[GUEST POST] Kim Harrison Says ‘Excuse Me, You Got Your Romance In My Urban Fantasy’


Kim Harrison, dark urban fantasy author of the New York Times bestselling series The Hollows, was born and raised in the upper Midwest. After gaining her bachelors in the sciences, she moved to South Carolina, where she remained until recently moving back to Michigan because she missed the snow. She is a member of both the Romance Writers of America and The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. When not at her desk, she’s most likely to be found landscaping her new/old Victorian home, or scouring antique shops to fill it.

Excuse me, your romance is in my urban fantasy

One of the best things about being a writer in the age of the Internet is the easy accessibility between authors and readers. Some might argue that it’s one of the worst, but over the last decade, I’ve found that it’s the readers who often ask the hard questions, not about the storylines, but wider concerns of genre trends and what they’re seeing on the shelves, and when a longtime poster lamented to me that he was seeing the shine fading from the urban fantasy genre, that the kick-ass protagonists were melting into damsels more worried about getting their man than the big-bad-ugly, I listened.


I heard what he was saying. I am seeing it myself. The industry is seeing it. The industry had a hand in causing it to a certain extent as many houses grabbed anything they could find with a vampire and sexy protagonist, thinking that was all urban fantasy was. Manuscripts that would otherwise be passed over were picked up and promoted. Books that would be stellar romances on their own were lessened by well-meaning editors trying to make them something they were not by asking their author to “stick a vampire in it! They’re hot right now!” Please don’t think that by saying that that I’m dissing romance, because I have a great respect for romance writers and readers. Romance has enriched many urban fantasy story lines including mine, right along with the genres of mystery, thriller, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Unlike many genres, urban fantasy thrives on the mix, the unifying factor seeming to be the characters themselves, rather than a writing style or convention. But the most successful urban fantasies are still those written by people who have always loved vampires, witches, and little beasties that bite–not by those who write it because it’s hot.

I’m all for trying to write for the market. It stretches our creativity and we often find techniques or voices that we otherwise wouldn’t, but if the writer doesn’t understand the paranormal, hasn’t grown up loving it for its strengths and weakness, been exposed to the greats before them who have loved it as much as they do . . . well . . . maybe what I’m saying is that I love finding magic within the everyday, that I defend its believability with a fierce determination, strive to keep it from falling into the inane and stupid where the suspension of disbelief breaks. I know where that line is. The greats before me drew it very clearly in the sand. Just as much as romance should not be written by those who don’t believe in the happy ending to the depths of their soul, urban fantasy should be written by those who respect the genre to the bottom of theirs.

Has urban fantasy reached its peak? I doubt that it’s going to go away anytime soon. Urban fantasy has been around forever. For the time it was written in, Dracula could be classified as an urban fantasy. Hollywood is eating it up and throwing it on the screen in blockbuster movies. However, the very aspects that give it strength-the mixing of many genres-may now be threatening to eat away at it. It’s up to the authors and publishing houses to understand that having a vampire in the storyline does not make it urban fantasy. Vampire can be another word for the abused and their abusers. Witches are the innovative scientists, both good and bad. Werewolves are the baser shadows that live in all of us. Paranormal characters are at their best, reflections of human nature, and they deserve the respectful treatment that comes with that.

24 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Kim Harrison Says ‘Excuse Me, You Got Your Romance In My Urban Fantasy’”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment here! At the same time, I believe that discerning readers should be able to decide for themselves where the line should be drawn between ‘paranormal romance’ and ‘urban fantasy’. It is true that many UF’s nowadays have an overarching relationship with a happy ending but those normally end up on the paranormal romance shelf for me if there is no promise of action or a kick ass heroine. Up to date, I dare say that your Rachel Morgan series is one of the top 5 UF series on my shelf :)

  2. I agree whole-heartedly. My urban fantasy has a witch as a protagonist, some elements of romance, and no vampires at all. (Although there are ghouls–icky folk, I assure you.)

    I think the keys to good writing, no matter what the genre, are quality and passion. If the author’s passion for his or her genre and characters is real, it shows.

     

  3. Halleluhah to that Kim. As an insatiable reader, especially urban fantasy, I am finding it harder and harder to find paranormal novels/series without large swathes of hard core erotica in the middle of it. I’m no prude and I do like my porn, but not in the middle of a yarn about vampires et al.

     

    Kim’s Rachael Morgan/The Hollows series is a perfect example of what an urban fantasy novel should be. The romance/love interest is there, but kept on the back-burner as a raft for some of the characterisation to float on. It’s not there to attract the bodice-ripper brigade.

     

    I should point out that I’m a 50+, straight guy, and although I do like some of the paranormal chick lit out there I am not the sort of demographic that appreciates out of place romance.

     

    Rant over :)

  4. While most Urban Fantasy stories can benefit from having some(to varying degrees) romance in them, it should never be the end all, be all, of the book. I’ve seen things passed off as Urban Fantasy that were little more than soft core(meaning no pictures) porn with Supernatural creatures in it. That sucks! Keep the Generes Separate!

  5. I have been reading Kim Harrison’s Hollow’s series forever. I absolutely love the very little romance found in the storyline. I do not like the conventional love-sap endings. I hope the urban fantasy genre gets back to “urban fantasy” not “vampire fantasy.” I hope the kick-ass protagonist kicks more ass and gets the big-bad-ugly. Leave the romance in the romance genre…Or create a new genre for vampire/supernatural romance fantasy…just an idea.

    Thanks to Kim for addressing the issue:)

  6. Here, here! Kim’s hit the nail on the head, once again.

    I have to say, I love urban fantasy novels, but I also love paranormal romance. They are, however, very much not the same thing.

    I love, love, love Rachel Morgan and how she and friends go after the big-bad-ugly. I like the little romance there is, because it feels true for me. No one is only their job, but when you chase big-bad-uglies, romance isn’t your first priority, and thats just how it is for Rachel. Kim reads true to me, and that I think is the thing.

    I love vamps, witches and weres, I always have, since I was a kid, so romance novels that are set in a world were they exist thrill me. But it really drives me crazy when a book mascarades as an adventure, as urban fantasy, then turns into page after page of erotica, with some lame attempt to catch the big-bad pulled in at the end.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: regardless of genre, a good story is a good story is a good story.

  7. I’m a huge fan of Urban Fantasy, and your books play a major roll in my reading enjoyment. I don’t care what genre you read, there is always some sort of either love interest or flirting going on in the pages of the book.  Whether or not they are part of the storyline or just placed there as an aside.  It just adds a touch of realism to the adventure. 

  8. As Neil Gaiman said once in an interview: “ I like my creatures of the night a little nocturnal“.

  9. One of the things that drew me to write urban fantasy is the incredible flexibility of the genre. As authors, we can pull from almost every other genre for plot ideas. It’s an incredibly freeing and fun genre to write in. The flexibility also means you’ll find a full spectrum of books within the genre. Some rely a little more heavily on mystery, others on fantasy, and, yes, others will contain more romance. 

    The problem I have with claiming that romance is diluting UF is that you’d not see those claim if, say, books started containing what some feel is too much mystery or thriller elements, for example. For some reason, romance makes people edgy. Why? Is it beause we’re afraid our boks will be labeled “for girls only.” It’s already happening. I have been asked numerous times by men whether there’s anything for them in my books based soley, I assume, on the fact that I am female and my books have a female on the cover. Keep in mind, my books contain four times as many fight scenes as sex scenes. 

    While I agree with Kim that the market has been saturated with some books that might be subpar, this is hardly unique in UF. When any genre gets big publishing rushes to fill demand, often flooding the market with one-offs and hackneyed stories. But I don’t personaly believe it’s fair to say that PNR writers are not “real paranormal lovers.” They simply focus on different types of paranormal stories. 

    Nicole Peeler said recently that as humans we simply aren’t comfortable with ambiguity. Yet, UF by it’s nature is hard to pin down. Ask five people what UF is and you’ll get five different, very passionate answers. I, for one, appreciate that the genre is robust enough to support all kinds of stories. 

     

  10. Thanks Jaye for the link. I think the blog post title is misleading, it should read, “Excuse Me, You’ve Got Too Many Copy-Cats in My Urban Fantasy.” I agree also with the idea that it’s okay to allow other genres to steal some UF elements but woah, when it’s romance, let’s get our panties in a wad and be sure to call it erotica. seriously? SERIOUSLY?

    [pause for coffee refill ]

    UF can be a fun read or terribly incredibly boring. Same as any other genre. I know, I read them all. And enjoy all the ones that are truly original or from a great story teller. Books from authors who are chasing the market are generally not so good reads. It doesn’t matter if the market is leaning to a vampire in very book (and boy have there been some poor pathetic attempts at putting a vampire in very unusual situations) or a mystery to solve (uh, honey, you actually have to develop a feeling of mystery and suspense for more than three pages) or some scientific mojo (these days to be honest, I skip what feels like the physics or military hardware lessons).

    So, I say, we need a good Amish Romance Vampire Horror story. What say you?

     

  11. In the past, I have been fortunate enough to meet some of my favorite authors at signings. One of the things I mentioned to them was the over use of ‘romance’ in a lot of the books I had read. What I u8sually end up doing is skipping whole sections of a book so I wont get bogged down in the sex scrnes. I don’t like the blow by blow description.

     

    Kim has been my favorite author for about 4 years. She loves her work and it shows in everything she writes. She also cares about her readers and as this article shows, she even listens to us. Just how cool is that?

     

    V^^^^V

  12. I agree wholeheartedly, and am so glad that you’re calling out the publishers and editors who don’t understand what makes this genre successful in the first place.

    Not to be a downer, but there are some authors tweeting out there (I won’t name names) who misunderstood the point of your post and are taking offense.  I’m not saying you should pay any mind to the naysayers, but if you want to, maybe you should write another post?

    Then again, if they can’t understand the first time, I’m sure they never will.

    But I do love your books.  Thank you!

  13. I’m one of the long time visitors to Kim’s blog and I hate the thought that other authors are taking this interview as an attack. That just isn’t the case. Kim has always encouraged anyone who want to write to write about what they feel passionate about and not worry about the classification of their work. I don’t see this as a put down at all, just an opinion about current trends in the industry, much like the discussions concerning ebooks versus print. I am fairly new to the UF genre and I “grew up” loving romance novels, mysteries, and horror. What I like about UF is the way a talented author can blend them all into one novel. I must admit, I’m a romantic at heart and I want that “happily ever after” for the characters I grow to love, but I don’t think that needs to be the main focus of a UF series. The heroine/hero needs to vanquish the baddies first, then walk off into the sunset.

  14. I’m a reader of both Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy (as well as a variety of other genres.)  I’d like to say that there is a secret recipe to how much romance is appropriate in any genre, but there really isn’t.  Relationships are part of the human experience and can find a place anywhere IF in keeping with the direction of the book .  When it comes to any novel, the level of romance that will feel right to the reader depends entirely on how the author has developed the characters and plotline up to that point.

    As much as I like a well written romance, I really don’t want to read something that feels like a “token” romance thrown in to spice up a novel.   It will feel fake and I’ll yadda-yadda through it (to borrow a quote from Sienfeld.)  I also don’t want to read something that seems completely far fetched or unrealistic – like one average character being the target for true love from every new character introduced in the series/book.   If a romance is going to be part of a book, it has to feel real.  We readers want to believe in it and live it with the characters.  If it can’t be written that way, then it shouldn’t be there at all.

    Bottom line… UF can be great with or without romance.  What is important is that it is done right if it is going to be there. 

     

     

     

  15. I love the Urban Fantasy genre but now when I go into N&N and I look at the covers everything looks the same. When I find something that looks interesting I read the back and have to utter the words… ‘read that.’ There are so many great stories but the entire market is saturated with UF and PR stories to the point that they are all blurring together and some just have terrible premises altogether. It’s possible to be original still, offering some unique perspective but to the other gazillion that aren’t it’s a flood and not worth fighting to find the good ones anymore.

  16. Well done Mrs. Harrison, :D Well done. 

    As a friend of that long time poster on your blog, I saw the developement of the question mentioned. And, the theory behind what we used to voice it. I agree very strongly with this reader, that the world (and perhaps not just Urban Fantasy) has become about the heroine’s ‘getting their man’. It’s a wrung out story line, one of the reason I’m very picky about what I read these days (prefering to stick to books written before 1995 because they had it RIGHT back then). I find sometimes that they now use kick ass female heroines, but still tie them to the need to have the sexy man. It’s such a cliche in a way. Degrading perhaps sometimes. Why won’t a book be any less good if the girl ends up having a drink with her best girl friend instead of the bad boy that bites (they’re all cut from the same mould anyway). 

    This was a briliant post, thank you for doing it. As you listened to us, we just heard you. :) 

    Alyss

  17. I hate when I pick up what sounds like a great UF novel and find its just a poorly written romance novel with a token vampire thrown in just to make it fit the genre.

    Its upsetting to pick up a great UF novel and have an awesome story derailed by a badly put together and obviously thrown in after the fact, romantic subplot.

    Sadly there is a trend out there for anything that smacks of vampires/werewolves/witches/insert random supernatural being here that make it HOT.

    So publishers are hungry for this stuff and they are blind enough to think that just cause you stick a vampire or other supernatural element in the book does not make it UF. Nor does sticking a romantic element in make it a romance novel.

    There are a lot of kick ass Paranormal Romance authors out there who give a well thought out plot, well developed characters and steamy awesome romance.

    I hate books that throw sex scenes in just for the sake of sex. How about a little purpose to the sex or a little plot to go along with the super hot men and super orgasmic heroine. How about we go more than 3 pages without the heroine needing to have group sex again because of the way the sun shone through a stained glass window.

    But mostly I dislike the mob mentality that the internet has sparked.

    The guilty who feel that they are being called out for pushing out crap just to cash in on the hot trend are starting to come out and make noise about being trashed and calling people insecure and other names.

    Of course if they knew they had solid work that has been and will be the same regardless of the current trend, they wouldn’t be upset. They would understand where this post came from and what it was about. Instead they start with the attacks while claiming they are the ones being trashed and attacked.

    But worse still are the ones who come along and take a quick glance to see what the fuss is about and just leap in to pick up a pitchfork and torch and join the crowd rather than thinking for themselves. The authors who are using their thinly veiled tweets to call out this post and the author and accuse her of being insecure and a smug asshole only fan the flames. Of course if they weren’t guilty of the crime they wouldn’t be offended that someone was calling them out for publishing drivel and bringing down the good UF and PR authors out there.

    I think people should get off their high horses and really read what was being said, and instead of jumping in with the rest of the torch wielding mob think for themselves and figure out if they’re upset because they are themselves guilty, or are they upset because they’ve been told they should be upset. Are they upset because they read the post or are they upset because they were told what the post says and want to trash Kim for speaking her mind?

    Or is this just another case of people wanting to spark controversy where there really isn’t any?

  18. I know the genre has changed and I’ve read an enjoyed some of the modern urban fantasy with vampires and werewolves but the urban fantasy I love is Charles de Lint, Mercedes Lackey, Emma Bull, Tom Deitz, etc.  I like my elves-riding-motorcycle fiction.

    I don’t mind the the romance so much in urban fantasy but I draw the line at vampire family softball games.

  19. I agree with Harrison’s argument. I do believe that genres are essentially marketing tools, so in that sense it is logical for some editors to suggest writers add vampires or other supernatural creatures to increase the book’s market reach. That only works when the book is properly classified. Some of the books should be listed as paranormal romance, not urban fantasy. The main difference I distinguish between those two sub-genres is how heavy the romance/erotica factor in the book is. In almost any book, regardless of genre, there is some element of romance. We all want someone to love and to love us. It’s part of human nature.

    Here’s some shameless promotion. I have an urban fantasy book out title Detecting Magic with Dick Hunter: The Mort des Hommes Files. There are no vampires. I created my own mythos of magic creatures. You can find it on Amazon.com here.

  20. I am a huge fan of both Urban Fantasy & Paranormal Romance, but I agree, they are completely different genres. Urban Fantasy can exclude romance and sex altogether, include sex without the romance, include romance with a tragic ending, or include a romance with a traditional happy ending, but in none of these cases should romance or sex  be a primary motivator or plotline – it should remain more of an aspect of the overall characterization, or a catalyst to move the action along.

    Paranormal Romance is where a traditional happy ending is expected and the romantic relationship must include an emotional connection rather than just sex. In addition, it the PR genre is where the romantic relationship is a primary driver of the plotline and motivation for the characters.

    Both genres have their place, but they should most certainly not be confused with each other.

  21. I like romance…and sex. I do, I do. And I like reading about it as well. It was always a part of UrbanFantasy’s appeal: An exciting, paranormal adventure with a well-rounded emotional/romantic story arc. But even though most of the writers – and main characters for that matter – were women, I always felt that there was an effort to make the main heroine ‘relateable’ to everyone(Non-Romance readers, Romance readers, men, women, straight, gay, minorities, foreign readers). Story was King. And the characters were more unisex than traditional female heroines: The main heroine wasn’t defined as special  because of the men they attracted, but rather became special because of their selfless, brave deeds and heroic exploits; they didn’t just acquire men with characteristics they admire(courage, bravery, confidence, leadership abilities), they actually became what they admired; the romances weren’t wholly transformative and redemptive – the heroine didn’t need a man to “complete” her, but rather to “enrich” her life; women weren’t overly emotional, sentimental, unreasonable, requiring a “reasoned” calm man to lead and teach her, to save her–she wasn’t a damsel in distress…But that’s all changing. There’s a ‘bait-and-switch’ happening: my tough, independent ‘kick-ass’ characters are being replaced with women overly concerned with what men think of them. What happened? It’s not just new writers either–it’s happening in most of the mature series as well. Understand: I don’t want to see romance and sex eliminated from UrbanFantasy…I just don’t want it to diminish these unique, strong characters or take away from the exciting, challenging storylines. It would be a shame if UF lost it’s unique marketing positioning and varied readership and just became another sub-category of Romance. 8-)

  22. I remember asking a similar question several years ago over on the drama box. You including pacing among some of the other differences.

    There is a lot of crossover. Heck, there is a series of monumental proportion that doesn’t seem to fit any genre other than, I want to read more, and it just turned 20 years old.

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of dreck. Those are the ones where it’s very obvious that the story was a standard romance, which may or may not have been good, but the addition of a vamp made it…

    Well, not to my taste and it offends me as a reader to be tricked into reading them. 

     

    Give me any well-crafted paranormal story and I’m as happy as a clam. Just keep my kick ass women kick ass and not kiss ass. Not reader is going to be happy, but when the MC goes from strong and independent to having a kid and turning into a Stepford wife, that isn’t exactly what I expected :)

    Wonderful post! As time goes on, it’s going to be interesting what happens. As long as I can respect the female character, it’s all good.

  23. My title for this post would be: “Please label your sub-genres correctly”.  Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance (like many other sub-genres) do intersect.  It’s fine to have romance in either of these sub-genres, but with a Paranormal Romance with romance is the main event.  It’s an entirely different dynamic and there’d be a lot of happier readers if it was clear from the cover/genre categories just where a book is going.

  24. Praise Jesus… 3 Times!!!  A lady at work used to always say that and I 2nd the, uhmm… 3 Times.  :o) I’ve been so sick of seeing really good quality stories ruined by, what I hope, was an editors interference, not the authors belief in the stupidity of their readers.  Some great authors are really getting stale and relying on the romance, or sex, part of the book over the actual story aspect.  I didn’t spend the money to read “Mrs. Larry Flint” novels.  I remember a few years back I was reading a story set in an alternate Victorian England.  It starts out setting up this 30+ something single STRONG woman, and why she was strong.  Then she finds a guy on her roof, that even in her mind she thinks could be a criminal or even killer (he has that look).  So what is the first thing this strong independant woman does when she carries him downstairs (physically strong as well)?  Starts licking his fingers……… :oO  After throwing the book across the room, I did finally pick it up and read it.  But to this day, it still yacks me off.  And I’m a guy!  Come on ladies, they apparently think they’re writing all this sex for you.  I got my fill as a teenager with all the Gor books.  lol  I say enough of the Laurell K’ng of our urban fantasy!  :o)  Oh, to those that didn’t understand the author clearly.  Obvisouly there is going to be intersection.  A good romance can make the difference in a good story and turn it into a GREAT story.  Doesn’t a warrior fight harder for his lady-love?  Or the telling of a story of love and how it was taken inflame the minds of those who hear it and have them seek redress?  I believe what we are talking about is a cookie-cutter mentality that says a story HAS to have “this” in it.  I’d love to just pick up a good story a few time WITHOUT a love interest in it at all.  And please, dear god, save me from the books that write at least a third of the book as sex scenes.  One reason I had to stop reading Anita Blake books (don’t even get me started on the Faerie princess stuff).  I haven’t read one in years.  I did look at a description of one at the library website.  It said she went to another state to save someone and went from one orgy to another, or something like it.  It’s pretty bad when even the library description can’t put a good spin on things. 

     

    But something else along this line is the exact reverse of what we are discussing.  Books that sound and are described by their publisher as sounding what we are talking about.  I maybe go ahead and read it because I don’t have anything else… And it turns out to be a kick-ass story without any real romance or sex in it at all!  But I guess the publisher thought they needed it in order to sell.  I just ran into one of those lately, wish I could remember the name.

     

    I probably should keep quiet, but has anyone read the latest Black Dagger Brotherhood book?  Was it as big of disappointment to you as to me?  They just keep getting worse and worse.  If I have to read the word “shitkicker” one more time…. I get it!  I was in the military, around special ops.  Worked with security outside the military, etc.  Never ONCE did anyone ever refer to their shitkickers as actually shitkickers.  Yes, I know it’s out there… Somewhere.  But the writing seems to be regressing into what she thinks a 13 year old boy would say (actually, it’s been that way for several books, I’m just getting more annoyed with it), not a several hundred year old vampire that grew up in a completey different era.  And what the heck is it with female writers and oral sex?  Holy crap!  Honestly, we really don’t fantasize about it THAT much, at least not after our early 20’s.  Anyway, this latest book is a prime example of part of what we are discussing.  Too much sex and the plot was hollow.  Much of the story arc from the other books was not even addressed, simply because I assume there was not enough room left after chapters of nothing but sex to write it.  She didn’t even address the Lessening society and everything that was left hanging in the other book.  Instead, she introduce an yet entire new story thread (as if she doesn’t have enough going already), and fill it in with yet another Brother finding his “true love”.  Yack! :oP “Ya fill me?”  God, please have these pasty white guys stop sounding like teenage wannabe rappers!  It’s just sad.  Okay, I apologize… Off topic.  Well, sort of.  My rant was, but it is still based upon the discussion at hand.  So maybe I get a pass?  :o)

     

    One thing I am a bit curious about and perhaps could be taken up by others.  Is why are there so few men characters anymore?  I know, I know… Downtroden, making up for past centuries.  Got it, really, I do.  I love all the female characters.  And it really doesn’t matter that much to me, just mainly curious.  Other than Jim Butcher, who is really doing good urban stories with a lead male character?  Even most of the men authors write a female as their lead.  Again, I’m guessing it’s what they’ve been told to do.  Yes, I know, most of the vampires and werewolves are men.  But then that just plays into the whole stereotype again of the guy whisking away the woman to a better life.

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