What makes a fantasy romance dark?

So Imma be honest: I don’t get what people think is ‘dark’ romance, specifically dark fantasy romance. Like I get told I write f*cked up heroes and love interests even though, you know, they read pretty fine to me. [Don’t look at me; I’m perfectly sane *eyelashes batting*] And then I read books touted as villain romance or dark fantasy romance and the dudes are like… immature? Or they behave like any other hero in a romance novel, only they kill a bunch of people on the side, but their behavior toward the herione isn’t at all… villainy? Shivery? Dark?

It’s like *man comes into room, stretching his shirtless, blood-spattered pecs* “Hey, babe, make me a sandwich, will ya? Maybe a side of rutabagas.” They often behave like jocks from high school claiming their woman. Even if they’re supposed to be fae who’ve lived for centuries, they’re short-tempered or portrayed as unreasonably cruel. Like I’ve only been alive 40-some-odd years and I already don’t have time for stupid sh*t like petty arguments and grudges and being mean just to be mean – like who has time for that crap? Give me a few centuries and I imagine I’d be like those grannies who walk out in their undies and are like, “Got a problem?”

I imagine real fae would be jaded, cynical, bored, not drawn into shallow conflict, and intrigued by things that are truly interesting. They would get things done! Other than the dishes. [they probably don’t even eat off plates – I’ve already decided at my advanced age that plates are for peons who have time for suds]

Ugh, I got off-topic. Whatever. Anyone who knows me knows my mind leaps from thought to thought like stone to stone in a stream. We’ll get to the other side eventually… maybe… mwhahahahahhahaha!

Blah.

Alright, so I kinda can’t name names because I’m an author and no way am I going to complain about another author’s book (unless you know me in person, then I will blab your leetle ears off), so I’m not going to talk anymore about the things that DRIVE. ME. UP. THE. WALL. Alright, so maybe one thing: like, um, I can’t take a book seriously when the ‘dark’ hero is sucking on the heroine’s nipples like a hero in a romance novel being a general hormonal horndog. Like, you think you’re dark? Go sit in your corner and rethink your life choices or something, cuz you’re just a horny man.

Ugh.

Blah.

I’m not saying dark-minded dudes don’t get nipple action, but having him preoccupied with constant sex is like a tray of cinnamon rolls in a cave. It may taste yummy and the lights are off, but I’d rather have a ferally smiling figure in a locked cage, with shadowed eyes and unspeakable intentions that he carries out in delicious ways after the heroine has witnessed all his darkling deeds.

Anyway, onward!

So what issues do people have with my dark heroes? Well, it’s generally that they’re seriously troubled and have to resolve some serious sh*t. Like… what is a tortured hero if he’s tortured by something stupid? For example: ‘I got turned into this terrible creature and Imma mope in the corner of the garden, right here by this thorn bush, and get my roar up rather than use my immortality to read up and help spread some world peace or somethin’.’ (I’m looking at you, Beauty and the Beast)

Like… you’re not tortured. You’re just an asshole.

But my heroes? Their pasts are messed up, as in they were taken captive and physically tortured, or abused, or watched an adoptive mother murdered in front of them, or were skinned alive and tossed into a pit. Like this is some serious trauma over here, deep, dark problems that take them to deep, dark places that they have to claw their way out of, and it ain’t always pretty.

But, like… how can you write a dark romance with light problems? Most of the dark stuff I come across, however (though maybe I just have bad luck in this?), is ‘lite dark’, as in palatable darkness, or the ‘dark heroes’ are only bullies with bad behavior and a lot of bedmates, as if jerks are dark (not cutting it, sorry). It doesn’t take you to that gut-wrenching place of suffering that makes the heroes do bad things to survive, or that they have to drag themselves out of, or even where they were simply born and raised and don’t know any better. And these are places where the heroines get scarred if they dare enter.

But the heroines do enter, because they love these men, and they will walk through any hell to help them get out.

Why? Because they see the man below the surface, the person behind the torment. They recognize the difference between a sick creature lashing out, or someone who hasn’t experienced another way, and someone who is truly, entirely gone. They understand that sometimes bad behavior is a survival tactic and they don’t punish them for things they later want to move past. I think I explained it well in one of my books (names redacted to prevent spoilers):

“… he could only wordlessly plead her forgiveness for what he’d done.
She forgave him. She knew that, sometimes, people made terrible mistakes, and atonement was impossible if others stamped them permanently with the label of that mistake and never let them move past it.
He had stepped briefly into a place where he’d done unforgivable things, but now he’d stepped out of it and no longer wished to return. The haunted guilt his sojourn there had burdened him with punished him enough.
She would never lock him back there…”

Is it no less cruel to punish someone for something they sincerely regret and can’t undo but would if they could? I’m not talking about people like abusers who do bad things they don’t regret; I’m talking about those who inadvertently (or sometimes even intentionally) hurt others but then seriously wish they could undo it, and they will never do it again, and sometimes still torment themselves daily because of it. Life is too short to hold grudges for things others already regret.

Honestly, though, I think there’s a disturbing trend toward ‘no tolerance, lack of compassion, judgment, and no second chances’. I can’t say how many times I get people judging my male characters completely without understanding them. Like one editor once blasted my sweet cinnamon-roll character for being a d*ck when he was trying to get the heroine to go with another dude, and I’m like did you not get that that is the only way to save her? He perceived himself and her on a sinking ship and the only way for her to stay alive was to have another guy get her out. It’s not necessarily the right choice (it’s actually the wrong one since it should be her choice), but it’s him sacrificing his own happiness to save her. And that’s it: people sometimes make wrong choices for the right reasons. But nowadays it seems that people’s first instinct is to attack and castigate rather than to try to understand a character’s true intent. Where are they coming from? What are they trying to do?

And, you know, this is true in real life, too. If someone’s being a jerk, maybe ask why before you make incorrect assumptions.

Sometimes my heroes are so broken they actively try to harm back, of course–but they have a damn good reason, and eventually they do try to tear themselves out of the morally blacker shades of gray (lol, well, some of them. Others…? Not so much), but it sometimes gets ugly. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not easy. If you’re dragged down that far, getting out is going to be a difficult climb. Which, by the way, is the same for mental illness. You can’t expect someone pulled down so hard can simply stand up and walk away. There’s going to be some crippling. And some people never walk normally again.

Anyway, reading is supposed to be an escape, and for some, that means always to a lighter place, so I get that having heroes with real trauma can be a disturbing thing for those readers, but for realz, how can you label a book ‘dark’ when all it is is an angel cake dyed charcoal-gray?

In any case, I’m fully expecting backlash but, frankly, Imma go all old-woman-in-her-undies on you and jaded-fae-lived-for-centuries-been-there-done-that-not-interested-no-f*cks-to-give and not answer any mean people.

Also, for those curious about the books of mine that I referred to in this post, I’ve been told my Heiress of Healing is dark, although I don’t agree with that, and I will say that I think the second half of The Ever Spirits is dark, but otherwise I don’t have any books published that I would consider ‘dark’ (I unpublished the dystopians which were very definitely dark). This post is more of a reaction to my experience with books touted as ‘dark’ combined with reactions to my books-in-progress by my writers’ groups and editors.

If something here resonated, feel free to join the newsletter I haven’t been writing (but intend to), join the patreon I’ve been seriously neglecting (but want to resume), or check out my books I don’t want anyone to buy (for realz cuz it’s my old writing and I’m like nooo, don’t read it…) before I unpublish even more (like I unpublished my dystopians).

And take care out there in this sometimes compassionless world. Be kind and try to understand before you judge.

Owner of two cats and huge dreams and author of any kind of love story so long as wild stuff is going on...

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Sonya Lano

Sonya Lano

Owner of two cats and huge dreams and author of any kind of love story so long as wild stuff is going on...

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