Why We Read Paranormal Romance Stories—And Why I Write Them

Why We Read Paranormal Romance Stories—And Why I Write Them

Some people act as if reading paranormal romance stories is awkward. But they’re probably reading it, too.
Kinsey Holley
By

My name is Kinsey. I write paranormal romance—specifically, werewolves.

Paranormal romance (PR) is a subgenre of romance encompassing any stories with fantasy or science fiction elements. The two arguably oldest sub-sub-genres of PR are also the two non-romance readers are most familiar with, thanks to “Twilight”: Vampires and werewolves.

When I tell women that I write romance, they ask “What kind?” and I answer, “Werewolves,” they’ll respond with A) a quizzical look; B) a tight, embarrassed-for-me kind of smile followed quickly by a change of subject; or C) an enthusiastic declaration for Team Edward or Team Jacob. (When I tell men I write romance they always, and only, make lame jokes about research.)

But paranormal romance includes way more than just fangs and fur. Shapeshifters of all kinds, angels and demons and incubi and succubi, witches, fairies, elves, orcs, aliens from outer space (or just humans living in outer space)—you name it, someone’s written a romance novel about it. Some of these books are dark and angsty, while others are light and fluffy and fun. I just got a tweet today from someone with a new lesbian science-fiction space western series. In the past couple of years, zombie romances have become a thing. But not a thing I care to think about too much, so, moving on…

Some paranormal romances feature a whole bunch of sex (J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, with vampires), others feature romance but not much sex (Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, with werewolves). Vampires have always been, and will likely forever be, the cool kids of PR. Readers can’t seem to slake their thirst for pale dead bloodsuckers who live hundreds of years, often in the same place, with no one ever questioning why they don’t age and can never be reached in the daytime.

Werewolves Will Always Pale Next to Vampires

Vampire heroes annoy me. For one thing, they’re dead, and I don’t approve of sex with dead people. I’m very tolerant and open-minded about other peoples’ sex lives, but necrophilia’s a hard limit for me. I can’t trust any sentient creature that doesn’t eat. Most vampires are unconscious during the day and, even if they’re not, you still can’t take them to the beach or on a picnic. They can’t cook you breakfast. If you have a day job, they can’t give you a ride to work when your car is in the shop, and good luck getting any quality time together. All in all, vampires make poor boyfriends. That doesn’t keep millions of women from spending millions of dollars every year on vampire romance.

I’m very tolerant and open-minded about other peoples’ sex lives, but necrophilia’s a hard limit for me.

Every couple of years we see articles about how werewolves are the next hot trend in romance; several such articles appeared each time a “Twilight” novel was published or movie released. Alas, no werewolf wave has ever materialized; year in, year out, it’s still the pale dead bloodsuckers. Werewolves in romance are like soccer in the United States: They’re the Next Big Thing, and they always will be.

Many romance readers won’t read anything but romance, whatever particular subgenres they prefer. But there are a lot of PR readers who also read straight science fiction or fantasy, and for the same reasons: They like the world building, the unpredictable plots, the characters unconstrained by the mundane. Plus, they like reading about people falling in love and living happily after because, really, who doesn’t?

The Difference Between Romance Novels and Pornography

Ah. Maybe it’s not the falling in love and happily ever after that intrigues you—maybe it’s the whole lot of sex. I’ll certainly not judge you for that, but let’s understand that I’m discussing romance here, not pornography. There’s erotic paranormal romance, which is a whole, whole, whole bunch of sex, much of it unconventional, but it’s still romance. I won’t attempt a definition of porn—I’m in agreement with Justice Potter Stewart.[1] But I will tell you that if you can skip all the sex scenes, and there’s still a story, it’s not porn.

Some women enjoy reading hot, graphic sex but aren’t entirely comfortable with the fact that they enjoy it. Reading it in a science fiction/fantasy context alleviates their feelings of guilt or discomfort. Similarly, some women read hot romance as a marital aid, but they feel like they’re cheating, somehow, if they read contemporary books about people in the real world. Reading sexy sex scenes involving creatures from other realms (or planets—I’m giving science fiction romance short shrift in this piece, I’m afraid) removes that discomfort. I know a lot of women who read hot romance, whether paranormal or another kind, to help them get in the mood. I know of no husbands who complain about it.

Paranormal Romance Trumps Other Forms of Romance, Easy

In a rather counterintuitive way, it’s easier to suspend disbelief with PR than it is with stories set in the real world. If you know anything of history, then when you’re reading a historical romance you can’t help thinking about chamber pots and muddy streets and early tooth decay and the Western aversion to full baths, even though every historical romance heroine has a peculiar habit, remarked upon by her exasperated family, of taking immersive baths several times a week. (That’s why historical heroines have to be rich—it takes manpower to heat and carry all that water.)

It’s easier to suspend disbelief with paranormal romance than it is with stories set in the real world.

When you read romantic suspense, or romances involving action and adventure, you can’t help thinking that if you were on the run, you’d probably not stop to shag the incredibly hot SEAL/mercenary/undercover police officer who was the only reason you’d stayed alive this long.

And if you read a regular contemporary romance, you can’t help thinking that a defense attorney who busts her mysterious client out of jail and goes on the run with him is an idiot; high-powered professional women don’t ditch their equally high-powered fiancés for the guys who paint their houses; and a billionaire CEO doesn’t fall for a bookish secretary who was just minding her own business when he burst into her boss’s office.

With paranormal romance, though, you’re not pulled out of the story so often because, look—you’ve already got a hero who turns into a werewolf, and a heroine who came back from the dead, so what the hell?

Answer me this: what kind of TV series is more likely to make you go “Oh, COME. ON”—a show about a socially awkward, non-millionaire physicist who winds up with a superhot blond, or a series about vampires and werewolves and fairies?

So, Why Do Women Write Paranormal Romance Stories?

Those are a few reasons why women read PR. So why do women write it?

Well, for one thing, it sells. It’s one of the highest-selling romance subgenres. I think most romance writers write what they like to read. I hadn’t really thought about it before starting this article, but now I want to do a survey of my romance peeps and if anyone writes in a genre they don’t like to read themselves.

Despite the size of the market, and of its readership, there’s still some stigma attached to romance and I feel it more keenly as a writer than I ever did as a reader.

When I decided to try my hand at writing a romance, it just made sense to stick to what I liked to read. Write what you know, and all that. And I like writing paranormal for the same reason I like reading it—I’m not constrained by the mundane. (If you can’t tell, that’s my shiny new phrase.) I like the freedom of building my own world, with my own rules, and the discipline of having to stick to those rules as I write my stories. I like the challenge of making non-human characters as real and vulnerable and relatable as any human. I like werewolves.

I like not having to include condoms in my sex scenes[2].

I’ve never been ashamed of reading romance novels. I’ve never even been ashamed about reading sexy romance novels. Writing them, on the other hand… Kinsey Holley is my nom de smut, and while I’m not ashamed of what I write, I must confess that sometimes I’m… embarrassed, maybe, depending on to whom I’m talking.

I think romance is a lot more mainstream than it used to be, but telling people you write it is still kind of fraught. I’m a librarian at a large, old international law firm. My daughter attends a conservative parochial school[3]. My family attends a Baptist church which, though quite liberal by Baptist standards—we have at least one gay couple in the congregation and a lot of members will order wine with dinner, right there in front of God and everybody—might still take a dim view of hot girl-on-werewolf action[4].

Despite the size of the market, and of its readership, there’s still some stigma attached to romance and I feel it more keenly as a writer than I ever did as a reader. All things considered, I think it better if not everyone in my life knows I write sexy stories about werewolves and the women who love them[5].

 


[1] “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….” Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184.

[2] Because werewolves don’t have STDs. Duh.

[3] Werewolf smut pays for a classical Anglican education.

[4] My books always end in HEAs—Happily Ever Afters—or HFNAPEAS—Happy For Now and Presumably Ever After. And they involve two, and only two, heterosexual people. But still. Oral sex.

[5] I really hope it’s not necessary but just in case, I want to make something clear—I don’t write bestiality. My very Baptist mother, who was considered prude by her contemporaries in the 1950s, has been horrified by my semi-secret second job since she learned of it. (I succeeded in keeping my pen name from her for a couple of years, but someone in the family ended up blabbing.) She finally told me—after I’d had three books published—that she’d thought werewolf romance involved women having sex with wolves. As in, furry, four-legged Canis lupus. I was a little insulted. Actually, I was extremely insulted. I explained to her that Romance Novel Werewolves get busy while in human form. She was only partially mollified because, you know. Oral sex.

Kinsey Holley is the pen name of a romance writer who lives in Houston, Texas.

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