Chris: Let’s go back to the Dragonlance Chronicles (and Legends), by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I don’t know if those books read the same as they did when I was twelve, but what an amazingly melancholy closure for triangle of Kitiara, Tanis Half-Elven, and Laurana... and yet, how sweet in its way. How... real for a fantasy. And who didn’t hope that Crysania could redeem Raistlin?

Which brings me to the point. All of these books and movies have things in common: strong worldbuilding and immersive mythologies, things to make you put on your thinking cap and dream with the dragons. But more importantly, they have characterizations you don’t want to forget. These people are our friends, our siblings, our lovers. We know them. They’re the reason we read books in the first place, whether we’re men or women, whether we’re with Team Edward or dressed up as Klingons. (Well, maybe not the Klingons.) At heart, every book is about connection. It’s good to see more of us are connecting together.

Melissa: I’ve also been thinking about the genre on TV. I remember how many of my friends loved the first couple of seasons of Beauty and the Beast (it was not my cup of tea, alas). Going farther back, there was Kolchak: The Night Stalker (now that, I did watch), and more recently, Forever Knight (ditto, though often groaningly). While few of these programs attracted the kind of mass audience that Twilight has achieved, I wonder if exposure to these kinds of programs spurred interest in what was then called horror and is now often dubbed urban fantasy? (And no, I haven’t forgotten Buffy; I figure that’s one of the easiest citations.)

Deb: These shows are seriously old, but in a very conservative environment, they introduced a paranormal element that’s been with us ever since.

Dark Shadows: Remember Barnabas Collins? He was the first TV vampire and he had it all—looks, fangs, a terribly guilty conscience... Every time he appeared on the show, my spine tingled!

I Dream of Jeannie: Let’s face it, Barbara Eden’s ability to get anything she wanted was awe-inspiring.

Bewitched: Another instance of a seriously good role model. Housework? A piece of cake.

Melissa: Deb trounces me by reaching even farther back into television history! Jeannie and Bewitched! There was also Nanny and the Professor, where Juliet Mills’ character had some psychic ability—and the guest stars were astonishing. And of course there was The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, which was a terrific movie before it became a pretty entertaining TV series. (We’re not going to talk about My Mother the Car or Mr. Ed or My Favorite Martian. Just not going there.)

Chris: I’m going to speak from my own personal perspective, coming from science fiction and fantasy to romance, jumping all around the place:

Star Wars, Episodes IV-VI (the only acceptable installments): At heart this space opera is about two things: the redemption of Darth Vader ending the evil Empire he helped create… and more importantly, whom does Leia choose to be with?! Han and Luke not coming to blows over her is only averted by Luke turning himself into a monk… and the fact he and Leia already spent nine months cuddled as close as they should get.

Firefly: You named Buffy, which is, as you put it, obvious. I think it made one of the biggest splashes in popular culture in the past 15 years, and Joss Whedon deserves kudos for bringing the sexes together under the beautiful banner of geek chic. I unquestionably rank Buffy with Harry Potter and Twilight in terms of societal movements. And yet, Firefly deserves some praise, too. It does all the same things right—strong character relationships mixed with everything we want in a space opera. The only thing it did wrong was be set in space rather than a high school and require a higher operating budget.

Battlestar Galactica: The semi-recent remake of the television show has a lot of the same strengths as the above, plus exploding starships, seductive Cylons. And most important—it has people you legitimately want to find their happily-ever-afters. And it came after Firefly showed it was possible for this type of show to succeed.

The Hero and the Crown: I’m trusting my twin sister here (who’s having a baby as I type!). I defy any girl of my age bracket—my sister’s my twin—who reads fantasy and/or romance to read this Robin McKinley book and be uninspired.

The Matrix: Just the first installment. One of the best popular science-fiction films ever; in my opinion, where would it be without the romance? An existential crisis at its core, how can you know if you’re The One? The same way you know you’re in love. Balls to bone. At some point, you just know.

Melissa: So genre-blending, and exposing paranormal and urban fantasy elements to a broad audience, isn’t really anything new. And we all have our favorite oldies-but-goodies. What are yours?

Deb Werksman is the Editorial Manager of SourceBooks, which has been publishing romance titles under its Casablanca imprint since 2007. This year, she was named Editor of the Year and Sourcebooks has been named Publisher of the Year by the New York City chapter of RWA.

Chris Keeslar is an award-winning Senior Editor at Dorchester Publishing.

Melissa Ann Singer is guest editor for Paranormal Fantasy and Urban Romance month on She is also an editor at Tor Books, and some other things too.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index
Ashley McGee
1. AshleyMcGee
Urban Fantasy shaped my formative writing years, but I was hardly a fan of Buffy (to me she was just in the way). Buffy's one time ex-boyfriend and his spin-off show, Angel, was my bread and butter along with the final two seasons of the X:Files in 2004, with Mulder and Skully's relationship growing with the birth-and subsequent removal-of their son and their fight with the aliens corrupting their government, threatening society, and Agents Doggett and Reyes' budding romance in the face of human extinction. The Matrix is among my favorite science fiction films.

We must not forget Dan Simmons' contribution to romantic themes in science fiction and fantasy. Harman and Ada's growth together and survival of Setebos' coming to post-human Earth in Ilium and Olympos blew my mind--with the Iliad aspect playing a huge role in my senior seminar class. They were able to have their baby in a world devoid of "divine" intervention. Also Simmons has, I think, a great talent for building character relationships in his historical horror novels, such as Lady Silence and Captain Crozier's transcendent relationship that extended beyond mere talking to sharing one's mind and body in the frozen arctic set in the time of the Sir John Franklin Expedition; The Terror rocked.

One can hardly leave out vampire novels as a source for romance. You all keep saying Twilight, and I wish you would stop. I'm talking about some of the most lasting relationships ever, the ones that last from beyond the grave in Brian Lumley's Necroscope Sagas. Jazz Simmons loved his Zek in death even as she moved on in life to Ben Trask in the E-Branch Necroscope books, and Harry Keogh never gave up looking for his wife and son in Wamphyri and The Source. Even vampires are allowed to love, for the Lady Karen fell deeply in love with Harry and he even attempted to save her from her own leech. It didn't work, but we all thought it might.
2. Ramenth
This is an interesting read, but I'm a tad confused as to your comments on books. It seems like a lot of what you cite (IE, Dragonlance) seems to be "World Building with Strong Characters". Isn't that just referred to as 'good writing?' for the most part? I don't know that it owes anything to romance.
Jacqueline Lichtenberg
4. JacquelineLichtenberg
I've been discussing how to worldbuild a background for a genuine Romance that is also genuine Science Fiction on the aliendjinnromances blog on blogspot where I co-blog with Susan Kearney, Rowena Cherry, Susan Sizemore, Cindy Holby, Linnea Sinclair, & Susan Grant.

It is quite a trick to balance the demands of both the emotional story and the technically driven plot, but that's what I grew up wanting to do, and apparently accomplished with my Sime~Gen universe novels and my Vampire romances.

The oddest thing is, we see this character-tech-plot blend being marketed to general audiences now by TV shows such as White Collar, Burn Notice, Royal Pains -- USA Network Characters Welcome. The same folks who gobble urban fantasy novels write fanfic for shows like that.

It's all about The Alienated Hero, just as Spock was the geekish Alienated Hero for Star Trek, as we tried to explain in the Bantam paperback STAR TREK LIVES!
wow! i love discussions on these topics!! god so much to say! first... major shoutouts on Firefly and Hero and the Crown (but especially Blue Sword the prequel!) ... those are my favourites!! I read the 2 Robin McKinley books as a kid and oh my god have they defined me!! after 10 billion reads of course! haha!

also great point... as a sci-fi/fantasy/horror (but mostly fantasy) reader... i've realized my favourite, most enjoyable books always had romance in them for sure!! personal relationships and characterization are my favourite aspects of any good entertainment! Anne McCaffrey totally had like mentioned above (I love her Crystal Singer series!), from that era my other fave is Mercedes Lackey, especially By The Sword. New romantic/fantasy author favourites are Jacqueline Carey and Anne Bishop.

Most vampire tales seem to have lots of romance too it seems? Altho in TV and movies and many books, it seems like its aaalwaaaayss male vamp, female human... the ultimate 'older guy' story.. ugh! I'd love to see that reversed more often so I'm happy to hear about Lady Karen!

and finally just wanted to comment on Battlestar Galactica... absolutely loved the show especially coz of the characters! But sometimes it felt it went to far into personal relationships, it bordered on melodrama? Coz I often felt myself missing the honour and wisdom of Star Trek: TNG characters. Altho I guess Battlestar is more realistic! :)
Rosalind Hill
6. RosalindDHill
This is a great discussion. I grew up with televsion shows like Dark Shadows, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and with movies like Phantasm and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I'm a huge fan of cyberpunk and dark fantasy. I've always wanted to blend the two categories. I find hybrid stories a better read than straight fantasy and science fiction.
7. RevBob
Seems to me that any author writing a well-developed character will have to deal with romantic development somewhere along the line. Even if it's some exposition that reveals why the character doesn't pursue relationships, the question will come up. Emotions are part of a character that feels real.

However, I do not find the reverse to be true, and that is why I don't read straight-up romance (or, for that matter, most epic fantasy). It's very easy to define those characters in two-dimensional terms. "Paranormal romance" is quite different from "urban fantasy" in this respect; the way I use the terms, the first is concerned with finding the main character a mate, while the second is about defining an interesting character in a novel variation of our world, and letting romance enter the picture naturally. Harry Dresden is a UF character who's dealt with love, but that one aspect of his life is far from the only thing that defines him.

In short, I don't read urban fantasy because I want something with romance. I read well-written urban fantasy because I want well-rounded characters, and I figure romance will enter the picture as appropriate.

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