Do We Give Paranormal Heroes a Pass?

werewolf Think about it. If I read a historical where the hero comes along, tells the heroine she will be his, and they engage in a courtship that seems to consist of bickering, near rapes, and the hero having to mark heroine as his in some physical way, you’d think I was reading an old-school 1970s/80s book, wouldn’t you? Sure, every now and again a novel comes along that has a hero pushing the envelope in terms of sexual coercion or controlling behavior, but it’s unusual enough that it often sparks controversy and readers talk about it.

However, if I gave a similar plot summary for a paranormal, some readers might not consider it quite their thing, but more than a few would probably just ask me which series I’m talking about. Given what’s been popular on the market in the past decade or so, it seems paranormal heroes have largely been given a pass when it comes to controlling behavior and even downright rapey sex scenes. I’m not talking about a hero simply being strong, confident, and alpha – I’ve loved plenty of books like that; These seem to have something more. They’re strong guys, but there’s often a certain controlling quality, a lack of regard for the heroine and her wishes that factors into the hero’s treatment of her. It’s something I’ve been noticing more and more in my paranormal reading, and I have to admit that the rise of these sorts of heroes somewhat worries me.

Take A Hunger Like No Other. Once you move past the admittedly powerful prologue, the hero Lachlain (and I tend to use that term “hero” loosely) breaks free of his torment and seeks out the mate he has scented. His mate, the half-vampire, half-Valkyrie Emmaline, has no real say in things at this point. Lachlain kidnaps her and proceeds to hold her prisoner in her hotel room while he forces himself on her sexually. And this barely gets us through Chapter 2! In case you’re curious to know how Lachlain starts off wooing his mate, his technique seems to involve breaking her spirit. Take this tender little snippet from their first night together:

He remembered her reaction, though. She’d looked hopeless, as if she’d finally realized her situation.
She’d attempted escape one last time, and again he’d enjoyed letting her think she was about to succeed before he dragged her back and tucked her into his side. She went limp, then passed out. He didn’t know if she’d fainted or not. Didn’t particularly care.

Real prince of a guy, huh? Granted, he most definitely qualifies as a tortured hero, and he does get a bit better at the end. Still, kidnapping and sexual assault aren’t exactly your average Big Mis and in most subgenres, would not be the stuff of which grand romance is made. Yet, as probably everyone in online Romancelandia knows, this book kicked off the hugely popular Immortals After Dark series.

And there are myriad examples of books where paranormal heroes might not be actually raping the heroine, but they are still so controlling that in a regular contemporary or perhaps even historical setting, many of us might find them uncomfortable. The Smoke Thief is one of those books. As with many books by the author, I found the language enchanting. However, the romance at the heart of the story involves a young woman of the drakon who has been captured by the “hero” and is told that she will be forced to marry him and return to the drakon. When she resists, he tries coercion and a bargain that is is pretty well rigged. As a result, I found it quite difficult to believe that the heroine fell in love because at times it really looked more like she simply just caved in as the hero treated her to force, manipulation and deceit.

Overbearing heroes abound in paranormals and they feed very well into what has become a very popular plot trope – the fated mates. Somehow it’s usually the heroes that figure out that the heroine must be theirs. And they will pursue her, kidnap her, cut her off from her usual support network, you name it. And then there are the shapeshifters – many will tap into their animal side to be not only extra strong but also to show their power over the heroine. And of course, the heroine is usually someone fated to mate with him. Just once I’d love to see the shapeshifters falling in love of their own free will, or perhaps even the normal heroine who tries really hard to get the mysterious jaguar guy next door to notice her.

And what about young adult fiction? Take the Twilight series. You don’t get much more controlling than a guy who sneaks into the bedroom at night to watch you, who tells what you can and cannot do, tells you you’re fated to be his, and tries to cut you off from friends and family. Edward definitely walks that lover/stalker line, but we as readers just lapped it up even if in real life I probably would have made sure Bella knew how to contact her local women’s shelter.

A not insignificant number of readers will take to the message board and other places online to defend these sorts of heroes. One of the main reasons for letting them off the hook for their behavior? The argument seems to run that since the hero isn’t human, we shouldn’t expect him to behave the same way we would a regular hero. I’ll freely admit that rationale just doesn’t work for me. If the male lead forces the heroine into sexual acts against her will, I’m going to call that rape and I don’t care if he’s a duke or a demon. The hero’s possession of fur, fangs or even wings does not suddenly render overbearing or downright violent behavior romantic in my eyes.

Yet this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon attitude. I have a number of friends and acquaintances offline who enjoy paranormals and several of them will admit that they aren’t bothered by coercive paranormal heroes the way they are with bullying and even cruel heroes in other subgenres. And it makes me wonder. Where do we draw the line between an alpha hero and one that’s too controlling of the heroine? Why are readers so willing to give paranormal heroes a pass when it comes to their behavior? Or do you?

– Lynn Spencer

31 thoughts on “Do We Give Paranormal Heroes a Pass?

  1. People give all kinds of behaviour a pass in books that they wouldn’t in real life. Is it a need to belong? Is it a need to be a fan? No idea. I don’t.

    I am very fussy on what I read and what I don’t. If the writing is horrible. If there are “near rapes”…. I’ll post it on my goodreads page.

    I like a good alpha hero… I will not tolerate a bully. Singh, Laurenston, and Eden (although hers are hit and miss writing) get the dynamic correct. I just finished the first of Lauren Dane’s shifter’s and…. let’s just say I’ll never read another.

  2. Nope, I don’t give it a pass.

    Assholes and fated mates equal auto-skip in my book regardless of the overall quality of the work.

    I’ve read a few of these but they wore out their welcome very quickly.

  3. I came to a similar conclusion when I was looking at a controversial contemporary novel where the hero beat someone up to protect the heroine’s honor. Why didn’t I have a bigger problem with it, I wondered. I realized that I gave it a pass because I accepted paranormal heroes who did a lot worse, so why not accept him?

    But in the end, I came to a different conclusion about this trend. To me, it just makes it more clear that the book is a fantasy. And I enjoy it as that. Do I think that reading paranormal romances where ultra alpha males claim their females has changed what I consider acceptable behavior in my life and from the people in it? No, I distinguish one as fantasy and one as real life. Would I have a problem if my husband tore out someone’s throat with his teeth? Um, ye-ah! So though I enjoy paranormal romances, I enjoy them as stories, not as a moral compass to guide my life. And so, I am happy to let Lachlain and Zsadist, and even Edward, be ultra alpha heroes.

  4. Funny, I just yesterday finished K. Cole’s “Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night”–and I admit I FF’d through some of the book–and disliked it for the very reasons you described in your blog post, Lynn. (I also wasn’t very impressed with “Dreams of a Dark Warrior.”) I don’t like these uber-alpha types and doubt I will read any more of the IAD series.

    It’s one thing for a paranormal to include extreme sex between mutually consenting partners (and why not–these aren’t your average humans, typically). That’s where paranormals can push the edge and may have an advantage over other romance genres.

    It’s another thing when the paranormal male takes masculine traits (such as aggression and dominance) to an extreme degree. That’s generally not acceptable to me, unless it’s of short duration and there’s subsequent repentance or introspection and redemption.

    • Lori: It’s one thing for a paranormal to include extreme sex between mutually consenting partners (and why not–these aren’t your average humans, typically). That’s where paranormals can push the edge and may have an advantage over other romance genres. It’s another thing when the paranormal male takes masculine traits (such as aggression and dominance) to an extreme degree. That’s generally not acceptable to me, unless it’s of short duration and there’s subsequent repentance or introspection and redemption.

      Lori – Yes – sex between consenting adult humans/shaprshifters/whatever can make for a good story. And I agree that there is definitely a line between that and some of the stories where characters aren’t just pushing the envelope in terms of consensual sex but where the “hero” is actually controlling and/or manipulating the heroine whether he’s doing that in a sex scene or elsewhere.

      Farmwifetwo – I haven’t read the others you mention, but yes, I think Singh does good alphas, too. I like a hero who can be strong and also confident enough not to bully.

  5. I have read many books where the “hero” is written in a way that borders the line of distasteful…but my reaction is mostly a chuckle…I am not sure I take books to seriously, its entertainment.

  6. You know over the past five years I have read less and less paranormal books – just not liking them, but not thinking of any commonality.

    Your blog made me realize that all the macho posturing, animal instincts, and honestly just the hero being a complete asshat has impacted the way I look at these books. Oh, I still review the titles every month and read the back blurb but rarely buy them.

    The behavior you describe is not romantic to me in any shape, form, or fashion no matter what the genre.

  7. This is something I find annoying about paranormals. I don’t like abusive alphas in historicals or contemporaries, and I don’t give them a pass in paranormals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading them – it’s a fantasy and it obviously works for a lot of readers – but it doesn’t appeal to me at all. The problem is that so many authors are turning to paranormals. If you don’t read paranormals, your selection of romance is much more limited. I’m reluctant to pick up any paranormal book because the “agressive alpha” hero is so common (to the point that reviewers often don’t even mention it) and I don’t want to waste my money on a book that I won’t enjoy.

  8. Yes, paranormal heroes do get a pass from a lot of readers.

    I did not agree, however, with your review of The Smoke Thief, which is why I wrote another one.

  9. It’s a mixed bag for me. I thoroughly enjoyed A Hunger Like No Other, even though I didn’t always like the characters (I found Emmaline as annoying as Lachlain). I don’t care for sexually aggressive males, but if the author is successful in using the trait to create a character, and not just as an excuse for questionable sexual encounters, then I can generally enjoy the character and the story.

    In other words, I don’t like stories that are feeding on the rape fantasy using a non-human character. BUT, I do like characters, male and female, who are larger than life and. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormals are all great ways to experience what are essentially human emotions in an extreme manner, and see the characters work through them. We may (or may not) be vicariously thrilled to experience an aggressive male’s attention, but we can see and experience emotions we’re not likely to encounter in real life. That’s one reason for fiction of all stripes. Too much realism is like watching the evening news. (And one of the reasons I rarely read contemporary “literary fiction.”)

    So for me, it’s varies from book to book. Aggressive males (and females) may turn me off completely because there are no real reasons the their actions, or they are never satisfactorily redeemed. But, I may be drawn in to see how the author transforms a tortured, over-the-top and possibly unlikable character into one I can respect. When an author does that, it’s soooo satisfying.

  10. You have made good points about the heroes in paranormals getting away with “bad” behavior. Would I want these guys in real life? No, however what I see in real life (overgeneralizing here) is males who walk away from their “loves” and responsibilities. So perhaps this is where the desire to read about uber intense behavior comes from – a backlash

    Also, in A Hunger Like No Other, Lachlain, later in the book, looks back on his early behavior with regret and realizes he was half crazy from being chained up for so long. He also woos Emmaline by thinking about her wants and needs, likes and dislikes, and follows through with some specific actions to make her feel loved and cared for. For me he was redeemed, and I saw their future together more as equals.

    Thanks for an interesting topic!

    • MEK: however what I see in real life (overgeneralizing here) is males who walk away from their “loves” and responsibilities. So perhaps this is where the desire to read about uber intense behavior comes from – a backlash

      Yes, I think you are definitely on to something here :-)

      Moriah Jovan:

      Except WHY does it hit too close to home? Aren’t we supposed to be intelligent women who can a) separate reality from fiction and b) separate what we really want from what we want to fantasize about?

      Clearly this dynamic hits the spot, has hit the spot, and will continue to hit the spot for a whole lot more women than it doesn’t
      ————————————————————————-

      You make an excellent point. These books clearly have a wide appeal, regardless of how their detractors may feel.

  11. Perhaps one of the reasons this kind of paranormal is so popular is that many of us want a reason to be able to give the hero a pass, because we enjoy that kind of story but it hits too close to home in a straight contemporary.

  12. you’d think I was reading an old-school 1970s/80s book, wouldn’t you?

    You are.

    It’s no longer PC to want to read alpha-assholes, so it’s shifted (heh) to make it more palatable to the general population of women who think liking the alpha-asshole is contributing to rape culture. Some people don’t like other people’s kink and get worked up about it.

    Oh, look, willaful got here before I did. What she said. Except WHY does it hit too close to home? Aren’t we supposed to be intelligent women who can a) separate reality from fiction and b) separate what we really want from what we want to fantasize about?

    Clearly this dynamic hits the spot, has hit the spot, and will continue to hit the spot for a whole lot more women than it doesn’t.

  13. I assuredly have a different take on Twilight and The Smoke Thief. In Twilight 90% of what Edward did was to protect Bella. I found him a far less “creepy” character than I found her parents, who had a daughter who had a mental breakdown when her boyfriend left her and never took her in for psychological counciling. And I was deeply disturbed that hanging with friends didn’t cheer Bella up but getting a new supernatural boyfriend did. I loved the books but if I were a parent I would talk to my daughter after letting her read them. That is one behavior I would want to let her know would land her at the doctor’s pronto. I found it extremely unhealthy.

    I won’t defend The Smoke Thief since Sandy did an excellent job of that in her review.

    It’s always interesting what crosses a line for us as individuals, isn’t it?

  14. @maggieb.

    The predominance of the rape fantasy as the top female fantasy is and has been well-documented throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s (cf Nancy Friday, for one). Just because someone (or even ourselves) thinks it’s “bad” to have them, women have them anyway. That doesn’t make us any less smart.

    I, for one, am quite put out that the Old Skool romances get such a spanking by new romance reader/bloggers. What I read back then beat the pants off what I’m reading now for women who empower themselves, go on adventures and perform great feats of derring-do. The fantasy is that there is only ONE MAN in the world who can top a woman like that and he has to go to great lengths to do it. Now the heroines are largely milquetoasts or turn TSTL at the appearance of the hero. But, by golly, there’s no forced seduction or rape.

    Kinda. Until you get into werebeasts and vampires. Because then it’s okay.

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  16. I haven’t read a Harlequin in a very long time but I occassionally read reviews. Isn’t coercion and an out of balance power dynamic between the billionaire and the virgin what they’re all about? And if so, so what?

    I think I’ve been reading a lot of think pieces, blog posts, reviews, and message board commentary lately that is very judgmental about what other women like to read. When “ewwweww” appears that pretty much puts the kibosh on rational discussion.
    This morning on the Today Show Dr Drew disapproved of womenen having submission fantasies. So sorry he’s turned into a judgmental old fart.

  17. I read Harlequin Presents from time to time, so the sometimes retro “alpha male sweeping the heroine off her feet” fantasy can definitely work for me. There’s certainly an unbalanced power dynamic at play in many of the HP books and there are some authors who write that very well. By “very well,” part of what I mean is that the hero is strong, but the heroine is someone I can respect or like as a reader rather than simply pity. And most of the time, the heroes are very alpha but still not abusive; strength and confidence aren’t the same as bullying and browbeating. With a lot of the alpha heroes, they can be pretty imperious but there’s a certain give and take to the relationship that makes it sexy. In addition, while the hero may be an alpha, the heroine’s usually no timid doormat. However, there are some heroes I’ve read, particularly in paranormals, that really push it further in terms of behavior and condescending attitudes toward their heroines. For me, it crosses a line when I can’t believe in the heroine choosing the hero of her own free will.

  18. I enjoy heroes who push the envelope. Its total fantasy. AHLNO is my fav right next to Lothair. I’m reading less historicals due to the toned down and tamed heroes. HP’s heroes are a mix of tame and push the envelope type.

  19. Oh Christ. There’s nothing wrong with voluntary submission. I can be a very highly-educated successful career woman, and still want to be submissive in private. Obviously that’s not an uncommon desire, as demonstrated by the average woman’s reading preferences!

    At the same time, the first time I read A Hunger Like No Other I was shocked by how awful the hero was. I reread and found something to like in it two or three goes in, but still I do believe paranormal heroes get away with far too much garbage.

    Yet, that’s a different thing entirely to those who believe women always have to be pushy, loudmouthed, in-your-face go-getters.

    Can I not be both? I believe I can.

    • AAR Sandy:

      @LynnAAR, I’m sorry, but that’s some fancy dancing you’re doing there in order to justify your liking of HPs.

      I don’t think so. As I mentioned in the blog piece above, I’m wondering where do we draw the line between an alpha hero and one that’s just downright controlling (or even just plain mean, in some cases) to the heroine. I’ve read plenty of books where the hero is financially successful or amazingly athletic or even has all kinds of superpowers, but he has some empathy and consideration for the heroine’s feelings. Some of the best I’ve read have heroes that a reader knows could completely overpower the heroine and force her into just about anything, but the hero holds back from doing the worst he could do because at the end of it all, he realizes that he wants the heroine’s love and acceptance. And that’s the difference I’m getting at, because I do think there’s a difference between alpha and cruel.

  20. I haven’t read the Kresley Cole, so I can’t comment on that. But how you are able to draw the conclusions you did about The Smoke Thief are beyond me. I didn’t read that book for several years because of your review because I can’t stand controlling heroes. Can’t stand them. Literally. Which is why I can’t read HPs.

    When I finally did get around to reading The Smoke Thief, I was overwhelemed with how motivated he was by love at every turn. That and the sheer artfulness of the writing won me over completely.

    As for your point about HP heroes “holding back”, the same could be said for Edward of Twilight and the hero in the Smoke Thief. They are not cruel.

    It’s in the eye of the beholder.

  21. Sandy – Re: The Smoke Thief – With what you’re saying about that book, I think you’re really hitting on one of the main issues. Can we as readers believe that the hero actually has a heart and some respect for his heroine?

    If one can believe in the hero’s motivations changing, I can see where The Smoke Thief would work for someone. I thought the language of the book was beautiful, but my main problem is that when the hero made it clear at the beginning that he was pretty much rigging the bargain with the heroine, he lost credibility with me, so I just couldn’t believe in his purported change of heart. I came away from the book figuring that he’d probably try manipulating and controlling the heroine again in future. I’ve known several people who read the book, and some believed the hero had a real change of heart and others didn’t.

  22. I’ve thought about this some more and I think I end up with, “Well, the males (and often females) in the PNR genres really *aren’t* human.” If we want characters that act within the bounds of civilized society, then we shouldn’t read paranormals. Part of the fun is experiencing the over-the-top heroes and heroines. Werewolves wouldn’t be much fun to read about if they didn’t act like wolves. A vampire acting like a sensitive 21st century male would be boring.

    And in the end, it’s all about the heroine’s power over the hero. Is she the one who can make a difference in the hero’s life? I think one reason women of all types enjoy these stories isn’t the rape fantasy, it’s the eventual revelation of how much power the female actually has over the male. I’m sure it’s not true in every case, but many of these stories end with female empowerment, not submission.

    • Carrie: I’ve thought about this some more and I think I end up with, “Well, the males (and often females) in the PNR genres really *aren’t* human.” If we want characters that act within the bounds of civilized society, then we shouldn’t read paranormals. Part of the fun is experiencing the over-the-top heroes and heroines.

      I agree with Carrie but I’d go even further. I think the paranormal nature of these heroes is the most important trait because it means their sexual mate-detecting “Spidey senses,” whether it’s smell or dreams or instincts or what, are always right. A human man who kidnapped you and tried to convince you that he was your soul mate would be creepy as hell. A male Breed, or a male Immortal, or a male Carpathian, or whatever who does the same thing is simply telling the truth.

      Not sure I like it. Just thinking about how it works.

  23. Lets go back further then the books of the 70′s – 80′s to Jane Eyre. Rochester was cruel and played cruel games. He was totally selfish. But when he told Jane he loved her and wanted to marry her I melted. And before that, the whole Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. It is my favorite fairy tale by far and I’m not talking the Disney version here. Disturbing or not, there will always be a market for jerk hero’s and the women who love them.

    And I love that. I love that it is still a free market. And I love that the ebook market forced print to follow what women want to read rather than just what they want to publish.

    And I am glad my daughter will have that choice. BUT I can tell you right now she won’t be making that choice until she is much older. I am not a big fan of the teen romance genre in any way.

    great conversation!

  24. I recently read A Hunger Like No Other for the first time and loved it. It’s one of my favorite paranormal romances. But that doesn’t mean I gave Lachlain’s bad behavior a “pass.” He treated Emmaline horribly, and he came to realize it eventually. He had some grovelling to do before I forgave him. Even then, I would not have felt comfortable with their HEA if Emmaline had not grown into a person who could take on any foe, and therefore could have gotten herself out of Lachlain’s clutches if she had wanted to.

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  26. I read this post when it was first posted, then followed the comments all of which made me go back and look at what paranormals I have read in the last year in so. In doing so I’ve realized I have moved completely away from the J.R. Ward books and other paranormal books. I also attempted A Hunger Like No Other but didn’t like the hero enough to finish it. And I constantly wanted to smack the heroine for even staying in the story and putting up with him.

    I have when I do want to read paranormals I find I go more and more to the young adult ones (Vampire Academy being one example) where I find the characters are more equal with the female characters not treated like property. But I have also realized this applies to most of the books I read, I can’t stand books where the female meekly follows the man around or just lets him “protect her for her own good.” Get a back bone!!

    I read and loved the Twilight series but I consider that “bad book crack” – not necessarily a well written book or one I would normal read the entire series but I got sucked into a story and couldn’t help myself. Sadly, that doesn’t happen with many of the paranormals I have attempted in the past year and thus am barely reading them at all.

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