Eerie Lovers and Their Heroines
You can say what you want about the enduring popularity of the supernatural romance: that a more sophisticated reading public has growing jaded with the same ole same ole, that it’s an offshoot of authors who want to stretch out of genre without leaving the loyal and the familiar. Some even theorize that it’s a New Age rebellion against the high tech society that we’ve created for our convenience (our own Frankenstein’s Monster as it were) and now we’re so overwhelmed by it we’re seeking an escape into fantasy. Whatever the reason, readers want to tiptoe on that dark side.
Supernatural romances hold a cross genre appeal. Horror and Sci Fi fans will find elements of suspense and eerie mood without the graphic shocks of Clive Barker. Romance traditionalists who are queasy with Anne Rice will be satisfied by the expected love relationship. Readers looking for something different, something to stimulate the imagination in a new direction will just plain enjoy them. If they are well done.
Supernatural romances didn’t reinvent the wheel. They hinge upon a well established plot device: the Beauty and the Beast story rewritten with a darker twist. Whether it be a vampire, a werewolf, a warlock, or ghost, you are asking the reader to love the unlovable, to accept beyond the boundaries set up for a normal relationship. Nothing is predictable when you can make the impossible believable. The trick is in bringing that elusive reader with you. To do this, I’ve come up with what I call the Three R’s of writing supernatural romance: Make the plot Reasonable, make the hero (or heroine) Redeemable, and remember it’s a Romance.
Writing about the supernatural works only when the author can make the impossible seem probable. You can do whatever you want within the supernatural realm as long as you can make the reader suspend belief long enough to get involved with the story and the people in it. If they can’t make that leap of faith, you’ve lost them. The writer has to set up a world outside reality that will suck that doubting reader into it along with the resisting heroine.
Now, about that Beast… Convince the reader by convincing the heroine that this dark, dangerous male who’s bringing threat into her life truly does exist by giving him a past, by showing how he’s managed to fool others into thinking he’s normal or how he’s been able to walk a parallel life without making himself known to mankind. These guys don’t just drop out of the Twilight Zone onto page 28. If they exist in your book, give them a place to exist in real life.
Don’t make the cardinal mistake of forgetting what kind of man you’re dealing with. He is not the guy next door and if he was, you’d want to move to a new neighborhood in a hurry. He’s not the type a woman would normally daydream about fondly–at least not in most cases. These are men outside the normal parameters who exist outside the acceptable, and have for a long, long time before the heroine enters the picture. They are going to be affected by this alternate lifestyle whether it by a curse of baying at the moon, or drinking blood, or having no corporeal self. This has got to weigh on this poor guy’s self-esteem. How he relates to this otherworldly existence is something you have to decide right up front because it’s going to guide his motivations throughout your book. Was he an unwilling victim, was he duped by promises that weren’t kept, did he trade a human existence for the sake of revenge or misguided love, and how has he adjusted since? Kicking and screaming, brooding, resigned? Pick one and develop it, but whatever you do, don’t make him indifferent to these monumental changes that make normal life impossible.
Okay, you’ve got yourself a hero who’s pining away because he can never have a normal love relationship and what do we do but drop a tempting heroine in his path. How they react to one another and deal with the differences between the worlds they live in is the basis for your book. The external factors and internal conflicts are what’s going to make your story strong and stand out as a supernatural romance.
This is more than a boy-meets-girl-loses girl-gets girl tale. I guess you could call it ghoul-meets-girl. Immediately you have to take into account a rocky courtship. At some point in the story, your heroine is going to have to come to terms with what the hero is. The more she resists the truth of his true existence, the more believable it becomes to the reader, the more involved the readers becomes in the heroine’s mental struggle to accept what should not be. No self-respecting heroine is going to learn the man of her dreams is really an undead nightmare and say, “You’re a vampire? Cool!” Excuse me! You’ve just lost me as a reader. The whole element of threat is what makes these stories work. The heroine has to know this man can destroy her, but will he? Can he help himself? That’s tension. Have her fight the truth, come up with alternative solutions, have her dig into folk lore or science either to prove or disprove what she is told. But never have her sit down with him over a cappuccino where he says, “Oh, by the way, I have this slight facial hair problem once a month.” There has to be that sense of danger with her acceptance of what he is. And with that comes the hopelessness of their situation.
The success of any supernatural romance rests upon the writer’s ability to portray the Dark Hero as someone the heroine could conceivably fall in love with. This is a stretch when you consider she could be cuddling up to an undead ghoul who’d rather tap into a little Type O than go out for Chinese. First, you have to create that genuine response in the heroine to what he is through the use of all five senses. In order to have a sense of otherworldly danger that both terrifies and fascinates, the images, the feelings need to be active and sensual, not a passive telling that puts the reader at a distance. Remember, he isn’t a man who, oh by the way, just happens to be a vampire. He’s a creature of the night, who has lived selfishly off the blood and deaths of others for centuries. Give him . . . history. Make her feel, see, taste, smell, hear the differences between them and their worlds. Make it real to both of them.
Remember, the very existence of your Beastly hero makes him in most cases spiritually damned. In order to make him a hero, you have to make him yearn to be other than what he is. That’s why Dracula, no matter how sexy Frank Langella might be, is never the hero, or Anne Rice’s novels could never be considered as romance. Lestat doesn’t feel any horror in the way he lives nor does he want to be redeemed. A romance hero has to be a good guy. He has to have heroic qualities that separate him from the villainy of his kind. He has to develop reader empathy or he never makes the transition to hero. If the reader can’t love something about him, how can the heroine? The fact that he’s dark and dangerously sexy isn’t enough (though it’s definitely one of the better parts!) She’s not going to go off the deep end for some dead guy who haunts houses unless you give her a darn good reason. Again, threat is very compelling, that external factor that pushes them apart, but also together. For example, he comes to her for help, he saves her life, they have to team up to defeat some greater evil; some reason to form a bond. She needs to depend upon him, to see good in him. The writer can express these qualities either in his heroic actions or by making the reader (and ultimately the heroine) privy to his POV.
Also, take some time to consider the type of woman who would fall in love with an unnatural creature; a woman who is strong–not a victim, who is herself outside the norm of acceptable everyday life (Carol Brady would never take a vampire lover!) She’s usually a loner; in jeopardy or flaunting traditional avenues in her lifestyle with a reason to bond with or be accepting of someone else who is an outsider. She’s not going to have an extremely strong tie to a normal routine existence or rules, and therefore will have a willingness to risk her life in a walk on the Dark Side with the one she loves. Passivity is not acceptable here. She must be willing to take action to save not only herself, but him from the threat her world imposes upon him.
Don’t get so caught up in the supernatural mystique that you forget you’re writing first and foremost a romance. And this means the obligatory happy ending. It’s up to the writer to come up with some acceptable way for the natural and unnatural world to combine so hero and heroine can share a future together. He has to love the heroine enough to want to be worthy of her. I have a hard time with vampire romances in which the vampire brings the heroine over into his world of the damned to share his curse. He’s given up on his desire for redemption and she’s eager to join him in his blood-sucking existence (note: this is a major turn off to some of the editors I’ve talked with, too) The yearning for a normal future is much more powerful than caving in to the darkness unless it’s done in such a way that there’s no way around it, or the author can make it seem as though the romance transcends the moral issues, or it is for the betterment of others. It’s up to each individual writer to come to terms with this in a way that satisfies the reader and is consistent with the characters…and again, is believable. No “and then a miracle occurred” cures on the last page. If he’s reverted to a human existence or she is to give up mortal life to have him, it must be set up solidly within the story to build to that moment where the happily ever after is now a reality.
And this comes to my 4th R: REWARD. What’s in it for me? What’s in it for the hero if he’s going to give up shape-shifting and wreaking havoc to settle down to domestic bliss? What’s in it for the heroine if she’s going to leave all that’s familiar to walk on the wild side with a man who may only exist in dreams? What’s in it for the reader who’s spent their time and their $7.99 to suspend belief? Trust. And with trust comes the reward. The hero and heroine form a bond, a trust wherein they will love and protect and provide for one another so that the outside worlds no longer hold an exclusive appeal. They’re BOTH giving up something to have one another and this sacrifice brings them their reward.
I know, this is where you want me to talk about sex. Whether it’s sensual, spiritual, metaphysical (think how sexy the Ghost and Mrs. Muir was and there was no physical contact!) or down right hot, hot, hot, the writer needs to establish that reward in a way that satisfies the H/H and the reader. When you’re dealing with the supernatural you can bend reality, tap into the sharing of thoughts and feelings that deepen the bond between the H/H until they actually become one heart, one soul. Soar beyond the boundaries of time and shape and physical presence to make what the H/H have together something spectacular, something unique, something worth the sacrifice so that when he rolls over in his coffin and asks, “Was it good for you?” both the heroine and the reader should reply, breathlessly, “Hell, yes!” That’s the reward: Undying, untouchable and eternal love, and what woman doesn’t want that? And the reward for the reader? A great book. Never leave them with less.
Though readers are hungry for more of the supernatural, a word of warning: If you are going to sell a supernatural story line, it’s going to have to have an extra hook to snag that editor’s attention; a unique plot twist, an unusual combination of supernatural elements and darned good writing! The “oh by the way he’s a vampire, werewolf, ghost, etc” angle isn’t going to get you in the door any more. Know your craft. Do your research in the area of myth, folklore or science. Go beyond well known fact to develop deeper character. Don’t stop at legend. Dig deeper into the actual rational explanations behind those old beliefs. Combine folk superstition, Hollywood hype, Christian tradition and medical logic, or contrast them in ways to create tension and your own unique twist to a familiar tale.
I hope the popularity of vampire and otherworldly romances transcends the curse of a passing phase and latches firmly onto its own niche in the romance market. This can only be done by putting out top-notch fiction that will win over any romance reader by its superior story telling and emotional impact instead of just by its novelty, alone. Also, you want to lure those readers who wouldn’t touch a romance with a ten foot pole to broaden your own reader base. I’m betting that once the reader gets a taste of something a little different, they’ll be hungry for more.
© 2010 by Nancy Gideon