December 21, 2015

Talking Shop: The Importance of Queer Stories in Paranormal Romance

As of this writing, a quick perusal of Amazon categories shows us this: the Romance category in Books contains a total of 604,105 titles. Of those, 7% make up the Paranormal Romance category. 39% of Romance books are Erotica, and of those, only 2% are Paranormal.
 In order to find out roughly how many LGBTQ Romance and Erotica books feature paranormal plots and characters, we have to piece together numbers from a special filter labeled "Erotic Characters". If you add up all the titles featuring angels, demons and devils, ghosts, shapeshifters, vampires and werewolves, you come up with less than .7% of titles in LGBTQ Romance and Erotica that are paranormal.
Just for comparison, "Billionaire" erotica makes up 1.4%.

Enough math, you probably get the idea: there are not a lot of queer stories in the wide world of romance and erotica, and especially not in paranormal. That’s a shame, though, because the paranormal stage provides a rich potential to explore stories of an LGBTQ nature, examining our views of gender and orientation in an otherworldly light.
You don't have to be queer to write about queer characters, but you do have to approach the subject with knowledge and understanding of the queer experience. If you're not a member of the community, research and collaboration are absolutely key before any such writing makes it to a completed stage. Once you have a grounding in the reality of LGBTQ issues and the people within the community, though, you can create extraordinary stories in the fantasy worlds of the supernatural.

Why Queer Stories?
First off, there are thousands of lush, sensual, and loving stories to tell about queer individuals, their community, and their relationships. With the 2015 Supreme Court decision in the US, we can see that, not only are LGBTQ issues gaining more awareness in the world, but are generating even more celebration, opposition, and discussion. Queer stories are just as rich and can be just as powerfully moving as any other erotic or romantic story, as well as being enlightening. Through well-written LGBTQ perspectives, readers will not only enjoy a good plot, but be exposed to new ideas and understandings. Look at the numbers above: LGBTQ is a genre full of untapped potential!

Why Queer Stories in Paranormal Romance?
One of the things paranormal romance allows us to do is to explore the world through the otherworldly. Even if you write about some of the more common supernaturals, like werewolves and vampires, you are in control of social elements around them. Virtually all paranormal stories take a slightly different—if not wholly unique—view of their character's races, guilds, factions, families, values, priorities, and beliefs. This creates an opportunity to craft myriad social perspectives from which to view queer elements or scenarios.
In my Blood and Fire series, I write about incubi and succubae as a paranormal race. Being that these particular demons are well-known for their dependence on sexual energy as sustenance, they make an excellent population to explore in terms of LGBTQ perception. In my series, all incubi and succubae are bisexual (or pansexual, if you prefer).
As demons who feed on sexual energy, my incubi/succubae maintain no stigma towards same-sex or intersex orientation. If it can mate, it's a date. It's the demons who aren't bi/pansexual who are the outcasts in this society. Straight and strictly homosexual demons are ostracized or outright exiled. My reasoning in setting up this group dynamic is to create an environment for new questions. What happens when heterosexuals are subjected to the kinds of bigotry and exclusion typically experienced by queer individuals? What about when heterosexuals and homosexuals share the burden of adversity, equally shunned by a bi/pansexual majority?  What are the communal effects of having a bi/pansexual majority? Furthermore, how does this society define and interpret gender, or do they at all?
I explore a few of these elements in my novella, Angel's Keeping, but of course in the pursuit of romance and erotica perhaps not all of the above can be covered, or need be covered, in a single title. A good story can focus on only a few—or maybe even just one—of these themes, as is germane to the plot, and speak volumes about queer issues even so.
Charlaine Harris also touches on subjects of queer issues in a paranormal setting with her Southern Vampire Mysteries. Within the communities of her paranormals, such as the vampire and shifter factions, we find several examples of homosexuality and bisexuality, and characters for whom sexuality is fluid. Harris draws on real-world historical traditions in the backgrounds of her paranormal characters—Eric Northman, for one—to relate significant contemporary conflict. While the character of Eric is generally presented as a dominant, powerful personality in supernatural circles, the introduction of his maker and former lover/mentor, Appius Livius Ocella, triggers a change in Eric's position and paves the way for key events in the later novels of the series (at least so far as romantic subplots). Eric's relationship with Ocella—a native of the early Roman Empire—exhibits characteristics of ancient Roman same-sex attitudes, most notably the contrast of Ocella as the dominant/masculine partner and Eric as the submissive/"feminized" partner. This breakdown of their relationship and roles gives rise to major clashes in Eric's modern life and heterosexual "marriage" to Sookie Stackhouse.
If you have never written paranormal romance from a queer perspective—or even if you have, but are looking to learn more—the most important thing to remember is, like any other brand of romance, the most important element is the connection between characters. This connection, be it love or lust, must come first in all things.
You'll have to know your character's motivation and needs, and their emotional investment. Consider the effect of paranormal circumstances on them: are they a part of the paranormal community when the story begins, or do they become aware of it over the course of events? How does their queer identity coincide or clash with their paranormal experience?
Consider creatures of the fae. Elves especially are often depicted in a manner and culture where things like gender fluidity and sexual expression may be inherently acceptable and even expected. Dwarves, on the other hand, don't generally deviate from traditional masculinity (in The Lord of the Rings, even the female dwarves have beards). Ponder the difference in a gay character's sexual expression and self-image in these two contrasting societies.
A good exercise for developing a society's sexual values is to research real-world historical views. If I ever feel called to write a story about a gay dwarf, I think it might be interesting to base dwarven society's views on homosexuality on that of Japanese samurai. Perhaps homosexual involvement is not only accepted but expected within the relationship of the warrior mentor and his squire. Perception of masculinity may be enhanced, not diminished, by homosexual expression.
The artist Candra has actually created some of the loveliest fan art on the web, depicting Thorin and Thranduil, the dwarven and elven kings from The Hobbit, in a romantic relationship. One of my favorites, Dwarven Necklace for an Elven King, plays on the familiar image of a man fastening his lover's necklace around her neck. Of course, in this version, the lovers are two men. The sentiment, though, is identical. What I love most about Candra's Thorin and Thranduil works, though, is neither man's masculinity is sacrificed.
When it comes to writing any romance, always lead with love. This could be romantic love with deep emotional commitment and eyes on the future, or fleeting erotic love with no intention of long-standing romance. Don't focus on highlighting differences between queer experience and straight experience: remember, your characters won't be thinking of it, and it limits you to describing the romance by what it isn't.
I personally think some of the fiercest and most powerful expressions of love can be found in queer relationships. Don't fall into cliches and stereotype; find your character's honest expression and pursue it, rather than try and make it conform to pre-existing expectations. In this way, we can also challenge common misconceptions.

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