I was asked that question the other day when I told somebody that I write paranormal romance. At first, I had to stare at them. I thought it was pretty common terminology, these days. And then I had to take a second to think; how do you define paranormal romance?
Finally, I settled on:
The plot of a paranormal romance story surrounds the interactions of two individuals as they fall in love. One or both of these individuals can be superhuman, or there must be some sort of supernatural element bringing them together. Stories involving vampires, werewolves, and witches are not uncommon.
No, that does not mean Twilight. Unless, of course, you are writing young adult paranormal romance, but I shudder to think that anyone would write something like Twilight.
Although vampires sometimes enter the realms of my imagination, I strive to be original. I hate racism, which is why my characters might occasionally have BLUE skin, instead of "white" or "black". But when did this become about me? I thought this post was supposed to be about the craft of writing, as seen through my eyes. Pish posh, who wants to hear about my daily routine? Let's be realistic - nobody. But writing, that's a whole 'nother story.
So moving back to the topic at hand, what is paranormal romance? It can involve gods or mythology, as seen in Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series. It can involve mythical creatures, as seen in Christine Warren's Other series or Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. It can draw upon classic myths as the basis for the laws of the world, as in Lynn Viehl's Darkyn series or Mary Janice Davidson's Undead series; or it can stem entirely from the author's own interpretation of how such beings are created, such as in Lynsay Sands' Argeneau series. Basically, a paranormal romance combines the idea of the supernatural with the wonders of the modern world. There are some paranormal romances which do take place in the past, but these are far and few between these days. The hot topic is sexy mythological creatures in a modern setting.
Paranormal romance, I might add, is not to be confused with fantasy romance. Fantasy romance is a growing offshoot of paranormal romance, but it is not the same. While you might see elves or dragons in a paranormal romance, more often their home resides in the make-believe realms associated with fantasy romance. They are not often mixed with the modern world, although there are exceptions—the previously mentioned Kresley Cole, for one, successfully incorporated elves into her Immortals After Dark series, though they have yet (to my knowledge) to have a starring role.
Now that I've explained the paranormal part of this equation, let us not forget the romance part which goes along with it. Any narrow-minded men would have rolled their eyes and navigated away from this page long before this part, so let me share with you the secret to the formula of making a great paranormal romance novel. It all comes down to two words:
That's right, the love scenes are pivotal. Let's not fool ourselves, girls. When I pick up a paranormal romance novel, I want to be assured to be sucked into the pages to find: a) a world containing sexy mythological creatures, b) a happy ending, and c) a hot, irresistible relationship that blossoms between the hero and the heroine. Sex, for me, is a must. If an author has that chemistry with her characters and then skims over the love scene? That's when I put the book down.
But of course, every sex scene must have a purpose in the story, a means of furthering the relationship or showing something important about the couple in the spotlight. If not, the story becomes forced, hollow, and all-around bad writing. It becomes the "pornography" which paranormal romance (or romance/erotica of any subgenre) is not. Stacia Kane explains this amazingly well in her How to Be a Sex-Writing-Strumpet blog entries.
When in doubt, the best option is always to have a good critique partner look it over for you. I know mine prove to be invaluable.