Trope Exploration: Dark Paranormal Romance
If I had to choose a few adjectives to describe the Dark Paranormal Romance (DPR) genre (which I do, because, well, it’s what I write), I’d probably select words like dark, lush, tense, passionate, and toe-curling.
These are the stories that meet the challenge of your deepest, darkest fantasies. They bring to life the kind of dangerous, knife’s-edge passion that so many of us dream of in secret. Taboos are no longer off-limits, and you can embrace the heart-pounding heat of forbidden love with zero guilt when you pick up a series in this category.
I’m obsessed with it. I always have been, ever since I got the first hints of the dark and the paranormal through books like Twilight and the work of Nalini Singh. Writing romances like this came naturally for me.
When we talk about genre, we’re often talking about one thing in particular: tropes. You probably don’t want to admit this fact, but it’s true. We pick up these books because we love the specific elements of the genre, and those elements are the tropiest of tropes, all done up in different forms by our authors of choice. No shame here, guys!
DPRs are no exception to the Game of Tropes, and I’ve become intimately acquainted with them over time. Here are the things that make or break this genre’s appeal to so many readers and writers.
Trope 1: The Powerful, Inhuman Hero
Of course, by “inhuman” I literally mean the hero is not a human male. That would be boring, right? Consumers of DPRs want a male protagonist that is far beyond the mortal pale, with greater strength, speed, and intelligence than Joe from down the street.
Usually, this character is lethal, dangerous in some visceral way that challenges the instincts of the heroine. It should be risky just to be near him, but always in a decadent, tempting way. It’s that tension between animal instincts that grabs us - the urge to avoid danger battling the urge to rush headlong into it and get ravished all over the pages.
In DPRs, the lead male is generally cruel or brooding, perhaps a man with many secrets and a burden of power on his shoulders. He could be royalty or aristocracy in the hierarchy of his species, like a vampire King or, as in my upcoming series, a prince of the sea-fae (they’re called dhaoine mara in my books, FYI).
In this way, the male protagonist is powerful both physically and in a social sense. The danger he represents similarly spans both categories. The heroine can be dangerous too, in her own way, but the male should be physically stronger, generally speaking.
I’m not here to debate the feminist integrity of the genre, because honestly? That’s not what people read these books for. The male should be deadly, hotter than the seven shades of hell, and categorically “alpha.” That is why we read these books.
Trope 2: The Dark Setting
The best DPRs are all surrounded by shadowy worlds that seem to hide numerous dangers in their depths. These settings can be decadent and luxurious, or they can be wild, harsh, and alien to the protagonist. But dark is a prerequisite (hence the name of the subgenre…).
Some popular examples of this trope would be a dark castle looming over a fantasy city, or a wilderness surrounding the home of the heroine. I’ve used the misty coasts of Maine and a historic Victorian inn for the first book in my next series, and I’ve seen other authors bring lush palaces to life (complete with hidden passageways and dungeons).
The setting should complement the male protagonist and perhaps even mirror him, adding to the element of tension and danger felt by the heroine. Although Romance is always character-driven, the setting can add to the overall feel of a story and enhance the character qualities that readers are interested in.
Also, dungeons are freaking cool. And kinky.
Trope 3: The Power Plays
Oh, this is where the good stuff happens in a DPR. By “power play” I’m referring to challenges between the hero and heroine relating to one’s power over the other, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or sexual. Wink, wink.
Readers of DPRs want to see that tension drawn out and snapped tight as the characters interact. Again, it’s the razor’s edge of danger that draws us in, the sense that at any moment the scene could take a turn and become something else. Power dynamics are what brings out the heat in a DPR and envelops readers in the story.
There are also secondary power plays, such as the hero protecting the heroine (and simultaneously showing off his strength), or the heroine bringing the hero to submission (generally in an emotional sense, but hey…there’s an idea).
This trope is all about the way power can influence passion, and there are a million ways to make that happen. Ideally, it will happen in many ways throughout the book or series, too. Power plays shouldn’t always be sexual, but I would venture to say that they should almost always be sexually charged. Otherwise, it’s really up to the author.
Trope 4: The Outside Danger
As Shrek famously said, “Dark Paranormal Romances are like onions, they have layers.” Well, maybe that’s not an exact quote, but the point still stands. DPRs aren’t just sprinkled with danger - no, that would be too simple. There are layers to the danger.
The hero is, as discussed, one of those layers. But the setting is another one, and then you have the antagonistic characters or circumstances threatening the protagonists’ lives and wellbeing. Together these layers of risk are what bring about a full, hard-hitting experience for genre readers.
The layers of danger also play off of one another. For example, the tension brought about by the dangerous nature of the hero is shifted when the heroine is in danger from other sources of risks, such as a different member of the hero’s species or social group. Perhaps the heroine is placed in danger due to the setting, which turns the hero into a protector.
Each layer, when done correctly, both challenges the protagonists and brings them closer together at the same time. This is how passion grows and draws the reader in, and it’s where much of the previously mentioned toe-curling happens.
Trope 5: Physical Injury
This is where the “dark” part of DPR becomes really obvious. In every truly DPR genre novel I’ve seen, there has to be some element of the protagonists getting injured. Don’t ask me why - there are probably a lot of weird, kinky reasons for this.
I suppose it’s a matter of heightening the feeling of a story’s danger to visceral levels, as otherwise the darkness and risk are just hypothetical. That would be kind of boring. Physical injury also makes the heroine or hero look tougher and stronger, or antithetically, it brings out their vulnerability in a way that evokes feelings in the reader.
The injuries can be in battle or from accidents, they can be serious and practically deadly or ultimately minor...it doesn’t really matter. The point is that there has to be some sort of physical consequence to the overall dangers represented by those smelly onion layers I brought up before.
Also...injuries offer some tantalizing opportunities for clothing removal. I’m jussayin’.
Trope 6: Badassery Galore
Okay, I know I talked about the heroine being vulnerable and all, but at the same time, it’s pretty hard to love a weenie. Don’t make her a weenie. Not where it counts, anyway.
The hero has to be a badass, too, but that’s kind of obvious. When we’re talking about badassery in the heroine’s case, it could be more subtle. Maybe she’s simply resilient, or defiant when it comes to her rights and freedoms. Maybe it’s her powerful personal integrity that makes her badass, or her willingness to make sacrifices for the higher mission.
Maybe she’s a total bitch, but in an engaging way. I for one love a bitch on wheels. She shouldn’t be weak just because she’s, well, technically weaker than the hero and his “kind” or whatever supernatural being he happens to be. Hell, she can be inhuman, too, so that opens up a whole plethora of opportunities.
The heroine can be badass in a physical sense, too, of course. Warrior women are sexy, after all - especially when juxtaposed with a more refined, elegant hero. The point is to develop a character whose badassery and vulnerability complement one another and deepen the overall story. My current WIP has a human police detective (who also happens to be clairvoyant) juxtaposed with an incredibly powerful, dangerous sea-fae prince.
He tends to regret underestimating her, despite the odds - and that is what makes the story truly compelling. See what I mean?
Trope 7: Visceral (Sexual) Tension
A wise man once said, “you and me baby, we ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel.” Pure poetry. The Bloodhound Gang was right, though - we are animals, technically, and within us lurk those primal triggers that remain from the days of yore.
Which is all to say...let out the inner beast. When writing or reading DPRs, that inner animal is a huge draw. Why do you think werewolves and shifters have become so popular? We all want an outlet for those dark, hungry urges, and many of us get that outlet from the books we read.
To put it bluntly, I’m talking teeth-bared, up-against-walls-or-other-flat-surfaces, losing-control scenes. DPRs are where we get to shamelessly indulge in all of it and experience the gut-clenching, searing heat of that kind of sexual tension. Personally, I find that it has the greatest impact outside of the actual sex scenes. This primal, visceral tension can be communicated through a single look, sometimes, or through the way a character speaks and moves.
This animal element is often especially obvious in the aforementioned “dark and dangerous hero” character, but it doesn’t have to be. He can be a vision of refined aristocracy, and the heroine can be the wild and untamed beast if that’s what you want. Ideally, both characters have their more primal elements brought out by each other, and in varying (but complementary) ways.
Open the cage, boys, because readers are into that.
There Are Plenty Of Other Tropes, But You Get The Idea.
I think this covers all of my favorite Dark Paranormal Romance tropes, but I know there are plenty of others. I’m not here to give you a tome, so we’ll keep it to seven in this post.
Ultimately, the main elements of this genre are the danger, power dynamics, and tension that characterize each book and series. Without these main tropes, the characters, setting, and plot wouldn’t grab readers very well.
Out of all the romance genres and subgenres, I’d have to say that this one leaves the most room for taboo explorations and heavier themes. At least when I write them. I have zero shame, as I mentioned earlier. I’ll be as hot and forbidden as I want, thank you very much.
This post is just the first of my trope explorations within the world of Romance, so you can look forward to others in this series. I hope you enjoyed diving into DPRs with me!
Now, go binge-read a Fallen Angel series or something. I’ve got sex scenes to write.