Romance and the Other, or, Why My Heroines Are Monsters

The current trend in romantic relationships in fantasy and science fiction seems to be the pairing of a human girl with a supernatural guy (vampire, werewolf or other shifter, alien, dragon, etc.). Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series offers perhaps the most famous (infamous?) example, but examples in YA fantasy alone are legion (e.g. Hush, Hush, Fallen, Warm Bodies, I Am Number Four, Tiger’s Curse…). Non-YA examples include Soulless, A Turn of Light, Song in the Silence, War for the Oaks, The Silvered, One Good Knight, the Kate Daniels series, the Anita Blake series, the Kitty Katt series, Aiken’s Dragon’s Kin series, and most of Linnea Sinclair’s work. These are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. Truthfully, I can’t browse Goodreads for even one hour without stumbling upon at least one book that purportedly tells of undying love between a human woman and a male Other.

I do not say these books aren’t good. They vary in quality. Three that I’ve read (Soulless, War for the Oaks, The Silvered) are quite good, and I’ve heard very good things about A Turn of Light and Song in the Silence as well. There is nothing inherently wrong with “human girl/supernatural guy.” But the sci-fi and fantasy landscape is so heavily saturated with these kinds of stories that I can’t help wondering: why do we almost never see it the other way around? Why can’t the guy be the human, and the girl be the Other, at least once in a while?

Female Other protagonists aren’t entirely unknown; some popular examples are Mercy Thompson of the Moon Called series, Elena of the Bitten (Women of the Otherworld) series, and Magiere of the Noble Dead series. Yet when characters like these are paired romantically, it’s usually with a supernatural mate, rarely with a human hero.* Do writers find it difficult to imagine a human hero falling for an Other heroine (as opposed to an Other femme fatale, like Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci)? Or are they simply giving audiences what they want?

The vast majority of these stories of human women finding love with supernatural men are written by, and marketed toward, female readers. The presumption is that women will identify more quickly and completely with the heroine if she’s human as they are. Sometimes, mostly in urban fantasy and science fiction, the human heroine comes equipped with mage-craft and/or top-flight butt-kicking skills. Other times, mostly in YA fantasy, great care is taken to make the human heroine as unexceptional as possible, a contrast to the exceptional boy who loves, protects, and rescues her. Her very ordinariness (words like “typical” and “average” crop up a lot in synopses) is part of her draw; any teenage girl, regardless of features, can imagine herself as the heroine who is loved, protected, and rescued by her fantastic Other mate. I once asked a girl shopping at a book counter with me, whether she ever wished the girl could be supernatural and the boy normal. Her answer was an emphatic “no.” If the girl were supernatural, the shopper explained, then she would be more powerful, and the boy should always be more powerful.**

So I learned the market for human gal/supernatural guy stories won’t run dry anytime soon. The fantasy is a potent one, likely to draw in many a reader: no matter how ordinary you think you are, you can win the love of someone extraordinary. Yet this has never been my fantasy, even in my teenage years. Being loved by someone extraordinary is all well and good, but I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to daydream myself into the shoes of heroines more remarkable than myself. I still do. My real issue with human gal/supernatural guy stories, even though I may enjoy certain specific ones, is this: no matter how badass she is, the woman is still only human, while the man can be anything. The wonderfully weird, monstrous qualities for which I’ve always had a soft spot are given to him, not to her.

So I’ve resolved that my heroines — even the human ones — should have a little monster in them somewhere. They should be the ones to test the usual rules of what is considered “loveable.” The first play I wrote for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, The House Across the Way, is a Cinderella retelling in which the heroine is a smallpox survivor with a horribly scarred face; the normal hero falls in love with her through the music she plays. (Music is a very big thing with me.) In my 2012 ARTC offering, The Wood-bound Werewolf, the titular werewolf is female, and the man she loves is human. My 2013 radio play In Need of a Bard features a rock musician trapped in a fantasy world. Naturally, like Dorothy of old, he wants to get home, but every step he takes toward finding his way back only draws him closer to the female dragon who serves as his protector.

My upcoming novel, Atterwald, is set in a society of human/animal shape-shifters. None of the characters are human. Position in society is determined by “Tribe,” that is, what animal serves as the shifter’s alternate form. The heroine, Nichtel, comes from the most despised of all the Tribes: she’s a were-rat. Her full name is Nicht Naught Nothing, and nothing is pretty much what is expected of her. But she refuses to let her Tribe dictate her identity. Hers is the struggle of free will against determinism. With her creative mind and generous spirit, the “rat” wins love.

I think a lot of writers must daydream from time to time about what sort of movies could be made from their books; I do it quite a bit. I can only envision my newest project, The Nightmare Lullaby, as an animated film (preferably in the style of Hayao Miyazaki) because no actress living or dead resembles Meliroc, my eight-foot albino giant heroine. This scary lass would be the villainess in many stories, but in mine — if I’ve done my work well — she’s the one we root for, as she fights to overcome two separate curses and chart her own path. She too finds love, with a man who calls her “large heart.”

These are the ones I know about, the ones to whom I’ve already given a measure of life. But my plans for future heroines include another dragon, an eagle shape-shifter, a goblin, and a gryphon. A few humans may get in there somewhere, but I doubt I will grow weary of creating monster heroines, and building struggles around them, anytime soon. My goal: to make it as easy for my readers to relate to them as to any human heroine.

*(Two exceptions are worth noting. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, starting with Men at Arms, two members of the Night Watch — werewolf Angua and human Carrot — are a romantic couple; Carrot is over six feet tall and very broad in the shoulders, but since he was raised by dwarfs, he thinks of himself as one. In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, the titular half-dragon heroine catches the attention of a handsome prince. Both of these are well worth reading.)

**(Tanya Huff’s The Silvered gives us a human mage heroine who is actually much more powerful than the male werewolf with whom she is paired, so it doesn’t always follow that the supernatural guy has greater power. I recommend The Silvered highly.)

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