Shall we start with defining a subgenre? NA, YA, MG, adult, all of these are genres, in the sense of how you classify where to place a book, based on age-range. Within those genres, we have categories (which can also be genres themselves on their own). Such as a fantasy, a sci-fi, mystery, realistic fiction, etc. And within those? Even more categories we can call subcategories (subgenres)!
Example: subgenres of fantasy include but aren’t limited to: dark fantasy, fairytale retellings, high fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, medieval fantasy, etc. In sum: Within all genres (ex: YA) are categories, (ex: fantasy) and within those categories are subcategories (ex: dark fantasy). All of these subgenres–and more–are in NA, but there are a few trends in NA that are a bit specific to the genre!
**Note that not all are only specific to NA and any can be used in any other genre, these are just the current popular trends**
I think the biggest confusion with any of these subgenres is what constitutes a book as UF (urban fantasy) and what makes it PN/PNR (paranormal/paranormal romance). While the two can be very similar, there are specific things that need to happen in both. I believe the others are more self explanatory, so I’ll be digging deepest into UF and PNR and the differences first before touching on the other poplar subgenres of NA.
Urban fantasy: Arguably, one of the most popular genres in new adult fiction is the urban fantasy subgenre. As always, let’s define what it is we’re actually talking about: “Urban fantasy is a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of novels and stories with supernatural and magical elements set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings, as opposed to ‘traditional’ fantasy set in imaginary locations.”
Urban fantasy is an important subgenre in new adult that needs to be discussed in length. In a way, it’s a mix of multiple genres, and it also could be said to be the bulk of new adult novels, aside from contemporary (particularly in regards to KU).
Let’s start with the basics of UF. For a book to be considered an urban fantasy, there are 5 things it needs.
Let’s start with the city. This doesn’t mean just in any city. Not a small coastal Nicholas Sparks city or a medium-sized forest village or a “what-have-you-city” that’s basically a normal city not set in the country or dead wilderness. The city needs to be a metropolis.
A) the capital or chief city of a country or region. “he preferred the peaceful life of the countryside to the bustle of the metropolis” Similar: capital (city); chief town county; town county; borough administrative center.
B) a very large and densely populated industrial and commercial city. “by the late eighteenth century Edo had grown to a metropolis with a population of nearly one million” Similar: big city; conurbation; megalopolis; urban sprawl; concrete jungle.
The New Yorks, LAs, Londons, Paris’ of the book’s world building (if it’s set in a different world). The thing with UF is that it can be set in the real world where magic exists (that society either does or does not know about which will be discussed in point 2) or it can be set in a fantasy world. However, the city always need to be a hustle and bustle of your NOLAs and Tokyos. This means a high, densely-populated city with the sophistication of modern (or future) technology. And typically the “laws” of the world are introduced quickly, along with the setting of transportation and the deal with law enforcement in the world. UF is all about who is in charge (cops? angels? witches? shifters?) and the typical way a citizen would get from point A to point B (subway? trolley? bus? bullet train?).
Next up, the magic. A fantasy (urban or not) needs some type of fantastical element. This extends from the magic of witches/warlock, vampires, werewolves, faeries, shapeshifter gargoyles, what have you. There needs to be some type of magic and supernatural element involved. Basically any type of preternatural element is considered okay for urban fantasy, but to achieve the “sweet spot” in a good urban fantasy, the main magic stems from some type of spell or ritual (most times gone wrong) by either your main character, or another character, which typically is the inciting incident of the novel. It should be noted that UF can take place in the real world where supernaturals/magic is “hidden” from society (humans) or in an AU (alternate universe) where the world is Earth, but magic is out in the open for whatever reason. Same two types of world rules apply for a made up fantasy world.
What the plot is really about: the mystery. The central, standard plot of an urban fantasy is a mystery. Some type of conundrum has occurred that usually spurs a misunderstanding that the main character gets involved in. Typically, the MC has been falsely accused or set up to take the fall for the mystery and then must set out for the novel to prove their innocence. This leads to major players consisting of law enforcement agents, cops, PI’s… UF fans love a good whodunit mystery in their fantasy.
No one can tell you how to write your book–but I’m going to tell you that the general and 4th element to a good urban fantasy is POV told from 1st person. What does this mean? Simply the story is in the head of the main character. It’s “I” and “me” instead of “he” or “she” or “they” when referring to the MC. This is typically because 1st person POV leads to a stronger voice for many writers, and a UF needs a strong voice. We also see the ideals, laws, and lens of the society/story told though what the main character perceives and knows to be truth.
Last, but in no way least, the s i z z l e. I’ve gone and told you that NA is not erotica. Erotica is its own genre in and of itself. What the majority of NA does have? Some 🔥 romance. UF is no different. To have a good (in the sense of a traditional) UF, there’s got to be some sizzle between characters. I can tell you that this generally happens with someone the MC is forced to be paired up with (usually someone in law enforcement that is either helping prove their innocence or trying to prove the MC did, in fact, do the crime) where they fall into some serious lust along the way. This doesn’t mean a few sideways glances, a “manly-man” handing a poor woman his coat because she’s cold, or chaste kisses that make our MC bug-eyed and freeze. I’m talking about some witty banter cloaked in innuendoes, some intense, lusty stares as their eyes bore into the MC (or vice versa) where the characters know they’re undressing the other with their eyes. A good UF has some seriously hot and heavy petting, making out, and sex in the most inappropriate of places, like a bar, an alley, or when they’re on the run from the real antagonist of the book. Because who doesn’t love a romp in the hay when they’re being chased by a psycho killer? It certainly always works out well in horror movies.
Paranormal: So what sets paranormal & paranormal romance (PN/PNR) apart from urban fantasy (UF)? Just the way there are tropes within plot (enemies to lovers/best friends to lovers/brother’s best friend), there are popular tropes within these specific genres. UF, as we just saw, has 5 typical elements & tropes that are what make a book urban fantasy. So let’s start with how PN/PNR are different.
Typical plot tropes in PN/PNR:
A quick touch on each. The love story in a PNR is the central theme in the book. The heart of the book is about the love story. The external and internal conflicts (plot vs character) are centered around the feelings and happen because of the MC(s)’s love. They’re also almost evenly distributed. (This means the antagonists are causing plot problems because of one or both of the MCs and their attraction/feelings, as well as the internal conflict coming from the MCs mental/emotional torment because of those same attraction/feelings.)
HEA (happily ever after) and HFN (happy for now) is a general theme to a PN/PNR’s end! There needs to be a bright, shiny light at the end of all that struggle that is either within reach for the characters–or bathing them in a golden glow by the end.
Self-explanatory, but a PN/PRN needs paranormal creatures. This can be as many or as few as you want, but there needs to be at least one humanoid species that isn’t a human!
Also obvious: action scenes which contain some good fights and typically end in someone’s death (at least once in the novel, but usually many times) should be present in a PN/PNR.
So the romance. Let’s get a few things straight. While PNR tend to get steamy 💨 and some say border on erotica, this does not encompass the entire genre. Common plot tropes in PNR are: forbidden love, enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, soulmates, second chance (reincarnation). They also typically feature alpha men who are fated mates to (usually human) women who tend to be strong in their own regard, even if they aren’t physically a match. And while there do tend to be a lot of books with morally grey alpha behavior (throwing around dominance, rough in bed, trying to force some type of CONSENSUAL sexual submission) this does not mean rape to lovers or rape of any kind is tolerated or the norm for this genre. Actually, any type of sexual assault infuriates the (dominant) men of most PN/PRN novels. So, while steamy sex scenes are not only appreciated, but expected, there’s still a line drawn in the sand about how far is too far in a typical PNR book.
Lastly, POV(s)! The fun thing about PN/PNR is that there are typically 2 POVs, one from the female MC of the novel and one from the male MC (whom are destined by some fate to be together) told from 1st person POV, though sometimes limited (or “close”) 3rd is used. PN/PNRs also tend to be series–with a new set of MCs for each book. So if book 1 focuses on the alpha’s love life, you can bet book 2 is most likely the beta’s (or someone similar). It’s also usually hinted at by the end of the novel whose book will be next. The MCs can absolutely be the same sex in an LQBTQA+ PN/PNR.
So the main differences? PN/PNR can be told in any setting. City, environment, size, etc. does not matter. The supernatural element in PN/PNR usually comes from many preternatural creates and focuses less on magic and more on the actual races of different creatures. There doesn’t have to be a mystery in PNR, and if there is, it certainly comes second to the romance, unlike UF. While they both should have some kickin’ romance, PNR does tend to be a bit wilder, graphic, and “adult.” Another thing is UF’s usually are series (but don’t have to be) with the same MC for the entire series arc, where sometimes the author will make spin-off series featuring another character from the books (again as a series with that one MC for the protagonist in all books). Whereas PN/PNR are a standalone series, where books can be read out of order, are plot resolved by the end, and go through most of the main and side characters stories by the series end.
With those out of the way, we’re going to quickly address the other popular subgenres of NA. If you were just here for the differences of UF and PN/PNR… Well, I’d still want to read on, but that ship has now passed for this post.
Shifter romance: You might be wondering how this differs from PNR, since many of PN/PNR center around or have shifters in them. It’s a slight difference, one you may have to pay close attention to. Firstly, most shifter romances only have shifters as the supernatural creatures. Typically they center around wolf shifters, though other popular animals include bears, cougars, jaguars–basically any Felidae or Canidae that can eat your face off. The popular plot trope in this one is “fated mates” typically where an alpha male is mated to a human female who appears too weak. Though, it should be noted that almost as popular is an alpha male destined to an alpha female, whom, for whatever, reason has decided to never love/mate again. Witches, zombies, necromancers, etc. generally don’t pop up. Though sometimes vampires will make appearances in some (touching on that age-old trope of vampires vs. werewolves or “shapeshifters”). This doesn’t mean they can’t have them, right, these are the general specifics of the subgenres. For informational purposes of this post, shifter novels typically only feature other like-wise shifters as far as supernatural creatures ago.
Billionaire romance: Honestly, if you can’t figure this one out…
Plot twist: I don’t.
Right, so, billionaire romance. You’ve got a guy. He’s got money. You’ve got a girl. She typically doesn’t. It’s your basic Cinderella, man comes to rescue damsel cloaked in soot and grease from working tirelessly (usually at his own company). This book also likes the typical high school trope makeover scenes, where the geeky coder girl who wears glasses brushes her hair for what must be the first time in 10 years and puts in a pair of contacts, and the MC male is like, “Wow, who’s that hottie, and why haven’t I banged her yet?” And his friend so helpfully chimes in, “Bro, that’s (MC female)!” And they both ogle her, because, wow! She’s beautiful with makeup. Who’d have thought she’d look so different with actual paint on her face. Amazing. (Clearly I can’t get enough of this subgenre.) There are definitely authors who make it different and fun–check out Pippa Grant’s America’s Geekheart to see what I’m talking about–but the majority tend to stick in a very damsel-in-distress vibe that I find is played out most of the time. What I love about Pippa’s rom-coms (and her in general when it comes to a self-publisher who’s doing it right) are that her heroines embody Meg from Hercules. And yet are still all vastly different from one another.
Reverse harem: For your entertainment, and participation trophy for reaching this far in this post, I’ve saved the fucking weirdest, most erotic, and downright strange (for mainstream Western culture & societal rules) for last. Also, as an anthropology BA, I love pointing out certain ethnocentric themes and unaccepted cultural viewpoints of other countries that we (Wester societies) denounce because they’re different. RIGHT. Moving on.
What’s a reverse harem, you ask? Well, a harem, historically speaking, was a gaggle of women who were available to a male in power (a king, a lord, an emperor, etc.) who serviced him. And no, I don’t mean they changed his oil and filled his wiper fluid. I mean, we could argue his oil was sperm and the wiper fluid was his need fill up on grapes, but I digress. These women existed to cater to his every sexual desire. They weren’t jealous, they shared him, many times participating in a threesome, foursome, how-ever-many-some he wanted. So if we reverse that…
Ding, ding, ding! A reverse harem is a book that centers around a female MC who ends up romantically with several men, all of whom are there to pleasure her with whatever/whenever she needs. They all get along, share her, share space with each other, and are one big, happy family! These are really popular with 2 different types of setting. One: a fantasy in which the MC is some powerful goddess divine, succubus, queen of whatever, you get my drift. Or, it’s set in the real world, where some poor sap of a woman is being attacked and a team of Navy SEALs (or any Special Ops group) protect her whilst sexing her up one-by-one until they all fall in love with her.
For anyone wondering about the validity of this subgenre and its popularity, not only has it grown and is continuing to grow (in KU), but it started as a thing in traditional publishing, (though more than often not focusing on a ménage a trois rather than 4+ men and one woman) and took off in self-publishing since its inception, starting only in 2016!
For the scoop on how to capture (or read about) a Harry, Dick, and Tom, check out this article!
In retrospect, this could have been two articles, one comparing UF and PN/PNR and then one discussing the other popular subgenres of NA, but congrats! You made it to the end and now can confidently talk about that reverse harem you want to write, and floor your writer friends when you explain that their UF is actually a PNR! Go forth and prosper. And as always, RESEARCH! 🥳🌻