Paranormal romance vs urban fantasy: Why are we afraid of kissing?

When I sent Eddy Webb a review copy of The Transmigration of Cora Riley, his initial pull quote labelled the book as “paranormal romance.”

I immediately bristled. I don’t see the story that way. In my mind, it’s firmly in the urban fantasy genre. Yes, there is a romantic storyline, but that’s not the whole point of the book. Not even half of the point.

So I (with great nervousness) emailed Eddy back to ask if he’d mind changing the quote to say “urban fantasy” instead. He did, without hesitation, then the following conversation ensued:

EDDY: I debated whether to even call it a paranormal romance, because while it checks the formula boxes, it did them in a way that seemed to further the story. The inevitable sex scene made sense within the plot, and reflected a genuine conflict for the characters. Cora repeatedly came across as a strong character in her own right, and I felt there is respect between the two characters. If you had dropped the romance angle, I think the story would be slightly diminished, but it would still be a strong story, which is a testament to your writing.

ELLIE: Okay, so this made me SUPER FUCKING HAPPY. I’ve been really angsting about being lumped into paranormal romance instead of urban fantasy (which is what I’m shooting for) because the relationships are not the point of the story. They’re supplemental and provide texture to characters and plot, but they’re not the guiding aspect. There’s a huge difference between a story with relationships/sex and a story ABOUT relationships/sex. Nothing wrong with the latter; it’s just not the book/series I’m writing. I am SO not a romance writer.

EDDY: That’s a weird thing, because the lines are REALLY arbitrary. For example, one could argue that certain novels of the Dresden Files are paranormal romance. When I’m bitter, the line seems to be “the gender of the writer.” But, in all honesty, I think you can make a strong case for urban fantasy. In my case, I just came off of a steampunk romance book that was explicitly romance, so that’s probably why my head was there. But like I said, the lines are really fuzzy and seem to ultimately boil down to “marketing.”

Eddy and I obviously see eye-to-eye on this topic: the division between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is incredibly blurry for what amounts to stupid reasons.

You can see where I’m about to go with this, right?

There’s a tendency – among all sorts of people – to chuck books with any sort of love story into the romance genre. A purposeful crowbar separation between “serious fantasy” and “romantic fluff.”

Setting aside how the whole male vs female author conflict plays into this, there’s a clear difference between a romance novel and a novel that has romance in it. It lies in intention, which, for a good author, is obvious in their writing – you don’t have to guess.

A romance novel’s intention is to get you hot and bothered, again and again, using the framework of setting and cast; the intention of a novel with romance in it is to tell a larger story, using love/sex as plot devices and character development. Where romance is a tool in the latter, it is the entire purpose of the former.

Now, it’s important you don’t misunderstand me here. There’s nothing wrong with reading romance novels. I know it’s somewhat popular to say there is, but I don’t believe it. You read what you dig. Those authors need your love and support the same way that any other writer does, and there are some truly spectacular things being done in the genre.

The rage-point for me is this idea that having any sort of romantic plotline in a book automatically makes it a romance novel. Disqualifying a book from a non-romance genre for including romantic and/or sexual situations is fucking ridiculous.

It tells people that those basic, common, fascinating, and important interactions between humans are dirty, bad, unacceptable, or “for women” (implying weakness and lack of worth).

It invalidates love and lust as legitimate story.

It implies that people who enjoy even the most tame romantic ties in their stories are not “serious fans.”

It’s erroneous and detrimental to writers, readers, and all genres because it says that love and sex belong in one very specific box and nowhere else.

It robs us of the richness of life.

We shouldn’t be afraid to see romance in our fantasy, our sci-fi, our mysteries, our cookbooks (okay, maybe that’s too far). Romance is part of being human, and we should be embracing it, not shunting it into a corner at the merest hint of a kiss.

Molly Weasley - What is this shit

Stop pigeonholing female characters

Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim - property of Warner Bros Studios

This exchange came across my Twitter feed:

@(Person 1): If there’s one thing I find most fascinating about Pacific Rim it’s how strongly the views diverge regarding the character of Mako Mori.

@(Person 2): What divergence is there?

@(Person 1) Re: Mako, whether she’s strong compelling character or damsel in distress.

Now, I don’t often get involved in ‘ism’ discussions because I’ve got (what I’ve been told is) a bizarre set of ideals that often gets me yelled at. I also have trouble coagulating my squishy abstract thoughts. But I do have a few feminist buttons that, when pushed, rocket me into hand-flailing and incoherent squawks of agitation.

This is one of them: The idea that women must either be strong, untouchable, borderline bitches and therefore be “good” and “compelling” OR sappy, weak-willed damsels in distress and therefore be “bad” and “damaging.”

*shoves soapbox into the center of the room*
*stomps atop it*
*starts gesticulating wildly*

Women don’t fall into easy-to-digest categories! They’re complex, nuanced individuals with many facets, thoughts, presentations, issues, values, backgrounds, and goals!


*pauses to catch breath*


Point being, this thing where we tear apart positive portrayals of women in media for any minute aspect that doesn’t exactly match the Official Feminist Platform is fucked up and more damaging than Fifty Shades of Grey.

Are there archetypes for female characters? For sure. When you’re a writer, they’re handy starting templates for creating a character from scratch. I’d fall into the ‘starving artist’ and ‘housewife’ and ‘white Midwestern girl’ categories, just as an example.

But no one is 100% true to their cliche, and when attempts are clearly made to give female characters depth and breadth outside of their starting archetypes, creators should be given, if not applause, then at least a knowing smile and nod for their efforts.

When we get all pissy about if Mako’s vulnerability in Pacific Rim‘s ending scene or her failure to sync on the first neural handshake makes her a stereotypically love-sick, incapable, and therefore weak female character, we’re willfully ignoring her loyalty, physical prowess, drive, and bravery in pursuit of something to decry and shit on so we can feel like we’re being Good Feminists.

That’s messed up.

When you look at a female character, see all of her before you judge her. Not just a single moment, characteristic, action, problem, or feeling. It’s not an on/off switch; it doesn’t have to be one archetype or the other.

A woman can be a strong, fierce warrior type and have soft emotions and moments of weakness without automatically becoming a damsel in distress or undermining the value of women everywhere.

*takes a small bow*
*shuffles off soapbox*
*backs away slowly*


An awkward and incomplete summary of my thoughts on sexism in geek culture

Counter fake geek girl meme  - who are you to say she's not?

There’s a lot of talk recently about sexism and people being phenomenal asshats to each other across a shockingly broad range of scenarios. And to my great (genuine) surprise, I’ve been asked by a number of friends, online and off, to comment on the state of womanhood in the world – specifically as it’s treated and presented in geek* culture. People who respect my opinion (for some reason) want to hear how I, a practicing nerd with boobs and a brain and everything, feel about it.

But I don’t really want to talk about it, to be honest.

These things never go well. No matter what I say, it’s practically asking for someone to tear me apart for overlooking a particular detail or being too conservative/liberal/stupid to make a cogent argument. While I don’t like describing myself as conflict-averse, I regularly get my feelings hurt by the viciousness that inevitably arises in these discussions. Which is the opposite of what should be happening.


I’m also fiercely interested in changing the conversation (about all sexism, not just in nerd culture) so it’s more inclusive, compassionate, and balanced. Yes, I used the word “balance” when talking about sexism. Because there’s more than one side.

And so, despite my fear of being flamed, trolled, letter-bombed, 4-channed, and Reddited, I’m going to share my perspective. Hopefully, you read the title before you comment.

My awkward and incomplete thoughts on sexism in nerd culture:

  • Sexism is not limited to men oppressing/hating on women. Women do it to men (and other women), too. We just don’t talk about it as much because it makes shit complicated. I’m not saying there isn’t an issue with sexism in geek culture – there is. But it’s not one-sided. And not all negative interactions are sexism; sometimes the person’s just a fuckhead.
  • There’s no such thing as a “fake” or “real” geek-person. Just like bodies and egos come in all sizes and shapes, so do nerds. Stop belittling people.
  • Impossibly-proportioned superheroes are harmful to everyone, not just women. If you think there aren’t any strong, badass, normal-looking people in comics, you’re reading the wrong titles.
  • Wear what you dig, but folks are going look at your corseted boob-glory or your David-Bowie-in-Labyrinth package if it’s on display. Have the confidence and empathy to tell the difference between a look, an ogle, and a threat.
  • Don’t assume someone’s relationship status – single, dating, married, divorced, open, complicated – is an invitation.
  • No one is asking for or consenting to anything unless they actually ask or consent. Communicate, dammit.

In the end, the most baffling thing I see being forgotten in geek-sexism conversations is that this culture arose from the connection born from shared love. We’re bonded through our delight in beautiful settings, compelling characters, and intense emotion. How did we forget this in our hurt over being objectified and overlooked – as men, women, goths, steampunks, furries, cosplayers, boffers, LARPers, Whedonites, Trekkies, and Whovians?

Love your nerd brothers and sisters. Respectfully. With their consent. Regardless of their crotch arrangement or identification. The way you’d want to be treated. The way they want to be treated.

So say we all.

1 I interchange geek, nerd, and dork. I know it’s controversial, but relax.
2 My blog, my rules. Act like a fool in the comments, and I’ll delete you.