Who Moved My Cheese? Are Paranormal Romances Due for a Career Change
Last week I blogged about my frustration with the labeling of a certain paranormal book which was labeled a romance but did not have a very satisfactory ending. In reading more about paranormal romance from the perspective of primarily outsiders, it became increasingly clear that there is a push to broaden the meaning of romance or perhaps to reclaim the word “romance” and thus the genre definition to represent a more classical meaning. In an article written for The Internet of Science Review (registration required), author Cynthia Ward indicated that paranormal romance is booming but these different romances need not be bound by the ubiquitous HEA.
Like its horror parent, paranormal romance can be dark and disturbing, even terrifying. Paranormal romance can take place in an unfair or malevolent universe. And a paranormal romance novel or story can end unhappily.
The term, Paranormal Romance, has been bandied about by mainstream media and publishers outside of the genre. Stalwart romance genre readers recognize its misuse immediately when it categorizes authors like Laurell K Hamilton and Charlaine Harris as paranormal romance writers. Paranormal romance writers bring to mind Jayne Ann Krentz and her futuristics; Christine Feehan and her breakthrough Carpathians; or Susan Grant’s science fiction romance, Contact.
What I thought would be interesting is to poll some authors about what they believe they write and what they think of labels. I also solicited an opinion from May, Milady Insanity, as she reads many a romances and has often advocated a broadening of the genre definition. Finally, I sought out an academic response from Dr. Frantz, a literature professor at Fayetteville State University and blogger at Teach Me Tonight. The responses I received were really illuminating and I think serve to provide some thought provoking insight. I’ve learned a bit about romance, about paranormal, and it has helped me coalesce my own ideas.
- Kelley Armstrong
- Patricia Briggs
- Kim Harrison
- Lois McMaster Bujold
- Kristine Kathryn Rusch aka Kristine Grayson
- Sharon Shinn
- Meljean Brook
- Christine Feehan
- Sherrilyn Kenyon
- Nora Roberts
- Aspiring author May (Milady Insanity)
- Dr. Sarah Frantz
Define paranormal romance? Sure, I’ll bite. As for the paranormal part of the equation, anything otherworldly qualifies. For a book to be a romance, though, in my opinion, the main plot must revolve around the development of a romance. Other genres can come into play as subplots, but the point of the novel is the romance. There are secondary issues, like the happy ending, but there are plenty of examples of classic romances that don’t end happily-ever-after. As a reader, I don’t expect a 100% happy ’til death do us part’ ending, but I at least want a satisfying upbeat ending. Still, that’s secondary, and so long as a book fulfills the requirement of having the romantic relationship as the main plot, I’d say it’s a romance.
As a writer, I love crossing genres. I can pull out all the story elements I enjoy, and put them into one book, without worrying that I’ll overstep the boundaries of my genre label. But that doesn’t mean classification isn’t an issue. Marketers want to know what sector to target, booksellers want to know where to shelve the novels, and readers like to know what they’re picking up before they plunk down their cash. I’ve been dealing with the classification issue from the beginning–my first book came out in hardcover with stylish “literary” art with no mention of werewolves on the cover, and was marketed as mainstream fiction! It’s much easier now, when I can just point to big cross-genre authors like LKH, Charlaine Harris and Kim Harrison and say my books are “kinda like that.” That’s the easiest way to handle it. As I’ve learned, anytime I say my books fit into a certain genre, someone will tell me I’m wrong. Worse, though, is making the mistake of saying they don’t really fit into genre x, which can be seen as a slam against genre x! Better to leave classification to marketers, booksellers and readers, keep my mouth shut and write.
I’ve complained, and heard a lot of other authors complain that genres are an artificial construct, imposed on books by publishers in order to attract an audience for a book. On the other hand, genres are undeniably useful in pairing up readers with the books they like to read. Writers, who want to eat — or just be read — generally decide what genre we want our book to be in, and write accordingly.
Moon Called, like all my books, is a fantasy. The story could take place, largely unchanged (though not as interesting to me) without a romance, but without the magic there wouldn’t be a story. Labeling the book an urban fantasy, rather than a paranormal romance is useful because it tells the reader what to expect. Someone picking up Moon Called because they wanted to read a romance, would be very disappointed. There’s not enough romance — and the romance hasn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion by the end of the book. And there’s no sex. Sexual tension, yes — but no sex! It would be like taking a big swig of milk and discovering it was lemonade instead. That same romance reader, knowing that most urban fantasies have some romantic elements, might pick it up, and, warned that it is a little different from what they usually like to read, they can enjoy it for what it is.
Genre labels can be very limiting. I have friends who only read fantasy — though I know they’d love, say, Bujold’s sf series about Miles Vorkosigan (and so would a lot of romance readers, too). But in the case of urban fantasy and its kissing cousin, the paranormal romance, there seems to be a lot of readers who are willing to cross the genre barrier which is one of the reasons why both genres are very healthy in the current market.
As far as putting romantic elements in most of my books . . . absolutely. As a reader, a writer, and a human being, I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick — and how they relate to other people. Love, in all of its faces, is an integral part of why people act and feel the way they do — and how they connect to each other. From a writer’s viewpoint, love is both a wonderful motivator and source of conflict. When I am creating characters, part of that process is the question, who do they love? and the equally important who loves them? When I know that, I understand who they are and can put them in the story. Lastly, my stories tend to be set in worlds that are pretty dark, no happy little flitting fairies and fanciful unicorns in my books. As in real life, it is love (and a dash of humor) that keeps everyone’s chin up in the darkness — and makes the end satisfying.
I don’t know if I’m really the person to help you as I’ve never considered myself writing paranormal romance. ;-) I’m feel like I’m in a more of a urban or dark fantasy genre. Even so, I’ve been amazed and gratified at the welcoming response from the romance readers, and I know they have a lot to do with how I got to where I am so quickly. It’s a testament that romance readers are open to any story that has a heart.
Some people just don’t like chocolate in their peanut butter; and you can’t argue taste. Well, you *can*, but it’s a mug’s game. And people who don’t recognize anything except physical violence as action, I can’t do much about either. My more alert readers are suitably uneasy by the end of Vol. 1; the rest, well, they’ll have their heads in just the right position for the proper effect when the bat swings around…
That said, one of the covert mandates of both SF and fantasy is that the world be in effect another main character: the reader expects to be introduced to that character, explore it, perhaps bond with it, and fully understand its motivations by the end of the tale. “Show me the world!” is a demand the book must ultimately answer. It’s not just a stage, it’s a player in its own right, and has to be treated by the writer with equal attention. In romance, the world may be well lost for love; in F&SF, it had better not be.
The principal problem with Beguilement as a fantasy novel is that it’s half a book; Legacy is its second half, not its sequel. Over the book as a whole, I think the elements are in balance, but as of the cut-off point for the first volume, we’re in a section where the relationship has been foregrounded for a time and the woes of the world have been, apparently, backgrounded. In the second volume, that will almost reverse. In retrospect, I suspect some (but not all) disgruntled fantasy readers may revise their first impressions of volume one, but I won’t find out till July, sigh. I hope the romance readers will still be satisfied.
The actual sequel, another duology with the working title of The Wide Green World , is alas back to being a fantasy with romance subplots again, but that’s another tale with different thematic concerns, even though those concerns grow directly out of the first book. (Wrangling the massive backstory is proving a challenge, just at present, but that’s another writerly problem.)
Your work has received positive response from the romance community in the past. Would you be willing to share whether you feel that you are writing in the paranormal romance genre or the fantasy genre?
Fantasy. But I am happy to poach as many readers from the other side of the genre fence as I can.
Do you think those labels are helpful or hurtful to readers?
Genre is actually a recent invention, stemming from the period when there began to be too many books published for any one or even small group of people to read them all. There had to be some way of pre-sorting them. I find genre labels helpful when they guide readers to books, hurtful when they push them away. Genre is good as a door but bad as a wall, in other words — but since that wall really only exists in people’s minds, it never hurts to coax folks to be more adventurous.
Do you think a new genre label would best suit your readers and other authors who have that “cross over” appeal as it is often termed?
No, not really. That would tend to limit one’s audience to the intersection of the Venn diagram only, shrinking it to something publishers will be even less willing to pursue. It would be better for the readership to learn to be be less daunted by labels generally. As far as I know, word of mouth is the only power than can overcome that problem.
Ms. Rusch is one of those authors who crosses genres, literally. She writes science fiction as Kristine Kathryn Rusch, mysteries Kris Nelscott and romances as Kristine Grayson. Her 2006 mystery, Days of Rage, was chosen as one of the top ten books of 2006 by Kirkus. I think the main difference between a paranormal romance and traditional sf/f is that in paranormals, as in all romance, the key word is “romance.” If the romance isn't there, the story doesn't work. Romance readers are willing to live with a world that isn't as well explained as some sf/f fans would like if the romantic story is top-notch.
For myself, I think I’m writing pretty firmly in the fantasy genre. I’ve heard people say you can tell if a book is fantasy/science fiction because if you take away the fantasy/sf elements, the book can’t exist. For the most part, that’s true of my books.
However, I actually like it if people consider me a romance writer as well, and obviously all my books include romances! My feeling is that more romance readers would follow me into the sf/f shelves than sf/f readers would follow me to the romance shelves, so I’m happy to be categorized as I am. But, boy, I’d sure love all the crossover traffic I can get.
I have heard the term “fantasy romance” used sometimes instead of “paranormal romance,” and I think that might be more accurate for what *I* do. To me, “paranormal” seems to have a sort of occult element — ghosts, vampires, werewolves, time travel — and often a more contemporary feel. What I write is more likely to be traditional medieval sword-and-sorcery fantasy, or alternate-world fantasy, as opposed to what I consider true “paranormal.” But I don’t mind being lumped in with the paranormal writers, when I am.
Are labels good or bad? I think they can be helpful to the reader. I read a lot of books and see a lot of movies, and I confess I like to have a good idea of what I’m in for before I start. That doesn’t mean I won’t try something new from time to time, but, again, I like to have at least a fuzzy idea of what the parameters are before the book opens or the movie begins. Some days you want to read a mystery. Some days you want to read a romance. Some days you want to be surprised. Labels help us a little bit on our less adventurous days…but I do hope people feel adventurous now and then.
Though my first love is the romance genre, I often venture into genres where the HEA isn’t guaranteed by the story (or even an ending, happy or not: comics and many sf/f series have no end in sight — Batman is still a bachelor almost seventy years after his creation (I think he’d be a lot less broody if he hooked up with Wonder Woman) and Superman took fifty years to settle down with Lois, and god knows what Cyclops and Jean Grey will be doing in a decade). And although I seem to enjoy sf/f best when a romance is included within the story (such as Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels Trilogy), the fantastic and speculative elements are my primary draw to the sf/f (and horror) genres. So I think it inevitable that they show up in my writing as well.
I don’t think I could ever be a writer who didn’t include a HEA. I’ve tried — I went through a “literary” period because the college writing courses I was taking frowned on genre (any genre) writing. I hated being forced into a writing style that didn’t feel natural. And when I was writing fanfiction, there were several stories that I tried to write to an un-HEA … and I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if it’s the Harlequins I read as a kid that got to me, all of the fairy tales, or just the way I’m wired. The first long story I wrote when I was thirteen or so was just like a Harlequin (only really bad), and almost every story since then has had a romance — not always at the center, but always there. So I don’t know if I ever *intended* to write paranormal romance … but I certainly seem destined to. It’s like my mate: without it, I’d either turn evil or die.
The definition, to me, of a romance is a HEA whether it is paranormal or not. My readers can expect to have a happy ever after. That is one of the reasons I made it very clear that Dark Celebration was not a normal romance, but a reunion book. i didn’t want readers to be disappointed and to understand that they were getting one night in already existing characters lives, rather than a normal romance!
I guess because I’ve read and written so much fantasy and science fiction, I don’t really see a difference between paranormal romance and the other two.
Honestly, I don’t. There is plenty of romantic SF/F such as Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, Carole Nelson Douglas, Terry Brooks, Robert Frezza, Anne McCaffrey even Mike Resnick. The only real difference between those and the ones now labeled paranormal romance is that a relationship between two people is a requirement. But as I said, there have been plenty of SF/F written where the relationship between the characters was the backbone of the story. Even Harry Potter.
As for the happy ending, no. I’ve had books that didn’t have the requisite HEA ending. Bittersweet is probably the only way to describe them and they have been among my most popular books. The only thing I think readers expect is that there is a relationship between the two major characters.
I apologize for bothering you once again, but in reading your answer and rifling through my admittedly bad memory, I don’t recall which books of yours did not end with an HEA. Could you, perhaps, jog my memory so I can point to the correct books in your backlist to highlight for the readers?
LOL sure, Danger died at the end of Dark Side of the Moon and then Seize the Night was extremely bittersweet.
A Romance novel has to contain a love story between the two main characters that’s key to the book. The story simply couldn’t be told without it. This relationship must end happily. Happily doesn’t mean the book needs to end with a proposal, or that they’re surrounded by their bevy of adorable, rosy-cheeked children. It means they’re together (certainly alive), and the writer has convinced the reader that these two people belong together and are commited to making a future. While stories that have the hero or heroine dying for each other, a cause, for honor, or just bad luck can be wrenchingly romantic–or parting our lovers because they’ll always have Paris can tug our heart strings–these fall outside key genre expectations. These are love stories, not Romance novels.
If the book is Paranormal Romance, in addition to the above there must be paranormal/otherwordly elements also essential to the story. It’s a blend. Whatever the world-building, whatever the character types, it STILL must contain a central and essential love story between the two main characters that ends happily. These are basic, elemental and vital aspects of the genre, and the reader expectations of the genre. So if your werewolf hero gets offed by a silver bullet, or your vampire hunter heroine decides to go it on her own at the end, you don’t have Paranormal Romance, you have Paranormal Fiction. Same goes if the relationship between the h/h isn’t key to the story.
This isn’t merely what my readers expect from me if I’m writing Paranormal Romance–though they certainly do, and I would never betray the reader–but what the vast majority of readers expects and certainly deserves from any book labeled and marketed as Romance.
Why should Paranormal Romance, which has been a sub-set of the Romance genre for years be redefined? Those who don’t want to write or publish within the framework and expectations of the genre need only label and market their books for what they are. Paranormal Fiction. If they’re good, solid stories, Romance readers, like others, will find them, and enjoy them–without feeling betrayed or disappointed.
A definition…I’m not sure I have one.
Hmmm… The paranormal part’s obvious, but I think if you want to tag romance behind it, then the protagonist should be forming a serious relationship with someone(s). Serious defined as “I could marry this guy.”
I’d certainly include the couple as protagonists type of story under this definition as well–like Eileen Wilks’ Lupi or Eve and Roarke–because their characters and their romantic relationship deepen and change with each book.
I’m not saying that all urban fantasy novels can be included in the paranormal romance subgenre. I wouldn’t include Patricia Briggs’s Mercy or Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse, for instance. Likewise, I have read books that I personally wouldn’t call a paranormal romance but were sold as paranormal romance, Jackie Kessler’s Hell’s Belles and Yasmine Galenorn’s Witchling being notable examples.
It does get a bit fuzzy from here on out, because what I’m saying can be read as so long the protagonist’s lovelife is an important part of the book, it can be called a romance. Some would call this chick-lit. And what happens if they break up? Is the book still a romance (by my definition) in the interim?
Something else to keep in mind is that urban fantasy, while it does overlap in subject matter with paranormal romance, it has a…different feel. Ask Jordan Summers–she asked on her blog and on PBW’s Friday 20 about how to get the feel right.
Simon R. Green’s John Taylor series is usually my example, but you might want to check out Rob Thurman’s Night Life as well.
Hell’s Belles isn’t a paranormal romance because of subject matter, and if you want to get really picky, Jezebel’s voice is too chick-lit as well.
If you want urban fantasy with a female protagonist, Laura Anne Gilman’s Retriever’s series, Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues and Justine Musk’s Bloodangel (I loooooove this book) are other books you can look at.
Tor’s Paranormal romance line tends to have para romances with a more urban fantasy feel too, like Jeanie London’s Retrieval.
Dr. Frantz is an Associate Professor of Literature and English at Fayetteville State University. She is a regular contributor at Teach Me Tonight and is contributing to a book to be published entitled: Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Romance Writers. Dr. Frantz is emminently suited to discuss this matter as she teaches a course Introduction to Literature: Vampires and Desire. Where was Dr. Frantz when I was going to college? I would have taken that than study the Dweebs (Dead White EEnglish Boys aka Socrates and the like).I think the RWA’s definition of romance as containing both a central love story, and also an emotionally satisfying AND optimistic ending have to hold true for any romance, no matter the sub-genre. (Which is why the recent blogosphere speculation–yours in particular–on marketing problems and redefinitions have piqued my interest so much.) So, as much as Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series may be all about the relationships she has (with SOOOO many men/males ;), the central focus of each story is *not* on that *one* relationship (even if it’s a threesome) that can be resolved with a HEA, so the books don’t count as romances per se (although I certainly think their success can be attributed to romance readers’ interest in the story *because* of the focus on relationships).
So, if we’re going to discuss paranormal *romance*, I’d stress that the romance is still vital to that combination.
The paranormal part, of course, is what you were really asking about. Paranormal, of course, means “beyond” normal, or anything that cannot be explained by science. I would personally add “in our world,” meaning that a totally different world, with magic and everything, is not paranormal by my definition. For example, then, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake world is paranormal, because it’s an alternate expression of our world with paranormal elements. Her Merry Gentry series is not paranormal, for me, but rather fantasy, because although it starts in “our” world, most of the action takes place in a totally other world, like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. “The Lord of the Rings” is not paranormal, even though it has magic, because it’s a different world. Matthew Haldeman-Time’s serial m/m erotica, “In This Land” (found on his website–sorry, had to do the plug because it’s too incredible not to) is not paranormal, because it’s a different world/planet. Other-world novels, then, are Science Fiction or Fantasy, depending on the novel–and I am by no means an expert on that designation. I tend to avoid SF/F.
So, if it’s set in any version of our world, in recognizable cities or towns or countries, but has “beyond science” elements, it’s paranormal. There’s different levels to paranormal. There’s the choice of paranormal elements: stuff that humans can do (telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, magic, etc.) and/or paranormal “monsters” (were-animals, zombies, ghosts, ghouls, fairies/faeries, vampires (oh, the vampires!!), etc.). There’s also the choice of level of paranormality: alternative histories, where everyone knows and accepts the paranormal elements (a la Hamilton) vs. stories where paranormal elements are something only a few people possess (a la most of Nora Roberts’ and Linda Howard’s paranormal stories).
I think, however, that my reason for the distinction between of-this-world stories being paranormal and not-of-this-world stories being sf/f is that a *primary* theme of all paranormal novels is the interaction between the normal of our world and the paranormal, between the mundane and the unexplainable. How does the normal woman respond when she finds out her lover is a vampire/werewolf/witch? How does a normal man respond when he finds out he’s not normal but comes into his previously latent powers or is turned? That’s the distinction between paranormal and SF/F, for me. If that tension doesn’t exist, it’s not a paranormal novel, even if it is set in our world. If it were an alternative history of our world where EVERYONE were paranormal, that would still be fantasy because the tension between mundane and paranormal would not exist. If you think of Nora Roberts’ paranormals (I haven’t read the Morrigan’s Cross series, so I can’t speak for those), each and every relationship has to get over the “I don’t believe you” stage. Ditto Linda Howard’s paranormal romantic mysteries. That’s what makes them paranormal.
Time travel novels, then, would seem to straddle this divide. The primary tension is in the clash between cultures separated by time, rather than by mundane/paranormal elements. So both the time traveler and the non-time traveler are mundane, but their meeting is brought about by paranormal elements. I don’t consider that true paranormal. But that might just be me. I think they’re a very different genre from paranormal.
My favorite paranormal series at the moment is J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books–and I’m obviously not alone there. ;) While the stories take place mostly in the “world” of the Brotherhood, that world is still hidden from the “normal” world and one of the tensions is how to keep it hidden. And all the relationships so far (and the future relationships that we know of) have had the tension of normal meets paranormal. In “Dark Lover,” Beth might be vampire, but she doesn’t know it until she makes the change. The heroines in “Lover Eternal” and “Lover Awakened” and the hero in “Lover Revealed” are all human and that is a tension in the novels.
Putting these two elements together, then, a paranormal *romance* is a novel focusing on a close relationship in which the primary mundane vs. paranormal tension needs to lie *between* the partners in the relationship. So while a story in which both characters know of, understand, and believe in the paranormal elements of the world would technically be “paranormal,” it might not be a paranormal *romance* because why have a romance with paranormal elements if the mundane/paranormal tension does not effect the relationship? In a paranormal romance, then, at least one character must believe they are mundane (whether or not they are) and have to struggle *within* the relationship with the tension between mundane and paranormal. This definition can be represented in any number of ways, but that’s what I come to when I actually try to parse out my personal understanding of the combination phrase “paranormal romance.”
I have no idea if this definition matches any that you’ve been researching in the sf/f community–these are just my quick thoughts from the romance perspective. And again, I stress the romance part. Gotta have that happy ending! :)
What I would love to see, if s/f/f/ is indeed more than just a trend, is a new section entitled Romantic Paranormal Fantasy with the labels on the spines in that section having labels saying paranormal fiction, fantasy fiction, paranormal romance, fantasy romance. I want to read the types of novels that Juno Press is releasing along with Kim Harrison, Patricia Briggs, Kelley Armstrong, Lois McMaster Bujold and Sharon Shinn and I want to find them easily. But I don’t want them labeled romance. Anyone else have ideas? thoughts? input? couldn’t make it to the end of the longest blog post ever?