Discussion: Fantasy v. Paranormal


Right now, I’m reading Malinda Lo’s Ash, a book that’s frequently been called the “Lesbian Cinderella.” Of course, it’s a fairy retelling, which is a growing genre in the YA world (at least it seems to me that more and more fairy tales are getting retold with more and more twists or “twists,” depending on the book), but I had a question about genre on my mind when I was reading it and already mentally preparing a review: is it “fantasy” or is it “paranormal”?

This may not seem like a difficult or interesting question, but it’s long been at least a minor one for me. When I write reviews, one of the things that I include for every book is the “genre.” I use a combination of sources for determining the genre(s) – first and foremost, I use common sense, and then I refer to Goodreads or other book review sites if I’m not quite sure how to classify a book. For most books, it’s not too difficult to determine the genre, but deciding if a book is fantasy or paranormal has long been a bit of an issue for me.

What is the difference between these two genres? According to Dictionary.com, fantasy is: imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained; while paranormal is: of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation, as psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, or other purportedly supernatural phenomena. So, not really the types of definitions that can help me decide how to categorize a book.

When I first started writing reviews and felt the need to differentiate between the two, I came up with personal definitions:

fantasy: It’s magical and unbelievable; books that fall under this category tend to involve magical and alternate worlds, fairies and other fairy book creatures, and an overall sense of otherworldliness and mystique.

paranormal: It’s unrealistic and beyond science; books that fall under this category tend to involve magical powers and creatures that still live in the real world, which gives the books a sense of otherworldly and familiar at the same time.

So, basically, if the book takes place in a completely made up or mostly made up world and involves magical creatures such as fairies (or faeries or fey or whatever spelling the book happens to use), then it’s fantasy. If the book takes place in the real world with superpowers or creatures such as vampires, werewolves, witches, etc., then it’s paranormal. The problem with these definitions is that they’re still a bit too broad. For example, what about Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series? It fits all my criteria for “fantasy,” but it also takes place in the real world, which would classify as “paranormal.” Personally, I think I classify it as fantasy, but it’s really something that’s difficult to officially define.

I guess there isn’t really a point to this post, other than the difficulty of really defining genres and the fact that, though I try to come up with my own definitions and systems, it’s really quite difficult to solve the problem completely. It’d be helpful to hear what other people do, so you’re welcome to comment about your own methods, but it’s really something that comes down to personal preference.


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