While working on my defining the fiction genres series, a thought occurred to me.
What is the difference between preternatural, supernatural, and paranormal? And do they differ enough to actually matter when referring to what genre book you write?
Then I stumbled into an (awesome/heaven) secondhand bookstore which categorizes books under the following categories: fiction, romance, horror, science fiction/fantasy, and paranormal.
I know for a fact that Barnes and Noble has now changed their store again and their genres (that I pay attention to) go as follows: science fiction/fantasy, fiction/literature, and romance. They don’t factor in horror or paranormal as their own genres. Horror is under fiction, while paranormal is under fantasy/science fiction.
So yeah, that didn’t help.
I figured I didn’t know what to figure. So, naturally, I Googled it. And guess what? No one has a one correct answer, but tons of people have their own opinions and beliefs.
So of course this then became a matter of me being curious and having to look into it whether it was relevant to defining the fiction genres or not, and I had to figure this out as best as I could.
First things first, I looked the three words up in multiple dictionaries.
“para” is Latin for “beyond” – so it literally means “beyond natural”
“claimed occurrence, event, or perception without scientific explanation, such as extrasensory perception”
“beyond normal explanation; outside normal sensory channels; extrasensory”
“not scientifically explainable; supernatural”
“defies science; against reality”
“not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws; not physical or material”
“attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces”
“attributed to God or a deity; demigod, spirit, or devil”
“attributed or pertaining to ghosts, goblins, or other unearthly beings”
“an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; related to the realm of the unexplained”
“surpassing the ordinary or normal”
“transcending the natural or material order; supernatural”
“existing outside of nature”
“another word for supernatural”
Doing so only solidified the confusion. They basically all say the same thing, with only minor differences.
So I then read through tons of different opinions and interpretations on the matter and came to the conclusion that they are defined as follows:
Supernatural is beyond scientific explanation/natural laws. Even if everything became explained by science, anything ‘supernatural’ would still not be explainable by science. What is considered as ‘supernatural’ was never natural or of this world.
For example, a demon. Because it isnt scientifically proven to exist. And it is not of this world; as in, it was never human or a part of the naturally existing creatures acknowledged by science and nature. A demon is a creature believed to exist on another plane of existence and not our world.
Preternatural is presumed to have a scientific explanation that just hasn’t been discovered yet. Unexplainable by scientific explanation/natural laws but was once of this world.
For example, a vampire. Because it isn’t scientically proven to exist but was once human (of this world).
Paranormal goes against scientific laws. It is extrasensory phenomena (beyond the physical senses).
For example, a ghost. People who can see ghosts are considered to have a “sixth sense” – so they have witnessed an extrasensory phenomena.
However, even while people accept the above definitions, there still remains three general opinions on these three terms.
ONE – Supernatural refers to a creature while Preternatural refers to an ability that exceeds the bounds of what is scientifically proven to be possible.
TWO – Supernatural and Preternatural are listed, used, and considered in general opinion to be synonyms for one another.
THREE – Paranormal is used interchangeably with Supernatural and Preternatural and they all loosely mean the same thing.
So – what people are telling me, is that even though these three terms have three different (even if only slightly different) definitions, they’re still used synonymously to mean anything not proven by science.
Just for fun let’s take a look at some of the more popular fantasy and science fiction creatures and where they would fall under the original definitions I came to the conclusion of…
- Demon – supernatural
- Vampire – preternatural
- Ghost – paranormal
- Zombie – preternatural
- Werewolf – preternatural
- The Fey – supernatural
- Alien – supernatural
- ShapeShifter – preternatural
- Poltergeist – paranormal
- Witch/Wizard – paranormal and/or preternatural – which one would it be? Paranormal because it goes beyond the five senses but Preternatural because it goes beyond scientific explanation but is from this world.
And we could go on and on. Some would strictly fit into one term and some, like witch/wizard will cause a problem due to fitting into the definition of more than one.
So, I suppose I will just do what everyone else does, and use the terms interchangeably. It looks to me like the publishing world uses Paranormal for genre distinction anyway.
Or maybe I’ll use preternatural and supernatural as they’re defined; as two different words with two different meanings.
It will probably depend on my mood. I do have to admit that the three definitions can cross over quite easily. Especially due to the definition of ‘paranormal’ being so vague.
What about you? Do you use them according to their specific definitions, or do you use them synonymously?
Have you seen a book’s genre displayed as Preternatural or Supernatural, instead of Paranormal?