Dark romance: why, and what the hell?
Dark romance. It’s a huge sub-genre in romance these days. It’s a repeat offender in the bestseller charts. In fact, I’m not even sure I can call it a sub-genre—it permeates all sorts of other romance sub-genres (paranormal, historical, billionaire, reverse harem/why choose?). So, what is dark romance and why am I devoting a blog post to it?
Well, beyond saying it takes a “dark” tone, dark romance is tricky to define. I’ve read academic papers that simply say “dark romance = paranormal romance”. Nope! Maybe paranormal tends towards darkness, but no way is all dark romance paranormal these days. Interestingly, academics also point out that dark romance has its literary roots in gothic romance. Quite probably, but The Castle of Otranto (1764) looks entirely sunny compared to today’s dark romance offerings. In essence, dark romance features taboos (usually sexual taboos), violence (psychological and/or physical), heroes that are practically villains, and dubious consent. Dark romance also branches out into sub-sub-genres of mafia romance, bully romance, biker romance, BDSM, and captive/kidnap scenarios, among others.
Doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? Perhaps you can see why I’m writing about this topic now. I want to know what in the deepest bowls of hell attracts readers to this stuff!
So I read some dark romances to try to figure it out. Here’s a summary of The Proposal by Kitty Thomas, one of the authors who kicked off the dark-romance fest of recent years. I love lots of things about this book—the timeline zigzags back and forth intriguingly, the psychological asides are quite profound at times, and the heroine (Livia) is strong-minded and independent. She is tired of being mucked around, commitment-wise, by the men she dates, so she openly declares she will date multiple men simultaneously without giving them the final prize: sex. She will continue to do this until one offers her marriage. If Livia loves him, she’ll accept. Great, I like this lady’s bold line of action! But the three men she’s currently dating do not. They scrape up some serious dirt on Livia’s past and then blackmail her into marrying them … all of them. At once. She signs legal contracts to give up her life to them (and produce at least one baby for each, by the way!) and must submit to their every sexual demand. The result? Livia’s independence and strong will is entirely swamped by three domineering billionaires. I kept waiting for it to make a resurgence, but it never did. The book ends with her dutifully producing babies and happily married to three men. Along the way, these men have subjected her to all sorts of sexual activities that Livia cannot refuse. But that’s all right, apparently, because they subtly ascertain that she really wants it. As for love, Livia says she loves each of the three, and each of the men want to tie themselves to this female “toy”, forsaking all others, with the implication that they love said toy. But if this is love, it’s a variety I don’t recognise.
Which brings me to my next question: what is love anyway? Dive in deep, right? I definitely don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, so I read around and came up with an intriguing approach to understanding the big L.
Narrative Theory and Romance
When it comes to the way humans feel, we draw upon two sources: biology and society. Sure, love has a lot to do with biology—the human race is wired to reproduce—but the way love plays out is also shaped by stories. These stories—narratives—are formed of event-sequences and character-types that societies produce and repeat; those narratives repeated most often gain the most power. Power to do what? To sink into our subconscious, to seem “right”, and be applied as frameworks to make sense of our lives. We are most inclined to seek out a useful narrative when something we experience does not initially make sense.
The Cinderella story is one such narrative. It has character types (a poor but beautiful heroine and a rich and powerful hero) and certain events (most notably, a wedding followed by happily-ever-after). It is retold in varying but recognisable forms over and over, and not just in books and movies. Everyone in the English-speaking world knows what a Cinderella story is and that it’s a recipe for lasting love. That’s the narrative message, no matter what an individual may think of it rationally … if they think about it at all. Narratives have a sneaky habit of taking up residence in the subconscious.
The Cinderella story is definitely not the only romantic love narrative in our cultural air. (Thank goodness, as princes are scarce on the ground.) Psychologist Robert Sternberg outlines 26 major love narratives in his book, Love is a Story, but says there are loads more. Here are two examples. Sternberg’s love as a “Police Story” features the characters of a “police officer” and a “suspect”. The officer approaches love in terms of surveillance and control and tries to ensure the “suspect” obeys all their laws of love. Break the law, and punishment will ensue. Or, in Sternberg’s “love as a garden” narrative, love needs to be nurtured and tended in order to grow. This sounds a lot healthier than the police narrative … until you consider the pruning and weeding. Topiary, anyone? (Check out more of Sternberg’s love stories here.) Interestingly, Sternberg says each person is likely to host a number of love narratives.
So, the potential problem with dark romance is that it reiterates and strengthens some narratives that I wouldn’t want slipping into my subconscious and defining my life. Livia is coerced into sex and marriage and babies with three men, but it ends in a life of luxury for her and happily-ever-after. Loss of (female) liberty is a frequent trope of dark romance, and a domineering hero is practically guaranteed. On the surface, we know that this is just fiction, but tell the story often enough and it may sink into the subconscious to seem a valid recipe for love. If I were in a coercive relationship, I might apply the narrative and decide to put up with abuse to get my happily-ever-after. Oh, and I’d also be reassured that the gender stereotypes of dominant man, submissive woman is conducive to love.
So what’s the attraction?
Okay, okay, stop preaching! Dark romance simply offers a fantasy escape. Readers are simply exploring taboos in fictional safety and know better than to mistake fairy tales for reality, right? Here are some reasons readers give for enjoying dark romance:
“the appeal is knowing that you alone have the power to change the monster. Knowing he’d change his very nature for you.”
“it’s a safe way to enjoy something dangerous. Like a horror movie or a roller coaster. You get to ‘experience’ it, but without the risk”
the hero goes to extreme lengths over the heroine: he will destroy anything or anyone that threatens her; this is “a level of devotion women rarely experience in life”
it’s “a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins … the more obdurate the hero, the sweeter the triumph when the heroine brings him to his knees”.
As for me, I suspect the attraction is the reader’s experience of extremes of passion within the safety net of romance (a guaranteed happy ending). The hero loves the heroine and won’t truly hurt her: he always knows the true boundaries of her (often unspoken) consent and will never violate them.
In the end, a reader “consents” to take this dark romance ride. Authors generally provide content warnings or other indications of darkness within. Besides, we can’t actually ban publication, can we? I dived down this dark rabbit-hole because I was curious: what is dark romance, is it bad for women, and why do readers crave it? Here are my tentative answers: all about sexual taboos, probably, and extremes within a safety net. Happy reading!
Bhanot, S., “An assessment of the intersection between love and violence: Do romance narratives support the development, continuation and attitudinal tolerance of intimate partner violence?” PhD thesis, University of Windsor, 2009, https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8804&context=etd
@Ramonel11, “Genuine question: why do you like dark romances?” 15 August 2021, https://www.reddit.com/r/RomanceBooks/comments/p4stbd/genuine_question_why_do_you_like_dark_romances/
Sullivan, A. S, “From Darcy to dickheads: why do women love the bad boy?”, in S. Fanetti (ed.), New Frontiers in Popular Romance: Essays on the Genre in the 21st Century, McFarland, 2022.
Wood, J. T., “The normalization of violence in heterosexual romantic relationships: Women's narratives of love and violence”, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 18, 2001, pp. 239-261.