Workshop: Keeping the Normal in your Paranormal Stories: Giving human flaws and character traits to your non-human characters.
(originally presented at 2008 Silken Sands Writers Conference)
First, a word about the paranormal genre…
The definition: The RWA defines paranormal romances as “Romance novels in which the future, a fantasy world or paranormal happenings are an integral part of the plot.”
The paranormal stories can feature vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, or even psychic characters (just to name a few examples!—there are, of course, many, many more).
Statistics: In 2006, paranormal romances accounted for 9% of romance sales (taken from www.rwanational.org)
Paranormal romances can be found in category books, in historical books, and in contemporary reads. The paranormal often slips into the other romance sub-genres.
Ultimate Vamp List (compiled by Michele Hauf, Silhouette Nocturne Author, www.michelehauf.com):
1997 – 11 vamp romances pubbed
1998 – 7
1999 – 8
2000 – 16
2001 – 19
2002 – 50
2003 – 70
2004 – 87
2005 – 108
2006 – 131
2007 – 158
Now, on to putting the “Normal” in your tales…
Characters. When readers open a book, they want to relate to the main character. (With romances, particularly, you have women who are the primary readers and they want to relate to your heroine.)
Main characters should be sympathetic. They should show growth. They should be engaging. They should be multi-dimensional.
The challenge? Creating characters that are all of these things.
The Heroine: As mentioned, readers want to be able to relate or identify with your character. If your heroine is a 400 year-old vampire or a shape-shifter or a genie, well, your reader will not instantly connect with her—you have to make the connection, by making the character have normal traits that your reader understands.
Character Traits. An exercise: Think about character traits that you have or your friends or family have. What are some examples?
Show these examples in your story. Is your heroine shy or nervous in crowds? Then she would shrink back in a bar, pushing back against her chair, lowering her head.
Is she outgoing, the party type? Then she’d be dancing in that bar, laughing, and quite possibly being the center of attention.
Sample character traits: Shy, intelligent, confident, reckless, quick to anger, laid-back, aggressive.
Character Habits: We all have our nervous habits that we often perform—without even being aware of them! Do you narrow your eyes when you’re thinking? Stroke your chin? Or do you cover your mouth when you laugh? Do you reach for the chocolate when you feel the stress coming on strong?
These habits are what personalize and normalize your characters. When readers “see” characters with these habits, the characters become more real to them and more identifiable.
Speech. Unless your paranormal character has been asleep for the last four hundred years, she should be well versed in today’s language. She’ll know slang and dialect. Giving a character particular “key phrases” that she says or thinks will personalize her more, too. Think about it…do you have a favorite curse word or expression you use when you’re angry? Your character should, too.
Readers can relate to normal behavior. They’ve “been there, done that”—and can understand your character better as a result.
Normal. Now let’s talk a bit more about “normal” behavior for paranormal characters. Now, unless your characters was in that very long sleep I mentioned earlier, she should be aware of current technology. She should also be aware of slang, current movies, television shows, and fashion trends.
**If you have a paranormal character that uses archaic language, dresses as if from another time period and is stunned by a cell phone—you must explain this!! Unless the character has traveled through time or as mentioned in my previous example, been asleep, the person should be aware of all current cultural situations. Also, if your character was born in England four hundred years ago but has since traveled the globe extensively…please re-think giving the character an English accent. Remember that the character would have evolved over time—and the character’s accent would have adjusted, too. So, unless your character has continued to live in England for 400 years, well, make certain you adjust the language you use.
To “normalize” your character, drop in references to such things as fashion. MaryJanice Davidson does this beautifully in her “Undead” Series. Betsy is a fashion queen—absolutely fanatical about her shoes (a funny touch many women can understand) and she is also an all-powerful recently turned vampire queen. Normal yet paranormal.
Heroes. In romance novels, women relate to the heroine and they “fall in love” with the hero. If you’ve got a hero who turns into a big, snarling jaguar with pretty solid frequency, well, that might not instantly make readers feel like falling in love. You have to make the reader love the character—and often you have to do this by getting the reader to look past the paranormal powers that your hero possesses.
You’ll use the same techniques mentioned previously for the heroine with the hero. Normalizing is a must. Looking past the beast to see the man within—particularly with shifters—is necessary for readers.
Show the struggle. If your hero has to fight his powers or fight against a beast he carries, then show the reader the struggle. Show the fight between good and evil—because a man who fights to be good is very appealing.
Ex. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Anti-hero. The anti-hero is an increasingly popular hero these days. A guy who could be the villain, instead he steals the show (and, in romances, the heroine’s heart). An extreme example: Hannibal Lecter (not paranormal, I know!).
The anti-hero is the ultimate bad boy. He’s walked on the dark side. He could be a vampire who fed without remorse for hundreds of years, a wolf shifter who was nearly driven mad by the power of the moon—in short, he’s a character who has pushed the limits and walked—and often crossed—that fine line between good and evil.
Redeeming the anti-hero. When the villain becomes the hero, you have to explain his past actions. Why did the vampire go on a brutal feeding spree? Was the transformation into a vampire so painful that he had no choice? You should help the reader understand his actions. Forgive them, to a certain extent. Readers won’t love a hero who is evil—show the goodness and the struggle, or the reasons for the dark behavior—and the readers will feel that sympathy and understanding for the anti-hero.
The villain/villainess. Sometimes, you don’t want to redeem your villain. You want to make him as dark and twisted as possible—and that’s great—go with that. However, don’t be afraid to make the villain have weak spots, too. Maybe the villain has a close connection to a child or a relative. Perhaps the villain had a brutal experience in his past that made him into the killer he is. Again, this is “humanizing” the character. Not just having a monster in the dark, but one that, while we fear, part of us can pity, too.
No one is perfect. Keep in mind as you create your characters, no one is perfect. To be flawed, well, that’s to be human. And with paranormal characters, flaws will humanize them faster than almost anything else. So, yes, you can have a hero who is gorgeous and strong and brave and immortal…but he can’t be perfect. Give him a weakness.
I particularly enjoy twisting my characters. In Hotter After Midnight, I created a secondary character who was a vampire…and he had a blood phobia. My succubus in this story, another secondary character who actually will be the heroine in Midnight Sins (a release later this year), is a gorgeous, seductive, talented woman who can have any man she wants. Her problem? She doesn’t want a man for just a night—she wants love and finding a man to love a succubus is very, very hard.
Made vs. Born. A very important consideration for all paranormal characters is their birth or their turning. Was your character born a wolf shifter? Did she become one after a bite? Characters who are born as paranormals will have completely different experiences and relations to the paranormal world when compared to those who are recent “turns.”
If your character is first introduced to the paranormal world in your story (as opposed to always knowing the life), that discovery will often be difficult. Don’t make the acceptance of this transition too easy—readers accept a struggle, both in understanding exactly what the character is dealing with and in adapting to the new reality.
Finally, a word about…
The World. Having a “world” with stable and easy to understand rules is important for the reader. If your paranormal characters exist side-by-side with humans, explain that. Do the humans just not realize the paranormals are there? Why not? Are the humans aware and have adjusted to this new reality? Show that.
If the paranormals are existing in a present-day society, use enough cultural references and technology to ground the reader. Use the “normal” as much as possible so that when your paranormal events and characters appear, the stage of reality is already set.