How to tell if your book belongs in the Paranormal or Fantasy or supernatural genre

As a writer of all three genres, I often get to deal with the debates over which genre I’m looking at. Is it paranormal or fantasy? What exactly is supernatural? Both? Where do we draw the line?

Though opinions are divided, it is much easier to tell them apart when you use what I call the sliding scale of believability.

Fantasy indicates elements that are purely made up.

Supernatural are the unreal traits of real beings. This includes stories of superheroes but also a wide array of fantastic talents and abilities. Supernatural elements are on a very blurry line between fantasy and paranormal.

Paranormal are elements that can’t be proven but some people believe are true. Let’s take ghosts for example. Most cultures around the world have a belief system that includes spirits. If you try to argue that these beliefs are fantasy, you’re offending people’s religions. And let’s not discount the experiences of those who say they’ve encountered the psychic phenomena. If you call it fantasy, you’re calling them all liars.

let’s look at some examples

If your characters are people that can shoot fireballs out of their hands, they’re supernatural (real beings, made up abilities).

If your characters are a made-up race, like the Khajiit (cat-people), they’re fantasy (they don’t exist).

I’d consider vampires, werewolves and shifters to be supernatural even though most stick them under paranormal umbrella. Does anyone actually believe they’re real?

But demons and angels would be paranormal because people do believe that they exist.

The distinction gets trickier when you’re dealing with creatures of myth because some elements that nowadays are considered fantasy, were believed in long ago – for example, fairies. Back then when people truly believed in fairies, they were paranormal beings, but now, there is quite a lot of consensus to stick fairies in fantasy.

Long story short, the distinction between the genres falls on a sliding scale of believability. The way I’d classify a book as fantasy, supernatural or paranormal, is by looking at which and how many of those elements exist within. So if we’ve got ghosts (paranormal), but we also have talking dogs (supernatural), and magic portals (fantasy) all in one story, I’ll call it a fantasy.

Is this a paranormal or fantasy book?

Is this book paranormal or fantasy?

Let’s play a game and analyze these popular titles by using a sliding scale of believability.

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  • Vampires (immortal people with a thirst for blood, inhuman strength, and an array of cool abilities),
  • Wolf-shifters (people that can turn into wolves).

This one is very close to the fantasy realm since it is very low on the believability scale, but I don’t see enough made-up elements in it to justify it. All in all, vampires and shifters in this story are “special” humans, whether by birth or by being made. The world is an ordinary world, the only difference is in the existence of the “special” people.

Verdict: Supernatural

Harry Potter

  • Witches and wizards (people with special powers),
  • Mythical creatures,
  • Ghosts,
  • Magic. Lots of magic,
  • Made-up locations, objects with special powers, time travel, etc.

While I’d consider witches and wizards on their own to be supernatural beings and there are many paranormal elements in these stories, there are too many unbelievable elements added on top of it all to call it anything other than fantasy.

Verdict: Fantasy.

Good Omens

  • Angels and demons,
  • People with special abilities,
  • Prophecies.

Ooh, a tricky one. The special abilities would count closer to supernatural. The book, however, is very heavily reliant on religious scriptures, though it interprets them so loosely, we could call it fantasy. Still, the major story arc and the themes of the story are all about heaven and hell, forces of good and evil, angels and demons, and the apocalypse, all of which together scream paranormal.

Verdict: Paranormal.

Do you agree? How do you distinguish the three genres? Let me know in the comments.

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