Courting the Craft of Paranormal Romance
We’re a multi-cultural society, a global community of varying histories and legends. And yet, somehow, we all share a fascination with the supernatural … with the idea that the things unseen are not inactive. The concept of myths and legends shared through storytelling is as old as the spoken word. Among the cultures of the world, there is no shortage of fantastic tales and captivating creatures that haunt the psyches and dreams of a village’s or nation’s inhabitants. A further binding feature in every culture is the pursuit of romance and love. Combine the two, and you have a formula for a riveting story. It is not unexpected, therefore, that tales of magical beings in paranormal romance continue to explode as a popular fiction genre.
The area of romance fiction generated $1.375 billion in U.S. sales in 2007, a five percent increase over 2006, making it the biggest fiction publishing category for that year, according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing. The next largest market is sci-fi & fantasy, generating $495 million in revenue for the same year. A recent article in The New York Times reported that Harlequin Enterprises had fourth-quarter earnings in 2008 that were up 32 percent over the same period a year ago.
The paranormal romance formula seems simple: magical being meets normal, or latently magical, potential mate →withholding of secrets or self →conflict → third party interference → challenge of skills →new awareness → resolution. Or something along those lines. However, there are certain standards of storytelling that must be in place for the concept to work. The most successful paranormal authors have figured out certain aspects of the storytelling that ring most true with readers.
Following are some general guidelines as to why some supernatural romances work so well:
• The magical skills and idiosyncracies of the hero or heroine are established early on and closely followed. This is sometimes called world building, but it’s also personality building. A reader wants to get the sense that the character could be a real person, someone they can understand. The only way for that to happen would be if the author knows their character as well as or better than she knows herself. So if, for instance, our hero Shazam has a fiery temper that can erupt without warning, the reader needs to be given glimpses of that before the actual eruption. It builds tension, as well as an affinity for what Shazam is thinking and feeling.
• Supernatural skills have to be super. A reader doesn’t want a hero who can read really fast or jog backward. Exceptional abilities make for exceptional characters. One single ability that is carried out with unusual panache and an understanding that very few can do what he or she can do makes for riveting reading. As an example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series focused on a family of vampires, unusual in itself. Yet, additionally, each vampire had a unique gift that gave him increased value to his family, and to the story: e.g. the ability to read minds; the ability to influence thought; the ability to heal; the gift of foresight.
• Despite characters being in possession of such tremendous skills, the reader wants to be able to identify in some way with those characters. These are the all-too-human traits. Does she love dogs? Does he notice the way she never wants to be alone? Does an abiding anger or vengeance keep him from recognizing the feelings another has for him? Does she want to break free from her tribe or pack or past to forge a new life, but doesn’t know how? These very human dilemmas will make even a superstrong, shapeshifting vampire sympathetic in some way. Without it, the reader won’t care and won’t read on.
• Finally, the atmosphere of the story sets the tone for the story itself. Yes, this is world building; it is also world decorating. Whether it’s regency time travel or urban fantasy, the reader wants to be submerged in the very air that surrounds the characters. What are the smells and temperature of the wind that blows in from the past, or the breeze that shuffles over the ripe fruits of the souk? The successful paranormal author structures an environment that, though supernatural, is believable because it is consistently on display through the use of vivid description. This is where research on the author’s part is most apparent. A story told among the sidhe (shee) of Ireland must convey the essence of Ireland like a well-written travel article would. Travels among the djinn of the Middle East must evoke the exotic scents and textures of locales that most Western readers will never have visited. Research, imagination, and lush narrative combine for the successful setting.
Once these building blocks are in place, it’s up to the author to carry the story through. An unpredictable plot is a sure way to hold the attention of the reader, and that really does depend upon the skill of the author. In today’s rapidly evolving storytelling industry, one thing that is predictable, however, is that romance fiction is here to stay.
K. F. Zuzulo
Author of A Genie in the House of Saud: Zubis Rises, from Mystical Publishing
and The Third Wish, from Sapphire Blue Publishing