Types of Paranormal Romance
I first entered writing through science fiction and fantasy, and still read from that perspective when, these days, I read paranormal romance. I enjoy deconstructing the elements of the genre, and comparing and contrasting paranormals to non-romantic fantasy. Maybe it's because I don't have cable.
Here are some of my thoughts. There's a theory I've heard from various writers that the Romance and Mystery genres are based in plot, while the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are based in setting. It's easier to blend one of the plot-based genres with one of the setting-based genres, so it's not uncommon to find science fiction mysteries and romantic fantasies. Paranormal Romance is different from straightforward fantasy most obviously because it's intended to be Romance, with the central focus of the story on the relationship between two people and how it grows and develops. The paranormal element is integrated but must be secondary to the Romance plot. Worldbuilding is used to support that central plot, and might even be subservient to it; for instance, I think "destined mates" is so often part of paranormal worldbuilding because it offers so many opportunities for relationship conflict and/or plot complication.
I recently read Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, which discusses different ways to categorize fantastic literature. An aspect of paranormals I find interesting is that they're often intrusion fantasies, in which the fantasy element (werewolves, psychics) intrude into our world where they are supposedly impossible. I think this serves multiple purposes. First, for a reader who's new to fantasy, it offers an "in." The paranormal element is introduced to the reader just as it's being introduced to the hero or heroine. Second, it offers a way to isolate the hero and heroine from their everyday lives; they might be in the midst of a city, but if they're on the run, and she's trying to hide her vampire boyfriend, the emotional intensity is increased, just as when the protagonists are isolated in a cabin in the woods, or in a road novel. The fantasy element thus helps to make the plot happen. Third, there's an added element of, well, fantasy. It's often more enjoyable to the reader to be taken far away from their daily lives when reading; I think that's one of the reasons for the continuing popularity of historical romance, as well. If it's not our world, it's easier to suspend our disbelief. Fourth and last, I think it's a matter of structure. There's only so much room in a novel, and we already know most of the room in a Paranormal Romance must be given to the romance. There's less room for worldbuilding, so if the setting is non-fantastic, all the better. The writer can imply a great deal about the society from which the werewolf hero came but it isn't necessary to show it unless it's relevant to the romance.
There's also portal fantasy, which is less common in romance than it used to be. It's almost the opposite of intrusive fantasy. First, the protagonist is shown in his or her normal world, doing normal things; then they step through a door (or glowing blob, or cave) and enter a fantasy world. For instance, the heroine is bored with her life as an ad executive, but finds a mysterious amulet at a flea market and is transported to Medieval-World, where she falls in love with a centaur. Time travel stories fall into this category, as well, if the protagonist goes back in time. This type of story requires more space given to worldbuilding in the fantasy world, and thus less to the romance. I think that's why this type of fantasy more often becomes a fantasy with "romantic elements."
Finally, some paranormals are immersive fantasies in which the whole world is different from our world--Nalini Singh's futuristic paranormals are an example, or Eileen Wilks' werewolf seriesóbut that's more rare. The immersive form often works best in a series, which has more space to explore the world. I think this type might be becoming more popular. Urban fantasy is a form of immersive fantasy.
I highly recommend Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, from which I borrowed the terms intrusion fantasy, immersive fantasy, and portal fantasy.
Romancing the Beast
Paranormal romance almost always features the hero as a paranormal being and the heroine as an ordinary human. How does this resonate with gender relations and power relationships in our society? Is it a way of expressing women seeing men as another species? And does it all come down to fairy tales?
I'm going to ramble on these ideas for a bit, and hopefully I will shake some ideas loose that I can think on further.
Kresley Cole's books, for example Wicked Deeds on a Winter's Night, are among the exceptions--in her Immortals After Dark series so far, usually both hero and heroine are paranormal beings.
However, for the most part, a paranormal romance follows a human woman, usually one who is "ordinary" or "normal," as she encounters for the first time a paranormal world running parallel to her own. In this new world, she's suddenly in peril, and she must rely on her Beastly Rescuer (whether vampire, werewolf, or magical warrior) for her safety. Along the way, she provides something to the Beast that is missing from his life, as he provides something that is missing in hers, and they fall in love.
This is the most basic version of the paranormal romance. It resembles the structure of many historical and category romances, as well, only replacing the top-lofty duke or marquis with a vampire, or the foreign billionaire with an alpha werewolf. In all cases, the hero is of a type the heroine has never before encountered. Often he's more forceful than she would like, more domineering, more arrogant. The plot forces her into his world, and with his help, she learns to live there and to both mitigate and tolerate his masculine and/or paranormal dominance because, after all, he's more powerful than she is. She finds happiness in his world. If she had never left home, she would never have found happiness.
I wonder what it is about this fantasy that's so enduring, and so forgiving of sub-genre? Is it really the Cinderella story? Cinderella is raised to wealth and privilege through the prince's eyes. We don't know for sure that's she beautiful, only that she's got endurance to withstand her stepmother and stepsisters. We do know that it's the prince's notice that drags her into a new world. If she hadn't attended the ball, he would never have known she existed. Is there also an element of moving into a new stage of your life?
Cinderella chose to attend the ball. Her action led to her happiness. In most versions of Beauty and the Beast, the beauty is sent to the beast as payment for her father's debt, just as in some paranormals the heroine falls into danger because her ancestry pre-disposes her to danger: she might be a werewolf's biologically-destined mate, or be the daughter of paranormals who fled from another dimension. However, once captive to the beast, the beauty acts on her own to get to know the beast, to see through his beastly exterior and into his emotional soul. The beast resists her intrusion, but gradually gives in.
Are paranormals Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella? Or both? Or neither? Or simply the fairy tales for the modern world?
Historical and Paranormal: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together
For my December 2009 erotic novel for Harlequin Spice, The Moonlight Mistress, I combined a historical novel with paranormal elements. The book is set during the early days of World War One, and begins with a romance between Lucilla, an English chemist and nurse, and Pascal, a French scientist. They're trapped in Germany when war is declared and must escape together. I could have proceeded from there to write a perfectly straightforward wartime adventure novel, but I love science fiction as well as romance, so it turns out the reason Pascal is in Germany in the first place is because he's investigating rumors of a werewolf held captive by an amoral scientist. Soon, two werewolf characters are introduced, one a soldier and the other a spy, and their role in the war and their relationship is woven into the novel's main plot.
I love historical romance, but even more I love historical science fiction and fantasy with romance, or romantic elements. There's something about the mix of flavors that draws me in; I get an extra buzz from the story when more than one genre element is present. I loved Colleen Gleason's Regency vampire-slayer novels (The Gardella Chronicles, beginning with The Rest Falls Away: The Gardella Vampire Chronicles) and the time travel aspect of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Susan Krinard's werewolf romances (beginning with Touch of the Wolf (Historical Werewolf Series, Book 1) do a wonderful job of fitting paranormal creatures into nineteenth century history. From the fantasy side, Judith Tarr's novels such as Pride of Kings and Caroline Stevermer's When The King Comes Home (A College of Magics) mix magic and romantic elements into history.
I think the main reason I love combined flavors is that mixing genres is a way to avoid the same-old, same-old of historical romance. The plot usually runs like this: hero and heroine meet, family/money/status/scandalous past/amnesia keep them apart, then they are brought together once more. For me, those plot complications become more compelling if the family issue is that a werewolf needs to marry another werewolf or he can't have werewolf children, or if the scandalous past is only because the heroine isn't human and doesn't have human standards of behavior. I don't know what to expect, and the reading experience becomes more exciting as a result.
From a marketing standpoint, cross-genre books can be a problem--how do you market the book? Is it a romance/erotic novel, or is it a paranormal? Should there be a clench on the cover, or a man turning into a wolf? Will the book be shelved in Romance on Science Fiction and Fantasy? Do the readers of the two genres have differing expectations, so in trying to please both, you please neither? For The Moonlight Mistress, at least, this was less of an issue. As an "erotic novel" rather than a straightforward romance, I had a little more freedom in how the plot and relationships progressed. Though there are several romances in the novel, they proceed in different ways, and end at different stages: one clearly Happily Ever After, one on the brink of a marriage that's clearly only the beginning of the relationship, and a third, a ménage, still in the formative stages. Adding werewolves merely added a new flavor to the blend.
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