The Y-Files: Contrasting the Supernatural and Paranormal in the Fantasy Genre
An important aspect to crafting fiction (whether it be writing a story, creating a campaign for a role-playing game, etc.) is understanding the genre that you have chosen to work within. Knowing the positive and pitfalls of a given genre can help you to shape your final product as well as allow options that you may not have previously conceived. Do you play it straight and stick to the established tropes? Or do you challenge yourself to put on an exhibition of creativity that goes against the norm; maybe even reinvent the genre?
Today, I want to take a deeper look into the Fantasy genre of fiction. But I do not just want to look at such an expansive category of fiction and literature. I also want to examine more closely the nuances specific to fantasy; with particular attention given to the differences and similarities between the supernatural and the paranormal. Let’s get right into it . . .
What is Fantasy?
The paranormal and the supernatural are elements of fantasy; but what is fantasy? Well, fantasy in fiction of any media is actually surprisingly difficult to define; at least with any specificity. A very rough definition of fantasy could be any work of fiction that offers escapism and goes beyond the normal; and that sounds passable, except that encompasses other genres such as science-fiction and horror. While one argument could be made that those genres are actually sub-genres to fantasy, it conflicts with our (or at least many people’s) preconceived notion of what is fantasy. However, an advantage to the above broad definition is that it does exclude realistic-fiction genres (such as historical fiction or non-science fiction alternate history fiction) which are easily considered non-fantastical.
However, for this discussion, let us focus on one part of that above definition: “goes beyond the normal.” While this excludes the realistic (as mentioned above) and it does cover a wide range of things that go beyond the (again, as previously mentioned), it also remains ambiguous to the extremes of the abnormal; specifically, how vague or how defined the fantastical aspects are as well as the pervasiveness of those elements. For example, is magic a common sight in the world? Is the magic well-defined? Or is still held in awe and mysticism? These questions help to refine a setting’s sub-genre, while keeping it rooted in the fantasy genre as a whole. So, no matter how ambiguous or detailed the fantastical, it still remains . . . fantastical.
What is Supernatural?
Now we come to the first major delineation of terms in fantasy: the supernatural; more specifically, differing between the supernatural and the paranormal. To start, just like with fantasy we should define what is the supernatural. Now, unlike fantasy, we can actually provide ourselves with a much clearer definition to work from. The supernatural is what exists beyond our rational and accepted understanding and explanation; and in particular, beyond our understanding of natural law. Okay, so it is still very broad like fantasy, but we can more readily point to something and almost universally agree upon whether it is supernatural or not; especially with the notion that something unnatural is occurring. If, for example, we were to witness (in a movie or a scene in a book) a wizard firing lightning from their hands, then we would mostly likely cry magic and think of it as something strange and unusual.
Yeah, kinda like that . . .
The same goes for watching a ghostly apparition float down a corridor and then through a wall. These phenomenon we would label as supernatural and then seek an explanation for their occurrences and to their nature; and we would be stymied by their absence of rational explanation or natural origin. And whether we actually have an explanation or not plays an important role in what constitutes the supernatural; as opposed to . . .
What is Paranormal?
The paranormal, while very similar to the supernatural (in that both are concerning things and events that are beyond the normal) but differs in one major respect: the paranormal can be defined in terms that conform to natural law; however, paranormal phenomenon have not been as widely accepted and/or lack enough credible evidence to be catalogued as established scientific fact.
or as Vsauce explains it . . .
And here we clearly see the delineation between the supernatural and the paranormal: both are strange and unusual, but with the paranormal we could believe it to happen; just not quite yet. We can imagine ghosts and poltergeists being the psychic remnants of the recently deceased or some form of lingering energy manifesting in a seemingly random fashion; or even try to understand psychic phenomenon as being somehow connected to theories of alternate quantum realities or some such. When it comes down to it, paranormal events are much more widely understood and accepted than the supernatural; however, they remain just a few steps beyond the boundaries of established and respected science. It is a nuanced difference, but an important distinction nevertheless.
Implementing the Supernatural/Paranormal in Fantasy
Okay, now that we have a clear distinction between the supernatural and the paranormal and how they relate back to the fantasy genre as a whole, the next question becomes: how do I make the most of this? Well, knowing that the Fantasy genre is as pervasive as it is, you can approach a story or campaign with the acceptance that it can contain fantastical elements. The gradation or complexity of those elements are up to you; with the understanding that what is supernatural is as simple as being misunderstood or unknown; while the paranormal is better known but no less mysterious. And therein lays an atmospheric distinction between the two elements: supernatural events are unknown but more readily accepted without too much mind paid to them; whereas paranormal events require more internal logic and consistency or otherwise considered ill-devised. So, if you want an air of mystery and the unknown to your story or campaign, then emphasize that any unusual occurrences are of a more paranormal aspect rather than supernatural; because we accept that there is a logical system in place to the supernatural, but it simply beyond our ken to comprehend.
Now the above expectations and standards for the paranormal and supernatural do not have to be completely uniform or even a given to the fantasy genre. After all, it is your story, so you can fiddle and have fun with the expectations as you see fit. Make the inherent limitations work for you, not against you. Also remember that in fiction, you establish the understood natural laws of the setting and are not hampered by what reality dictates. For example, in a setting with a sufficiently nuanced and researched comprehension of the mystical, it can cease being supernatural and instead become accepted scientific (if not also magical) law; even forgoing the transition into the realm of the paranormal. Author Arthur C Clarke put it succinctly in his third law by stating that,
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.— Arthur C Clarke
Likewise the reversed, “any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science” also holds true for any more widely accepted fantasy world. So, as the supernatural and the paranormal of essentially two sides of the same coin, we can apply similar logic and find that science and magic are just the same thing: indistinguishable depending upon your perspective and how you present it.