Hello, ParaUnbounders! Today we’re talking about a subject I just love to chat about so I was thrilled when I asked if Jami Gold wanted to be a guest on here and I asked her what topic, and she said, subtext! Jami is one of my Beta reading buddies and she runs a great blog where she writes excellent blog posts on writing craft, but she doesn’t get a lot of chances to just talk about the paranormal genre, so I thought it would be fun to have her on here!
Angela: Hi Jami, welcome to Paranormal Unbound! Subtext always makes a story richer and one of those fun things to play with, or think about when reading any work of fiction. As you talked about recently in your blog, some people would be surprised to know that genre fiction, much less romance, contains subtext. Since we’re on Paranormal Unbound, we’re going to zero in on subtext in paranormal romance. As you said in your email, there are some common tropes in paranormal fiction, but what’s the subtext at work under them?
Jami: Thanks for having me here, Angela! Yes, I love both paranormal romance and subtext, so it made sense–er, to me anyway–to combine them in our chat. Personally, I think paranormal has oodles of subtext, but I’d love to hear your thoughts first. *smile*
Angela: I think that’s why I love paranormal fiction, because there’s built-in subtext. We’re in the know that such and such is a were-gerbil but the heroine doesn’t, and so how fun it is when they get into a discussion of pet rodents and she doesn’t like them and they’re talking about the pros and cons, and what the hero’s really talking about is whether she could love him. We’re in on it, and I think that tickles the reader’s literary bone. Or any other kind of paranormal, like time travel, there’s usually someone who’s not ‘in the know’ and that makes for some interesting back and forth.
Jami: Great example! I can think of several story ideas from that bit. (Although maybe not about were-gerbils.) Yes, that dramatic irony style of subtext (when the reader knows more than the character) can be a lot of fun about a seemingly insurmountable conflict.
Angela: Wait a minute, I wonder if I have to revise my own personal definition of paranormal! I’ve always maintained that it’s anything out of the norm, so I include ‘steampunk/alternative history/sci-fi’ under paranormal, but I might just have to revise that, since it doesn’t have that built-in underlying subtext. I wonder if that’s an expected subtext in paranormal fiction? And boy am I digressing!
Jami: Hee. That’s okay, I could talk about subtext all day. *smile*
I’m with you in that I include anything out of the ordinary under the paranormal umbrella, and while many paranormal stories have one of the main characters embody that “not in the know” subtext, I don’t think all do. (I’m thinking of examples like Black Dagger Brotherhood’s Lover Revealed, where Butch and Marissa were both already familiar with the vampire world.)
That trope is great fun to play with though. All relationships have to negotiate, and the subtext of that situation usually leads to epic power struggles. The “in the know” character might have special abilities but be unfamiliar with society. The not “in the know” character might have more local clout or try to hold what little information they do have over the other.
So on some level, many paranormal romances come down to power. Who has it, who wants it, who’s willing to trust, to share, to cooperate? Great conflict–and relationship–potential there!
Another common trope in paranormal romance is the “fated mate,” where the characters know or learn that they belong together (and maybe can’t even be with anyone else). What are your thoughts on the subtext of that trope?
Angela: Hmm…. I’m not sure I’ve given that a lot of thought outside of the more obvious messages that trope is saying–that there is only The One for us. Though I know some don’t like that trope, I don’t have a problem with it. There’s something kind of intriguing knowing this is the relationship you will have for the rest of your life and no matter how hard it gets you have to work it out. There’s a kind of security in that. This sometimes ties into the ‘only one in the know’ aspect when the paranormal creature knows this is their fated mate and the other doesn’t know and that can make for some interesting tension. What other kinds of subtext do you like with that trope?
Jami: Interesting! I hadn’t thought of the security aspect of the trope before, but you’re right. It would relieve the pressure of dating and trying to find someone compatible if we knew there was The One waiting for us, wouldn’t it?
I’ve seen some Fated Mate stories that also include the Love At First Sight trope. If you ask me, those make the romance too easy, unless–as you said–only one party knows the score. If they both know they’re fated for each other and Love At First Sight is involved, where’s the conflict? Just them being stubborn? (And yes, I’ve seen PNRs with that exact story.) To me, the subtext there says not to bother with trying to find love or trying to resist or trying to build a relationship at all–it will just be handed to you. (Er, my bias against those stories may be showing. *grin*)
Angela: Totally. I’ve read some like that too, and it saps the story of any tension. I think the most successful romances are when both external and internal factors make it hard for them to get their HEA. The other subtext that goes with that, when coupled with Love At First Sight, is that there’s someone out there who will take you just like you are, with no work and no compromises, and sometimes that’s hard to swallow. But sometimes that might be just the escape that reader needs (it’s not for me, but I’m not knocking other’s needs for this assurance). The absence of Love At First Sight can make this more interesting, that’s for sure.
Jami: Good point! Yes, the Love At First Sight subtext is more escapist, which I’ve been known to be in the mood for sometimes, so I shouldn’t knock it too much. *blush*
On the other hand, the Fated Mate stories that don’t include the Love At First Sight trope have more variations for their subtext. I see them as being like a paranormal version of an arranged marriage. The characters might know they’re supposed to end up with the other, but they have a choice. (And choices always make for more interesting stories.) They can choose to fight their fate (which can create unintended subtext about free will and being forced into physical intimacy), they can accept their fate but not work at it (and end up in a miserable relationship), or they can choose to make the best of it and work at love and the relationship just like all of us non-paranormal beings.
Oh! Your mention of “knowing you have to work it out no matter how hard it gets” reminded me of a book I read long ago (and can’t remember the name, darn it). It was about two immortals fated to be together for eternity. Several hundred years later, they’d drifted apart, and the book was about them trying to make it work again. That was unique. That’s like a couple determined not to get divorced even though they’d “fallen out of love.” So tropes definitely don’t have to be cliches.
Angela: That does sound like a unique story! So, besides the Fated Mate trope, what other tropes have subtexts that you like to explore and/or read about–what intrigues you? Any good PNR reads where the subtext had your mind going like a were-gerbil on crack running on a wheel?
Jami: *whispers* How did you know what the inside of my brain looks like?
*ahem* My favorite subtext shows up in PNR stories where the couple doesn’t end up on the same page (both vampires or shapeshifters or whatnot). The stories where one character remains human and the other character lives as their paranormal selves, and yet they find a happily ever after together, speaks (to me) about racism, classism, sexism, and all those other -isms.
Here we have two people from vastly different cultures, backgrounds, DNA base, abilities, fur growth patterns, etc., and they somehow find a way to get along and work toward common goals. They look past their differences–even past, er, animal aspects in the case of some shapeshifters–and appreciate what’s on the inside. That’s one of the most beautiful subtextual messages in PNR, I think.
Angela: I totally agree! Sometimes I feel like when the solution to the story is one of them becoming the other’s type (were-gerbil to were-gerbil) I feel a little let down, like that was too easy or that there was a missing opportunity there to explore something deeper. Like you said, it’s much more beautiful when they can get their HEA without having to become a whole nother species. And so much more satisfying to have it work out through an emotional change instead of a physical change. Cuz, you know, getting to change our species is not something we can do in real life, so it’s so much more satisfying seeing even these supernatural creatures have to make tough choices like we do and still get their HEA–that they don’t get the magic HEA bullet that we can’t possibly ever have.
Jami: Exactly! Although a part of me loves knowing the immortal/long-lived paranormal character will get to keep his/her mate for a longer period of time, it can feel like a cheat–a magic pill to make them 100% compatible for all time going forward. I’d rather get the sense that they’ll have a normal-ish lifetime together and still hold on to who they were before.
The subtext of changing species is like the paranormal version of one member of the couple having to give up everything–job, house, family, etc.–to be with the other person, and that never feels fair to me unless the other person is giving up something too. In real life, both people compromise to find a middle ground, and couples often go through “seasons” (“I’ll sacrifice and move for you right now, and when this assignment is over, it’s my turn.”). There’s no turn-taking in changing species. *smile*
Angela: Very true, and what does that say to the reader? Like you said, the subtext is that it’s okay to become completely not you anymore, in the most radical of cases, as long as you get the man (or were-gerbil).
Jami: Yes! Just say no to becoming a were-gerbil. I think that’s our subtextual message in this post. *laughs*
Angela: LOL. So true, and maybe on that note we should stop. I know we both could keep going, but I seem to have a fixation on were-gerbil analogies which isn’t probably healthy and we should leave it at that 🙂
Thank you, Jami, for being on here and we’d love to know your thoughts. What subtexts do you find intriguing in paranormal romance and/or urban fantasy? I know we only scratched the surface… Any good reads lately where you really enjoyed the subtext?
After turning down an opportunity to become a were-gerbil, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas. Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.