Conversations & Guests

Subtext in Paranormal Tropes: A Conversation with Jami Gold

SubmarineTextHello, 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?

About Jami

Jami Picture 200 x 300After 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.

Find Jami at her blogTwitterGoogle+FacebookPinterest, and Goodreads.


27 thoughts on “Subtext in Paranormal Tropes: A Conversation with Jami Gold

  1. Very interesting, but… huh? If you’re going to combine a One True Love / Fated Love with a vampire-human relationship, you’ll end up with a few decades of bliss followed by an eternal misery for one of them. Weird story endings where the human somehow achieves immortality without technically becoming a vampire make me want to scream because it’s pure fantasy wish fulfillment. (Especially when you combine this with the sexist PNR ethos of heroic alpha male vampires vs evil bitchy female vampires.) Why is change of species seen as a betrayal of self rather than a necessary sacrifice or a willingness to evolve?

    • You make a good point, Frank, and I think that’s why Jami made the qualifier that it doesn’t seem even unless the other gives up something equally important too. But this is why I love subtext, because everyone can get their own messages out of it, intended by the author or not. I’ve definitely read PNRs with the scenarios you mentioned where I was very satisfied with the ending–it all depends on the skill of the writer in how they pull it off. Anything can be pulled off if the motivations are well established and the emotional resonance rings true. Sometimes, though, it’s used like a dues ex machina to quickly patch on an HEA, and that’s when it has repercussions in subtext.

      • I suppose I’m complaining about stories that abandon logic for the sake of a fairytale ending. There’s also a lot of selective blindness in addressing ethical questions. Escapism and romance are no excuse for lazy characterisation.

    • I don’t disagree, Frank. 🙂 As I mentioned in the post, it can feel “unfair” if we don’t get the sense that the other member of the couple had to give up something too.

      OR… I could think of several stories were the subtext was there the whole time about how the human character didn’t fit in as a human anyway. No family, friends, etc. And that would make the “sacrifice” of changing species far less. Or as you said, the worldbuilding for the other species could be built up as such that it came across as an evolution and *not* a sacrifice at all.

      There are many ways stories can approach that plot point, and I think the interesting thing is recognizing how the subtext changes with each option. 🙂

      • Since we’re speaking of subtext… Can’t think of examples off-hand, but sometimes the subtext is so cliched I’ll stop reading out of sheer disgust. Also, subtext in the sense of the reader getting ahead of the protagonist in detective fiction is deeply frustrating.

        Anyway, thanks AQ & JG.

      • Great point! Yes, lazy or cliched writing–even at the subtextual level–is something to avoid.

        As far as subtext in detective fiction, do you mean when the subtext so strongly points out the villain that there’s no mystery? Argh! I’ve seen that and it *is* frustrating.

        Thanks so much for adding to the discussion! 🙂

      • Ah, got it. Yes, I write with suspense and thriller elements, but no straight mystery. Probably because I’d find that line of providing the right amount of information difficult. LOL!

  2. Great post! I guess I never really thought too much about the subtext because I’m too busy enjoying the story. Love the idea of a weregerbil!

    • Oh totally! Sometimes I’m enjoying the squee out of a book or series and could give a were-gerbil about subtext! I see it as one of those fun things to look for, though, usually afterwards, if the story has stuck with me and I’m analyzing it (either why it worked or why it didn’t)

    • Yep, I don’t pay attention to this stuff until *after* I’m done reading. 🙂 In fact, if I’m thinking about it *during* the story, that’s not a good sign. LOL!

      It’s mostly more a matter of recognizing why a story does or doesn’t work for us, I think. 🙂

  3. Great conversation, Jami & Angela! I love picking apart the layers of a story. Angela, I’d never really thought of the Fated Mate trope that way, but I think you’re totally right. Maybe a lot of paranormal tropes are really about security: immortality with a fated mate who has plenty of cash–no worries for the rest of your long life. LOL

  4. You two are awesome. I love this post, and what it reveals about your writing friendship too! What you are discussing here is what I think of as dramatic irony. I also think of subtext as when both characters know something and aren’t saying it outright, and as something the reader and the author both know, so the author chooses not to say directly but implies in a way that makes the reader feel in on a joke. Those are two devices I really admire!

    I’m thinking specifically about subtlety, which our genre does lack, on whole. And it leaves stories more open to interpretation.

    I find myself wanting to be more subtle sometimes, and then have a beta reader say “but I don’t understand” his motivation, and this reminds me of when I started preaching, and was concerned about the artistry of my rhetoric, and finally realized I needed to be clear, and direct, AND employ good, artistic rhetoric.

    • Some of these tropes and subtext involve dramatic irony and some don’t. (In case anyone isn’t familiar with the term, dramatic irony is when the reader knows more than the characters–think of the classic Greek play Oedipus Rex and how the audience knew that Oedipus was the murderer he sought and that his new wife was actually his mother, and yet he didn’t know himself until the tragic ending.)

      So a paranormal trope where one member of the couple knows something (“I’m actually a were-gerbil!”) and the reader’s waiting for the you-know-what to hit the fan when the other character finds out is a great example of dramatic irony. Other styles of irony, like the verbal irony you mentioned where neither character says aloud what they’re both thinking, are examples of subtext as well.

      Personally, I think of subtext as elements that make us think because they’re not spelled out. A heroine agreeing to marry the wrong (but rich!) man because we’ve seen her worries about money equals subtext. A heroine agreeing to marry him after internalization and/or dialogue spells out her money-security thought process does *not* equal subtext. 🙂

      So you’re absolutely right that a lot of this comes down to subtlety. Like you, I’ve had beta readers be confused or unclear on things like motivations when I try to be subtle. It’s a tricky line to find that “intriguing enough that readers want to think things through” middle ground between spoon-fed and confusing.

      And as a reader, even though I’m usually good at picking up these clues, I still find myself reaching the end of a book and thinking “Gee, the author missed an opportunity to do xyz,” and then I wonder if the author *did* hint in the subtext and I just didn’t catch it. LOL!

    • Yeah, it’s a fine line between subtlety and ensuring it’s not confusing. I think subtext can add deeper layers that can operate on a subconscious level and so for that reason it’s not good to use for things a reader has to know in order to understand the story. Like you said: “clear, and direct, AND employ good, artistic rhetoric” Often the books I re-read or movies that I can watch over and over are precisely because of subtext–I always find new things each time that makes me appreciate and understand things on a deeper level each time. That way folks that don’t see it still enjoy the story, but those that do, enjoy it even more. Shrek always puts me in mind of this: kids totally love it because the story is clear and direct and they get it. But parents are laughing at all the subtext and enjoy it for completely different reasons. I remember watching Shrek in the theater and a dad and his boy were watching it in front of me, and the dad kept laughing and the boy kept looking up and saying “what’s so funny?”

      • “I think subtext can add deeper layers that can operate on a subconscious level and so for that reason it’s not good to use for things a reader has to know in order to understand the story.”

        Yes, that’s an awesome way of putting it! I’ve tried (but not always succeeded at 🙂 ) finding that line in my own work in regards to, say, motivations. If the motivations are necessary for the reader’s understanding, make sure they’re clear and direct. If the motivations merely add layers to the reader’s understanding, we can use subtext.

        Fantastic observation! 🙂

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