At the Back Fence Issue #191Dabney2017-06-23T08:29:52-04:00
Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!
At the Back Fence Issue #191
Paranormal Romances (by Anne Marble)
November 15, 2004
Paranormal romances. The concept makes some romance readers light up in anticipation, yet it makes others run away screaming. Some readers are attracted by the lure of the unknown, and others would rather read only about reality, thank you very much.
First, what is a paranormal romance? It covers more romances than you might think at first. Vampire romances, of course, as well as werewolf romances, but don’t forget romances about faery, mythology, ghosts, witches, magic, psychic abilities, and reincarnation. ***
Do futuristic romances count? I see those as a separate subgenre, in the way science fiction and fantasy are separate yet related. Like SF, futuristic romances are about something that could happen instead of something that never will happen. But do time travel romances count? That’s a tough one. Technically speaking, I’d say that most of them do count as paranormal romances because the technique used to travel through time is usually something paranormal (such as a jewel with special powers) rather than scientific. Still, I see most time travel romances as a separate branch of the paranormal romance family tree. Many time travel stories aren’t really about the paranormal; they’re a reason to get a character into a different time. That plays on a different fantasy than the typical paranormal romance fantasy. This might explain why many readers who wouldn’t touch a paranormal romance with a ten-foot coffin have no problem with time travel romances.
What’s the Draw?
So what are the attractions of paranormal romances? As a reader, I see at least several attractions. To start with, there’s the lure of the unknown; the chance to read stories that go beyond the boundaries; and the excitement of meeting characters that are more than regular people – far more. Also, the heroines in paranormal romances are sometimes (but not always) stronger than those in other romances. Add to that everything from the lure of an immortal hero (talk about your worldly wise hero!) to the overall sense of coolness. At the same time, you’re getting all those things in a romance, so you know there’s going to be a happy ending, somehow. The hero and heroine might have to fight a little harder for that HEA, especially if one of them is a werewolf or vampire and the other is a normal human, but they will still get their HEA. The ultimate fairytale – Red Riding Hood tames the wolf instead of being rescued by some boring woodsman at the last minute.
I suspect readers enjoy paranormals for some of the same reasons. They are fairytales for grownups. That said, as wonderfully escapist as they can be, paranormals also touch on powerful real world issues: life and death, good and evil, the boundaries love alone can cross . . . It’s good grist for the imaginative mill – in readers or writers.
The same things often draw writers toward the paranormal. Catherine Mulvany admits that she loved fairy tales as a child, and she sees her stories as “an extension of those stories – fairy tales for grownups.” A writer influenced by reading SF/F, as well as romance as she grew up, Karen Harbaugh, naturally drew on paranormal influences in her writing, first in her traditional Regencies (where she pushed the envelope with major paranormal elements), and later in her historicals.
Emma Holly was also influenced by fairy tales and SF, first while growing up, and then later, she discovered Anne Rice, about whose Interview with the Vampire she says “was a jolt of fictional lightning.” The author likes having a scope for invention when worldbuilding. Holly’s fellow romantica author, Angela Knight (Jane’s Warlord, Master of the Night, The Forever Kiss), also loves playing with magic and letting her imagination run wild in her story. Why? Because it’s fun, and she thinks that’s why so many readers enjoy it as well. For Lisa Cach (Come to Me, Dream of Me), writing a paranormal allows her to “exist in a magical world where anything I can imagine can come true,” adding that at times in “writing ‘straight’ romances, reality interferes with my imagination.” She surmises that readers enjoy paranormals for the same reason she does; they “get a thrill” from stories that are “beyond normal life.” She concludes, “I’d guess that some readers enjoy paranormals for the same reason I myself get a thrill from such stories: they’re something beyond normal life. The paranormal world can seem more exciting than the mundane, and let you escape into a different universe for a short time. They tickle my imagination, and make me think about new things.”
What Makes Paranormal Romances Tick – and Tank?
Many readers want three things from a paranormal romance – consistency, consistency, consistency. Also, credibility, good research, a sense of urgency, lots of imagination, good explanations of the paranormal elements, and above all, a general sense of coolness. MaryJanice Davidson thinks readers like paranormals because “it’s escapism to the extreme. Not to mention, there’s always that feeling of ‘what would I do if that were me?’ It makes it interesting, to say the least!”
On top of that, they should have the same elements that make other romances good stories – good writing, characters we can care about, etc. And like any other type of romance, a paranormal romance can “jump the shark” – or in this case, maybe “jump the werewolf.” The list of things that can make a paranormal romance fail is longer than a werewolf’s tail. Above all, the stories shouldn’t be implausible, not to mention “hokey” or corny. Also, many readers are sick of tormented heroes, such as vampires who loathe their existence and wish they were dead. And readers are getting tired of sameness in a genre that is supposed to be about something special.
As with any other type of romance, what may constitute a “deal breaker” for one reader is perfectly fine (or even preferred) by another. A reader may adore psychic heroes or heroines while another thinks they have become a cliché. I may love vampires; perhaps you think they’re gross – or certainly not romantic. Some want only stories that show respect for the original legends while other readers prefer stories that bend, or even break, the rules. Some love whimsical humor in their paranormals, yet most avoid it like the plague – although many love humor when it’s part of a darker book. Some think the concept of “lifemates” (such as in Christine Feehan’s Carpathian books) is romantic, others despise the idea of having fate decide your lover.
These “gotchas” are often there for a reason. Cach points out that a reader’s real life experience can make certain elements impossible to enjoy because they remind the reader of bad things in real life, “… like depression (angst-ridden vampire), a controlling mate who doesn’t respect privacy (mindsharing), fraudulent psychics and mediums who rip people off, etc,” which may explain why one reader’s gotcha is another reader’s auto-buy topic:
“The elements of a paranormal can be symbolic of our fears and desires, much like fairy tales. Vampires address the fears of aging and death, and of the dark. Ghosts, too, reassure you about death, by telling you that you will continue to exist afterwards. Werewolves, to me, speak of freedom from the shackles of civilization. A psychic heroine is never caught off guard, whereas in everyday life we never know if someone is lying to us, or if the ringing of the phone might bring news of a loved one’s death. Paranormals can give us a feeling of control over the uncontrollable.”
For all these “gotchas,” readers may actually end up liking stories that they didn’t think they would enjoy. While reviewing books for AAR, I reviewed several humorous paranormals. Because of my experiences, I developed an aversion to funny paranormals because so many fell down on the job. I decided that blending the paranormal and humor is a delicate balance, and that many authors fall off the tightrope. Yet I loved Davidson’s Undead and Unwed, reading nearly half the book before I even left the bookstore!
It’s hard to remember that there was a time when vampire heroes were a “gotcha” for most readers. When Harbaugh’s The Vampire Viscount came out in 1995, it preceded the paranormal boom. On top of that, the book was a traditional Regency. The combination was a shocking one to many readers, although it’s rather ironic that the studly, brooding sort of aristocratic vampire was created during the Regency. John Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor, introduced Lord Ruthven, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Byron himself, in The Vampyre in 1819. Prior to this time, vampires were seen as decidely lower class – smelly peasants – according to author Kim Newman (whose own Anno Dracula, recommended by LLB, is a satirical take on Dracula as Queen Victoria’s consort).
Harbaugh says, “Having a vampire appear in a traditional Regency was like sticking an axe murderer in the middle of a Jane Austen novel. It was Not Done in Polite Circles and Certainly Not Amongst the Ton. The good thing about controversy was that it also means a lot of word of mouth sales, so both The Devil’s Bargain and The Vampire Viscount sold very, very well.” Both books were recently reprinted in a double edition. The author admits that she had to follow her Muse when writing The Vampire Viscount – especially after being told that it wouldn’t sell.
How is it that certain books overcome our gotchas? Author Eileen Wilks (Tempting Danger) explains that “it’s always the characters,” adding, “If readers just have to know about these people, spend time with them, find out what happens next to them, they’ll put up with it if some of the elements aren’t their cuppa. Of course, they may not pick up the book in the first place if they’re convinced they won’t like it, but that’s a separate problem.” Knight thinks it also helps “if the story is a rollercoaster ride with likable characters and a kickbutt ending.” Because then, the writer can do whatever she wants, and readers will forgive it. Still she accepts that she’s not going to please everybody.
Kelley Armstrong (Bitten, Stolen, Women of the Other World), who writes paranormal fiction with strong romantic subplots, learned it was better to focus on the readers who already like what you’re doing instead of those who will probably avoid it:
“I think if a reader is predisposed to seriously dislike a major aspect of a book, then they aren’t going to pick it up in the first place, or will put it down as soon as they realize it contains that hated aspect. When Bitten first came out, my publishers worried a lot about how to get the book to appeal to people who don’t read paranormals or wouldn’t otherwise read a werewolf story. The lesson I learned from that experience was not to worry about appealing to those readers, and instead to focus on appealing to the ‘willing’ audience. Now, I’ll admit that one of the greatest compliments I can get is ‘I never read this kind of stuff, but someone gave me your book and I loved it,’ but I’ll go crazy if I try to write books to appeal to people who don’t like werewolves, don’t like witches, don’t like female protagonists, don’t like first-person narratives etc.”
Davidson likes those letters from “unlikely fans,” too. She says, “I’ve gotten lots of letters, to wit, ‘I didn’t think I’d like this book, I picked it up because I had nothing to read on the plane, and I really liked it.” Or, “I normally hate first person, but Betsy won me over.'” She believes that if the writer just tells a good story, she “can get away with just about anything.”
With me, a good writer can get away with just about anything. Especially where paranormal romances are concerned. I’ve learned to never say never. There are a lot of concepts that sound outlandish at first, but when a great writer attacks those ideas, the result can be a terrific book.
Dracula Meets the Wolfman
When you mention paranormal romances, vampires and werewolves are the first things that come to mind. Of course, this is because so many paranormal romances are about vampires and werewolves. In a way, vampires and werewolves are the “Regency historicals” of the paranormal romance world. There are a lot of them out there, and yet there is still lots of variety. Why are they so popular? Knight believes that both weres and vamps have “a certain built-in heat. They’re a great metaphor for the dangerous edge of sex in the way that other critters may not be. That’s why they’re so powerful.”
Vampire romances are probably the most popular, in both print and e-book format. Why is this the case? Well, because vampires are sexy, of course. Besides that, why are vampires so popular? Vampires are one way to have it all. They tend to be mysterious, debonair, strong, almost always alpha men – yet unlike werewolves and other creatures, they are still men. And sexy ones at that.
Yet for everyone who loves vampire romances, there are some who find them … well, icky. Kristie has enjoyed some vampire stories but admits that overall, the genre is “just a bit too creepy.” When she first tried one of Christine Feehan’s Carpathian stories (Carpathians are vampire-like creatures; if they go mad they become vamps) and discovered that Carpathians slept in the ground, something in her went “ewwwhhhh.” Peg is one reader who doesn’t “do” vampires. She has taken a chance on vampire books by authors she loved (such as Barbara Hambly) but tends to avoid them overall, partly because she doesn’t like suspense and erotica. Kerstin likes horror, but doesn’t read vampire and werewolf romances because she doesn’t see those creatures as romantic. Instead, she sees them as evil creatures.
Gina dislikes vampire romances for a different reason. She finds them too similar. She is “so tired of tortured vampires who are doomed to a life of darkness until they find the light of their lives in the heroine.” Alison W is also sick of angst-ridden vampires. She wonders why the poor characters can’t enjoy their existence and is sick of the whole “Woe is me, I’m a miserable 1,000 year-old vampire cliché. It drives me crazy!” Author Davidson also wants to drive a stake through the hearts of miserable vampires. “With all respect to authors who have blazed the way with vampire fiction, I f_cking hate tormented vampires. They drive me crazy. I want to shake them and tell them to stop bitching already. If there’s ever a tormented vampire in any of my books, keep an eye on him because he or she is likely to be run over by a garbage truck.” So maybe what some authors are forgetting is that variety is the spice of life… err, I mean un-life.
Werewolf romances aren’t as popular as vampires and probably never will be. There could be different reasons for that. Werewolves gross people out more than vampires. Also, some readers associate werewolf romances with bestiality…or maybe they hate the idea of getting fur all over the rug. Yet at the same time, werewolves have their attractions. They’re not as civilized as vampires, but what they lack in good manners they make up in strength and pure animal magnetism. Recently, I saw a Spanish werewolf movie where the werewolf hero (a tormented Polish count) realized his loved one was in danger, then broke out of chains and broke through a door to fight her would-be abductor. Wow, who wouldn’t want a man who would do that for you? The scene definitely wasn’t for the fainthearted, but it was heroic. Some of the werewolf romances I’ve read have captured the same allure, combining the power of the werewolf with a tortured hero. While vampires will always carry the torch of the sexiest paranormal creature, werewolves hold a special place in my heart.
Armstrong says, “Before I wrote my first novel, I read something about werewolves versus vampires that said werewolves weren’t sexy and never could be sexy…and I took that as a challenge! To me, werewolves, being very physical creatures would be very sexual, so my werewolf stories have explicit sex scenes. With my witches, the sex is still there, but it’s not as much a driving force of their nature.”
Yet of course, there is much more to paranormal romance than vampires and werewolves. More and more, fans of paranormals are finding a wide range of stories out there – everything from stories about succubi to stories about Greek gods. Armstrong is excited by this. “As much as I enjoy a good vampire story, there is so much else out there that it seems a crime to flood the market with umpteen ‘new’ vampire stories. When I started with werewolves, my publishers asked whether that’s where I’d stay, and my answer was an emphatic no. I said right from the start that I’d turn Bitten into a series only if I could open it up to other ‘races’, and spin off stories from there. I have encountered some reader resistance, but it’s not so much from those who only want to hear about werewolves, as from those who just liked my werewolf characters and wanted me to stay with them.”
What else is out there? Of course, ghost romances have been around for many years, with stories such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir being published well before romance became a separate genre. Like time travel stories, maybe they are a way for us to imagine getting in touch with the past. While vampire romances almost always have a hero or heroine or is a vampire, ghost romances don’t necessarily do this. Sometimes the hero or heroine is a ghost, but quite often, the ghosts are secondary characters, whether benevolent or malevolent, and bring hero and heroine together.
Romances about psychic powers and the spirit world are also quite prevalent, especially if you include historical romances about heroines with “the Sight.” Paranormal author Jill Terry thinks that romances about psychics, ghosts, and the spirit world are different than vampire and werewolf romances because while vampires and werewolves are fantasy, many people believe in psychics, ghosts, and spiritualism. “While both can be equally entertaining, I believe there’s something more alluring about delving into something unknown and otherworldly, that could in fact be very real.”
Yet not every reader likes psychic romances, or the way these stories are handled in paranormal romances. Morwen is sick of “the sort of supernatural claptrap that infests many books that from the covers seem to be straight historicals. If I have to read about one more mystical Medieval healer heroine or heroine with ‘the sight,’ I’m going to scream! I don’t see any evidence for those things in real life, and they become increasingly tedious to me the more I read about them.” Some readers, like Lady Naava, have no problem with paranormals about psychic powers – as long as they don’t cop out on the topics they bring up. Lady Naava dislikes books that never address the “moral implications of psychic ‘powers.’ … Frequently in paranormal books, characters are invading each others minds with impunity. To me this seems an evil act, especially if the intent is to manipulate. Somehow this is never really addressed or even discussed.”
For all the romances about vampires and werewolves and psychics, and of course, psychic vampires, there are still lots of other types of paranormals out there. You have paranormal romances about the world of faery, about magic and witches, about mythological creatures such as selkies and Greek gods. Authors of paranormal romances have a lot of freedom, so there are some paranormals that don’t fall into any of these categories. In the paranormal romance field, a daring author can create her own mythology.
For now, maybe the reason there are so many vampire and werewolf novels out there is because that’s what readers want. Or maybe fans of paranormal romances buy so many of these books because that’s what’s out there. Over time, as with any trend, readers will get sick of them and turn toward something new. Until that wears out its welcome, too.
All is not sweetness and dark for the writers of paranormal romance. While their genre includes some attractions, they face some special challenges unknown to other romance writers. One of the biggest challenges is… How do you give these characters a happy ending? After all, if your husband is a vampire, then eventually, he’ll either have to lose you to mortality or make you become a vampire. The HEA in these stories is sometimes too much for some readers to buy into. Reader Angela finds that practicalities can get in the way of her enjoyment of paranormals, proclaiming, “When it comes to vampire/human or were/human or etc./human relationships, I don’t buy it. I’m way too practical and after I’m done, I start to wonder about how they will have kids, she’ll grow old, etc, etc.”
Knight says that writers can find that HEA in their paranormals:
“With vampires, you just change the rules. Yeah, if you’re doing vamps as undead, cursed corpses who walk around and drink blood, it’s hard to have a HEA with that. But my guys are alive, and they’re not evil, and being a vampire is not a problem for them. For me, the toughest part about paranormals is explaining the universe. If you do a vampire that is not an undead corpse, you have to explain all this stuff. How did he become a vampire? What are his rules? And you have to explain all this without boring the crap out of the reader. It can be tricky sometimes.”
Many readers hate novels where the paranormal character becomes human at the end. Keishon thinks these endings give off a false ring of truth. “Even when dealing with the paranormal there are limits to what I will believe or find plausible and romancing a ghost and having them become human again is not one of them. Or have vampires be cured from their vampirism when they find true love. Uh, no. When you write paranormals it should make some sense within the framework of the story no matter how imaginatively or creatively you tell it.” Lady Naava doesn’t think there should be a way to cure the ‘monster’ character of whatever makes him different. To her, this is like contemporary romances featuring heroines forced to give up her successful career when she marries the hero. She wants to see stories “focus on the relationship and the interesting situations. Not on the monster character ‘handwringing’ about his or her state.”
Armstrong agrees with readers on this and doesn’t like to see characters cured. She believes that at some point she’ll “deal with a character desperately seeking a cure, but whether she find it or takes it is another matter.” She prefers that these characters “learn to deal with the ‘downside’ of their powers and come to accept what they are.” She thinks this is more like real life, pointing out that there’s rarely a simple cure for all our problems. She does say, though, that sometimes “redemption endings” work for her, “but only if it’s the only way to a happy conclusion – if the ‘curse’ was so bad that the character had no chance of happiness otherwise.” The author would rather see “the burden of a curse lightened” as opposed to being removed entirely, giving this example: “What I prefer to see is the burden of the curse lightened, rather than removed. For example, if a particularly heroic vampire was granted or discovered the power to walk in daylight, that would be a good ending to me – he/she still has to deal with all the other problems of being a vampire, but has had one obstacle to happiness removed.”
I agree that in many cases, curing the monster can suck. It often reminds me of those Gothic novels where the heroine was attracted to a brooding man for the whole book but ended up marrying the nice boring doctor. I finished those muttering “Why did I bother?” For me, the most disappointing end I’ve ever read in a vampire romance was the ending of Amanda Ashley’sA Darker Dream. The hero of this one was your typical angst-ridden vampire, and then some. He hated being a vampire, loathed being a vampire, despised his very existence… Well, you get the point. He wanted to become a human again . Through the book, he’s told that’s impossible. When the end comes, he’s told that there actually was a way he could become a human again. Perhaps had he known of this possibility from the start it would have worked for me. Instead, it came across as a major inconsistency in the world created by the author. I would have preferred the characters being forced to deal with the huge barriers to their love. Instead, the barriers were shattered like balsa wood.
Harbaugh disagrees that the “cure” story is a cop-out. “It’s a cop out because what I wrote doesn’t conform to someone else’s expectations? Uh, no. I’d think it’d be a cop out if I conformed to anything but the heart and vision of the story.” She believes that whether the character is cured or not depends on the story. But just because one author’s characters stay as vampires at the end, that doesn’t mean her characters must do the same. “I’ve not been one to color inside the lines or allow myself to be confined in a strict definition of a subgenre, so why should I do that with vampires or other paranormal elements? I figure the paranormal romance genre should be the most free to experiment and innovate – that’s one reason why I got into paranormal romance in the first place. I stepped out of the rigid Regency box – why should I step from that right into a rigid paranormal box? No thanks!”
The “cure” conundrum intrigues authors. Holly, for instance, isn’t a fan of that sort of story herself, but she points out, “If the race-for-a-cure story is the one an author most wants to write, why shouldn’t she? I’m sure plenty of readers like those books, or they wouldn’t still be around.” She prefers “seeing the monster embraced as he is – fangs and all.” She also believes that characters can be redeemed without being cured. In the end, though, she says that if the characters truly want to be cured, and have suffered in their search for a cure, then they should be rewarded at the end by having the curse lifted from them because under those circumstances, that is the most satisfying ending. For author Cach, “Remaining ‘afflicted’ is kinda cool. If the H/H can have an interesting, fulfilling life that way, and if the appeal of a character would be destroyed by removing the “curse”, then I’d leave them afflicted. If the appeal of the character is separate from the affliction, and remaining afflicted would mean that the H/H had to live in some unpleasant manner that I myself would find dissatisfying and tiresome, then I’d cure it.”
A character doesn’t have to be a werewolf or vampire to be redeemed in a paranormal. For Mulvany, torturing her characters in Run No More, “forcing them to pay for their sins, requiring that they earn they HEA,” was a calculated choice in her part so that the book would ring true: “In the real world, people get away with all sorts of heinous crimes, but in my world, characters have to take responsibility for their choices, and if they go too far, cosmic justice (okay, Mulvany justice) is going to catch up with them.” She points out that Ian, the hero of her story, is a flawed character whose flaws dictated story events. She asks, “Were there other ways the story could have been written? Yes. Many. But for me to significantly alter the plot, I would first have had to change Ian’s motivation. And then he wouldn’t have been Ian.”
A Home Away from Home for SF Fans, or Not?
A lot of people think that SF, Fantasy, and Horror fans who read romance will automatically like paranormal romances. Sometimes, this is the case. Often it is definitely not true. Perhaps because I’m a huge SF/Fantasy/Horror fan, I have a love/hate relationship with paranormals myself. I’ll look for them, but at times, I’ll throw my hands up in disgust and walk away muttering, “Drat. Another psychic heroine who solves murders.” I also don’t have much patience with many humorous paranormals, although it depends on the kind of humor. I’m even more cautious about futuristic romances because I’ve come across so many that had worse science than Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space.
Like me, Yuri is an SF/Fantasy fan who sometimes enjoys paranormals. She sees this as “…a natural progression. I think they’re just something a little bit different – it can give an author a bit more wiggle room on plot and sometimes they explore some interesting themes.” Marjory is another SF fan who admits to being a fan of paranormal romances. She was first attracted to the field by SF author Anne McCaffrey’s Pegasus and Rowan series. Jorie loves SF/Fantasy and paranormal romances, although she admits to having a hard time finding paranormal romances she really likes.
On the other hand, Gina says that she rarely bothers reading paranormal romance anymore because they simply don’t appeal to her. She prefers “books that are written and marketed as Paranormal/Fantasy/SF but also contain an element of romance.” Morwen, another fan of SF and Fantasy, doesn’t like paranormal elements in romances because SF and fantasy writers handle them so much better, whereas the romance versions tend to be pallid and derivative.
Harbaugh thinks that times have changed and that the separation between Romance and SF/Fantasy is no longer so clear, noting that before the 1990s the genres were more separate. “You had SF/F writers who were good on the worldbuilding and awful on the romance, and romance writers who were the reverse.” Today she sees both SF/F and Romance authors who can handle both, and do it better and better, adding, “I think our current crop of authors are much better at it than perhaps ten years ago, mostly because the ones left writing paranormals are the ones who have persisted through a rather hostile marketplace until fairly recently. The ones who had a hard time blending the two fell away, and the ones left could.” This isn’t to say that she thinks all the stories published before the 1990s were bad. For example, she loves Justine Davis’ futuristics and wishes they would be reprinted for today’s market.
LLB believes Kelley Armstrong is a good example of a writer who is able to blend genres together well, particularly in her werewolf books, although she thinks it’s perhaps equally about “characterization” as it is “romance.” Although her “witch” books are off-shoots of her werewolf books and also feature romantic elements (at least the first one; the second has only just now been released), it is in her werewolf books – Bitten in particular – where she really shines as an author who “gets” romance.
Is that because Armstrong and authors like Davidson, whose “monster” books aren’t genre romances per se, like the happy ending? Armstrong notes that in her genre, “romantic resolutions are more along the line of ‘happy for now,’ which, one could argue, is more realistic.” She adds, “The protagonist may get the guy, and love the guy, but if he/she is a werewolf/sorcerer/ghost etc. there will always be obstacles to overcome, and if they want to stay together, they’ll have to fight to get past them – just like any normal married couple.” She concludes, “If there’s a freedom in this type of ending, it’s that it allows me to have an excuse to revisit the characters later in the series to deal with some of these obstacles! Not being shelved in romance means I don’t need to worry as much if my protagonists don’t end up in the perfect relationship, but, I must admit, I’m still a sucker for a ‘happy for now’ ending.”
Davidson answers the question – do you approach your books differently because they’re not traditional romances and thereby not required to have the HEA – in this way: “I honestly don’t think of it like that; like I must do the HEA. As a reader, that’s what I prefer although it’s not exactly true to life. But then, that’s not why I escape into books. I write the HEA because it’s what I want. I really do want Betsy and Sinclair to be happy, to win, to defeat evil and have great sex. So I try to make that happen.”
E-books versus Print
Author Lynne Connolly believes that while print publishers seem to be stuck in the “vampire/werewolf groove,” readers will find more variety in the e-book field. She believes we are on the verge of a revival of the Gothic, a “New Gothic” where the supernatural actually exists instead of getting explained away as in so many of the old Gothic novels. However, she also believes that readers who stick to print books rather than reading e-books as well won’t stumble upon those books for a couple of years because it will take that long for these publishers to catch up with the trend and gets the books out.
Davidson started out in e-books and publishes both e-books and print. She thinks that e-books have strongly influenced the paranormal field. Her take on the matter is that quality paranormals are rare, so mainstream publishers are “more likely to check out an e-book to get a feel for an author’s style.” At least that was her experience. She also believes that there is more variety in e-books, but that print publishers are working hard to catch up. She points to these examples: “I pitched my novella, Beggarman Thief, to e-book publisher Loose-ID, like this: ‘It’s about a cyborg who falls in love with a mutant.’ My editor didn’t bat an eye; ‘Fine, great, give me twenty thousand words, thanks,’ but it probably would have been a more difficult sell to New York. But on the other hand, I pitched Hello Gorgeous to my editor at Kensington like this: ‘It’s Legally Blonde meets The Bionic Woman.” She says her editor at Kensington “loved it, but she might not have gone for it ten years ago, or even five.”
Similarly, Knight thinks that print publishers have been more cautious by their very nature. “When they see e-pubs pushing the envelope and succeeding, they start wondering if they can get away with the same thing. So I think the print pubs are getting bolder and more sensual following the lead of e-pubs.”
Yet Kay disagrees that e-books are the place to find the best new trends in paranormals. She believes that print publishers provide lots of variety in the paranormal arena. Through print publishers, she has read many paranormal romances with nary a vampire or werewolf. Also, she doesn’t believe that e-book writers are necessarily more talented than print writers. She has found both gems and stinkers in both formats. LLB is of a similar mind; she’s recently read quite a bit of paranormal romantica (and is surprised there’s so much of it!) – quite a bit of it published by small or e-publishers – and some of it is good. She did, of course, hone right in on those stories written by Davidson and Knight. She thinks it’s a great sign that some talented e-pub and small-pub authors have been “discovered” by New York publishers, but is cautious, adding, “For every good small or e-pub/small pub book or novella I’ve read, I’ve read at least a couple of duds.”
Quite a few paranormal fans have read e-books, but most still prefer reading print books, and many aren’t interested at e-books at all at this point, because they simply don’t like reading on the screen or because they prefer the feeling of holding a paper book in their hands. The quality of the book isn’t necessarily a determining factor. For example, Alison says “a good author is a good author” and admits to enjoying the few e-books she has purchased. Marjory has read both good and bad books in both formats, although she thinks that print books are ahead of e-books in quality.
While I bought a Palm several years ago, primarily for reading e-book versions of mainstream books already in print. I didn’t buy many e-books from independent e-book publishers for quite a while. I heard more and more buzz about how much better e-books were getting, but usually still hesitated. Then came the romantica paranormals. Then came recommendations of titles from Ellora’s Cave and other romantica publishers. Then I really got interested. There’s something about a hot man who is more than human and can delight the heroine with “out of this world” lovemaking. (I also like hot men in loincloths, but that would be a subject for another ATBF, or perhaps something for a psychiatrist to ponder…)
Sex and the Paranormal
If you’ve read the most popular paranormals, you know that some are incredibly sexy – while others are “warm” rather than hot or burning. As readers, we know that the paranormal element can add to the sensuality of a story. Yet at the same time, we also realize that not all writers want to add lots of sex to their paranormals. Also, highly sensual writers walk a delicate tightrope because too much sex can detract from the story. Knight, whose career (like Davidson’s) got off the ground writing paranormal romantica novellas, says that, for her:
“The sex always has to advance the plot or characterization. It can’t just be, ‘Well, let’s have ten pages of boinking, and then we’ll go back to the story.’ Done properly, the sex should be another expression of where the characters are in the relationship. They should make love differently when they’ve just met or they’ve just had a fight or they’ve just committed to love one another. You should be able to flip to each sex scene and read a real difference in the way the characters make love. If the scenes don’t do that, then yeah, they can detract from the story. Paranormal elements do add spice, because they often have a built-in element of danger. And danger is sexy. ‘Oh, man, I want to go to bed with this fantastic, handsome guy, but he might bite me on the neck and drink my blood.’ That’s kinda kinky.
“I think there is a certain built-in kink in paranormal romance which has to be handled carefully. I mean, I’m not going to have a werewolf hero making love to my heroine in wolf form. That’s bestiality. Ick. And if you’re doing a romance with a traditional walking corpse vampire, is that necrophilia? Double Ick. But on the other hand, if you handle the paranormal sex carefully, it can be really edgy and sexy.”
Holly believes that “…enhanced sex can add a great deal to the story for readers who like sexy books (and for authors who like to write them) since the paranormal element is usually employed to intensify the sexual experience, to make it larger than life.’ Of course, most sex in romance is larger than life already!” Davidson definitely thinks the paranormal element can enhance the sex in a novel. “In Undead And Unwed, Betsy has sex in a swimming pool, upside down, in the deep end. Which is not advisable if you need to respirate. So I definitely think the paranormal aspect can enhance the boinking aspect.” (According to LLB, this scene, shorter by far than the usual love scene, is among the most erotic she’s ever read because the heroine, unbeknownst to the “hero,” can read his mind and listen to his lust, love, and tenderness for her all at once, knowing that it’s real.)
Armstrong approaches the level of sex and explicitness in her books based on the characters and the storyline. “The paranormal aspect can definitely enhance the love scenes. For me, the toughest part about writing sex is keeping them fresh, and that’s much easier when characters can use things like magic. Too much sex can definitely detract from a story – sex should enhance the plot, not replace it!”
For Cach, the sex blends with several elements, all of which are important to the story. Her goal is to write books that are “sexy, funny, and a bit dark – sometimes more funny, sometimes more dark.” She believes that these three characteristics are “closely tied to each other, as integral parts of a relationship between a man and a woman. You laugh, you cry, you have sex. Sometimes all three in the space of an hour. I don’t know how to have one without the others, in a story that uses a developing romantic relationship to show the emotional growth of a hero and heroine.”
Mulvaney says, “Sex and love go hand in hand so it’s hardly surprising that romance novels include sex scenes. I don’t write particularly graphic sex because I can’t concentrate on body parts and positions and still do an adequate job of depicting emotion. For me, emotion is the big payoff, so I don’t want to stint on that. I find writing love scenes very difficult; I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting before I’m satisfied.” And she does believe that sex can detract from the story. Her agent actually suggested she remove one of the love scenes from her new book before sending it out because it was over-the-top; she believes the agent was right. Wilks also believes that too much sex can detract from the story. “Sex is powerful and can be a major part of developing character, especially when writing about romantic love. But I don’t want the story to be about the sex.”
What’s next in paranormal romances? With so many creatures and mythologies and phenomena available to explore, authors can bend and twist a lot of boundaries. Will paranormal romances keep booming, or will they go bust? The stories will have a lot to do with that. Readers come to paranormal romances to find something different. If they keep coming across books that are just the same old same old, they will finally give up and look for something else. After all, just as there are only so many cowboys and dukes of slut and Regency spies we can take, there are only so many tormented vampires and heroines with the “sight” we can put up with.
I’ll keep reading paranormal romances as long as the writers take risks. Of course, that doesn’t mean they should stop writing about what’s popular. But when they do write about vampires and werewolves and the like, they should find new twists on those stories. They should make them their own. And they shouldn’t be afraid of trying something new. If writers of paranormal romances are afraid of the unknown, we’re in trouble!
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like you to consider this time:
If you like paranormal romance, what are the aspects that draw you to them? What are some of the best? What are some of the worst? And why, to both?
If you don’t like paranormal romance, what keeps you away from them? If you generally stay away, are there some you ended up enjoying anyway? If so, what are they, and why do you think you liked them?
Do you like vampire and werewolf stories, or are you getting sick of them? Also, do you ever get tired of the repetition in some types of paranormals? For example, angst-ridden alpha vampires and psychic heroines. Or do you like returning to certain themes because great writers can make them into something fresh?
Are there some types of paranormal stories you’d like to see more of?
Are you more of a paranormal romance reader or a paranormal fiction reader, or both? What do you see as the differences, and would you agree that the genres seem to blend better today than in the past? In other words, are romance authors getting better at worldbuilding and paranormal fiction authors getting better at romance? Which authors do best…and worst?
Along those lines, what are your thoughts on paranormals that are not easy to categorize? MaryJanice Davidson’s Betsy books, for instance, seem to break some of the rules – as do Charlaine Harris’ Sookie books. Neither series are genre romances but, at least in Davidson’s case, they are marketed as such. Would you rather have a true HEA ending or are you satisfied with “happy for now?”
Many romances readers are accepting of non-romance conventions in other genres that they also read. For instance, Laurell K Hamilton has featured multiple sex partners in both of her series. Why is that “okay” when it is unacceptable in a romance if you read and enjoy both?
What are your thoughts on stories where the character is “cured” of being a vampire, werewolf or whatever? Do you agree with some that it’s a “cop-out,” or do you think that depends on the story?
If you read paranormals in e-book form, do you find more variety among e-book publishers than among paper publishers? Does it seem as though there are a tremendous amount of romantica/paranormal hybrids in e-books? If so, why do you think that is? Also, what about the quality of the books from e-book to print? Do you think, like many, that it has gotten better over the years?
If you don’t read e-books, is it because of convenience or quality? And what would make you decide to start reading more e-books?
Anne Marble, with Kelley Armstrong, Lisa Cach, MaryJanice Davidson,
Karen Harbaugh, Emma Holly, Angela Knight, Catherine Mulvany, and Eileen Wilks
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board