Friday, May 14, 2010

The Oddness Factor

Keira over at Love, Passion, Romance has six reasons why the hero more often ends up the paranormal character in a romance.  I don't disagree with any of that, but I approach this problem a bit differently than Keira does.

Let me start with why I think the heroine is not paranormal (generally, so Mercy Thompson fans can stop growling).  One of the things that romances do is offer hope.  Even if the reader is already gorgeous, mated and successful, most women I know are able to identify with a heroine who has some doubts or concerns about herself or her life.  In the course of a romance, such heroines usually discover their inner strength and capacity to love and be loved.  That story arc -- from doubt to fulfillment -- relies on the heroine being somewhere in the range of "normal."

If you give the heroine supernatural powers, if you make her paranormal, she's no longer normal.  She's not like the average reader.  (For the purposes of this post, I will blithely assume all readers are uh, human.)  A paranormal heroine is empowered by her supernatural abilities.  Frankly, in that situation, why bother with a romance at all.  Why not let a paranormal heroine go be gloriously paranormal?  I think for most of us, paranormal abilities would be sufficient for hope & change & happiness. 

Plus, who's the right hero for a paranormal heroine?  A human male?  Not in our alpha-male-dominated culture.  Another paranormal?  Yeah, I guess.  A tortured hero that the paranormal heroine can rescue?  Okay, but why does she need to be paranormal in that last scenario?  Make her human, him paranormal but tortured and you have . . . Twilight, or True Blood.

So that's my theory on why the heroine isn't paranormal.  What about why the hero is?  Well, apart from the obvious point that someone has to be paranormal or the author misses out on the whole paranormal craze, I think the answer is all about The Oddness Factor.  {cue the Twilight Zone music}

I'm going to assume here two facts that aren't absolute truths, just predictable probabilities: All authors and readers of paranormal romances are straight women.  And even the most insightful woman finds some of the men she knows to be odd.  "Odd" as in unpredictable, inexplicable, or just, well, odd.  They don't seem to get it, they're hard-wired in odd ways, they miss the obvious but still retain the ability to thrill or charm us.  We love men but damned if we can understand them let alone predict their actions.

I'm still trying to figure out Brit Hub 2.0.  He's a very bright guy but in a stressful situation he loses 50 IQ points right before my eyes.  It's like he's a superhero 24-7 who changes back to his dweeby alter-ego just as things get tense.  (Can you guess how annoying that is?  Thought so.)  But I adore him, and have accepted that I need to relax, shrug, smile, give him a little kiss and let him go back to being Superbrit.

I think we all have stories like that -- love our men as much as we might, they're still oddballs part of the time.  That's The Oddness Factor.  And what's odder than a 7-foot-tall hawt vampire, or a guy who changes into a wolf, or who's half-fae?  Not a lot.

I read Christine Warren's Big Bad Wolf recently.  It has a delectable premise:  The most alpha Lupine around falls for a kindergarten teacher who feels dowdy next to the supermodels he normally dates.  What can he say?  He took one whiff of her and knew immediately that her vanilla sugar cookie smell was IT for him.  He was mated.

[I could write more about Warren's book here, but I think it's the romance novel equivalent of "fur coat, no knickers" -- a great premise and not a lot else going on.  Because, if the alpha dog says you're mated, you're mated.  No escaping that.  Sorry if this is a spoiler, but basically the big reveal at the end is the hero saying, "I love you," to soothe her human heart.  It's too bad, because the book had a lot of promise.]

What struck me about Big Bad Wolf, though, was how delightfully odd the hero was.  As the title suggests, he's the reformed rake, the Duke of Slut after he's met his duchess, the hyper-sexual hero who can't imagine sleeping with anyone else once he's met The One.  Now, as a general rule, hyper-sexual males in the Real World aren't great bets as Happily Ever After material.  But in Romlandia, they are delicious fodder as heroes because the prospect of bringing the manslut to his knees is just too too divine.

Take all the oddness of a Real World male, sprinkle Fiction Dust on top, tap it with the Paranormal Wand, say the magic words, and Hey Presto: you've got vampires and shapeshifters and angels, etc.  They're odd in ways that remind us Real World women of the men we know.  They're capable of the biggest transformation known to women, namely turning a hot blooded & promiscuous male into a domesticated & devoted partner.  And they're loaded with special features: hyper-acute sense of smell (the better to adore the heroine's unique aroma), the experiences of centuries' worth of lovemaking (only to devote all that ability to making the heroine have multiple multiple orgasms), and anatomically superior genitals.

And that's why we like our paranormal heroes:  They're New & Improved men: Odder and better.


  1. And even the most insightful woman finds some of the men she knows to be odd. "Odd" as in unpredictable, inexplicable, or just, well, odd. They don't seem to get it, they're hard-wired in odd ways, they miss the obvious but still retain the ability to thrill or charm us. We love men but damned if we can understand them let alone predict their actions.

    I don't know how insightful I am, but this doesn't reflect my experience. Whether or not I find someone difficult to understand has never seemed to me to have anything to do with their gender or biological sex.

  2. I like this post a lot!

    I had a related blog post a while back:

  3. Excellent point about the story arc! Normal-ranged heroines make a good stand-in for average readers. I love your oddball theory too... it makes perfect sense.

  4. Laura -- That's because you are smarter and less discriminatory but more discriminating than the rest of us! :-D

    Victoria -- I like your analysis too. Hmm... Cinderella or Beauty & The Beast? I think actually Cinderella is a better take, minus the magic dress: she's a "normal" woman whom the super-duper hero can't live without. In B&TB, Beauty is able to see past Beast's infirmity/ugliness/etc. -- he's Odd but not "Better." (At least on the surface; of course the reader sees his inner beauty even sooner than Beauty does!)

    Keira -- Literally, I couldn't have done it without you (and Christine Warren) . . .

  5. Good article (and Victoria & Keira's too). I tweeted about it today because I've been thinking about this, as many of my story ideas break with this format. Apparently, I like being difficult. :)

    Even if the hero is human and/or less-powerful than the heroine, I think you're absolutely correct that some aspect of her character has to keep her 'relate-able'. It might be the fact that she's a mom, or doesn't want/fears her powers, or is physically vulnerable in other ways. Because as you said, there has to be some point in the heroine's character that the reader can latch on to and follow along with the story arc as she becomes even more. It's up to the story to decide what that 'more' is. Since she's already powerful, would it be - more appreciative of her family when she almost loses them?, more trusting of love from a human rather than from a paranormal with the same weaknesses as her?, etc.

    Interesting way for me to think through my stories - Thanks!

    Jami G.
    (twitter: @jamigold)

  6. "That's because you are smarter and less discriminatory but more discriminating than the rest of us!"

    Thanks for the compliment, but I don't think I am. I wonder if maybe it's that I was exposed to a lot of people from very different cultural backgrounds as a child, both within my own family and because my mother teaches English as a foreign language, so I've always been very aware of differences which weren't based on gender. In addition, my father was the stay-at-home parent, which probably affected how I thought about gender norms.

  7. Jami -- How wonderful that you make your heroine(s) paranormal. In some ways, I think that is more interesting and intriguing. The challenge (as I think about it) is to keep the romance element strong and significant. A paranormal heroine still needs some vulnerability or how would her hero complete her?

    Laura -- We should compare notes on unusual childhoods! My mother was the stay-at-home parent at first, but it so obviously wasn't working for her, so in the mid-60s (when I was 10) she went back to work. She was much, much happier after that! I know I got a lot of my sense of myself as being "narrow-end-of-the-bell-shaped-curve" from my parents, who were unconventional in both obvious and hidden ways.

    All the same, I have to say that more of the range of women's choices make sense to me compared with the range of men's choices. Some of the things men do, say, and think still manage to strike me as odd. (But that's just me.)

  8. "I have to say that more of the range of women's choices make sense to me compared with the range of men's choices. Some of the things men do, say, and think still manage to strike me as odd."

    You've got me very curious now. Could you give me some examples of the kinds of things you're thinking of?

  9. Laura -- Examples, hunh? Oh, let's see.

    Well, take law school. When I was at Penn, Lani Guinier published On Becoming Gentlemen, her exploration into why women don't do as well (depending on your criteria) as men in law school. Basically -- and this was published in 1995, so the statistics may actually have changed -- women law students didn't get the very highest grades as often as men. Guinier hypothesized unconscious sexism by male faculty, but I think she missed a couple factors.

    One thing I observed (and her book had lots of anecdotal evidence) was that male law students and female law students tended to have very different reactions to the embarrassment that can arise from the Socratic Method. Among traditional age students (because Guinier didn't differentiate among age groups, which was a shame because as an older student myself, I think that made a huge difference), if a male student was questioned, got the answer wrong and was rebuked by the professor, he was more apt to get mad at the professor. Women in the same situation tended to get mad at themselves.

    I also saw among the most competitive male classmates a specific sort of tunnel vision: they were more likely to block out whole sectors of their lives (i.e., let familial relationships drift, not date seriously, etc.) in order to concentrate on the narrow band of skills needed to get the highest grades. The women I observed still worked to maintain some degree of balance in their lives.

    Getting back to the oddness factor -- I had to figure all this out because my male classmates struck me as odd when, for example, they bitched in private about the (male) professor who'd chastised them for not knowing an answer, or seemed clueless about the realities of life for a classmate who was a single mother. It would have been easy to think, "Oh, that's just lack of empathy or imagination," but that hypothesis didn't explain all of the male classmates' actions -- just the ones pertaining to the academic grind in law school.

    You mentioned in your first comment that you were exposed to a lot of different cultures as a child. I should say that when I went to Penn Law, it was pretty white bread at its core, with diversity around the edges. (I was one of the diverse students, I'm happy to say. ) I hope that, 15 years later, the class is more heterogeneous.

    I think Guinier didn't take into consideration the different ways in which male and female students of equal ability approach law school. Nothing's universal, of course, but it was my experience that some men were willing to sacrifice more while in law school out of sheer competitive doggedness.

    And, as a woman, I found some of their choices to be odd. But, of course, valid choices for them, in light of how they prioritized the sectors of their lives. I haven't kept in touch with my male classmates, which is a shame -- I wonder how their lives have changed now at age 40. I wonder if they kept striving for the golden rings of success only to discover that they ended up with golden handcuffs instead -- mortgage, partnership, the 2.7 children, etc. that wouldn't permit a career change even if they wanted it.

  10. "women law students didn't get the very highest grades as often as men."

    At my secondary school, the people getting the top marks were a mixture, but probably the balance was tilted towards women. I don't know about my university, particularly since my department had extremely few male students at all, but there was a 2009 report which is relevant:

    Female students are ahead of men in almost every measure of UK university achievement, according to a report from higher education researchers.

    A Higher Education Policy Institute report shows that women are more likely to get places in the top universities and go on to get better grades.

    Women also outnumber men in high status subjects, such as law and medicine. [...]

    In degree grades, women are more likely to gain "good degrees" - taking first class and upper seconds together - while men are more likely to gain lower seconds and thirds.

    However male students still maintain a narrow lead in firsts - 13.9% to 13% of those who graduate.

    I don't recall anyone ever trying the Socratic Method out on us. Any questions tended to be directed at the whole class, so if someone wasn't sure of the answer, they just wouldn't say anything. This often made for some pretty quiet classes. I was usually one of the ones who spoke a lot. My husband remembers lots of really quiet maths tutorials too, and there were more male students in those, so the quiet students were both male and female.

    There were one or two occasions when I felt that the lecturers had treated us unfairly (e.g. if the instructions they gave weren't clear, and that affected our final marks), and I got angry about that, but it was very rare.

    I also saw among the most competitive male classmates a specific sort of tunnel vision: they were more likely to block out whole sectors of their lives

    My university was pretty sociable. I was probably one of those who tended to minimise social activities so that I could study more, but even I socialised with the people in my hall, and joined a few societies.

    or seemed clueless about the realities of life for a classmate who was a single mother

    The biggest divide I noticed was between the rich students, who did things like start food fights in hall, or mentioned flying down to London to get a haircut, and those who had to hold down part-time jobs while they studied.

  11. I just saw a post elsewhere which also seemed relevant. Jeff Fecke describes an advert and then comments on it:

    I want to focus on the first thing said in the commercial, the first thing the mom wonders: “Does she [the daughter] still think boys are icky?”

    Because here in the year 2010, the accurate answer is probably that she never did.

    As you probably know, I have a daughter in 2nd grade. Later today, she’s going to a birthday party for a classmate at an indoor swimming pool. My daughter loves swimming, so she’s thrilled about the location, and she’s excited to go to the party and see classmates and friends from school.

    The party, incidentally, is for a boy in her class.

    This is not unusual. While my daughter has certainly gone to sex-segregated birthday parties, and will again, I’m sure, she has also gone to plenty of parties where boys and girls attended on relatively equal footing. Moreover, when my daughter talks about people in her class that she likes, she mentions girls more than boys — but she mentions boys pretty regularly. She plays with them at recess, she plays with them outside of school time. She spends more time with female friends than male friends — but spends quite a bit of time with both.

    I know that when I was at primary school, girls and boys seemed to stay much more separate than they do at my child's primary school. Not that I ever thought boys were icky (I often found my brother annoying, but not "icky"), but at primary school, unless we were playing a game in which the girls ran after the boys and threatened to kiss them, there wasn't a huge amount of interaction between boys and girls in the playground. My impression of my child's class is that some girls play football (soccer) with the boys, and there are other games which they all play quite often which involve a mixture of boys and girls.

    I wonder if boys and girls interacting together as friends and playmates from an early age leads to them perceiving fewer differences between the genders?


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