What makes romance and erotica “dark”?
In trying to solidify my author brand (it’s an ongoing process), I’ve often tried to wrap my mind around what dark romance and erotica actually are. It seems like a straightforward-enough answer–romance or erotica plus horror, right? But I often get stuck in this spiral of: Is my work dark? Is it dark enough to put the word “dark” in my ever-changing tagline? If I think it’s dark, does that mean readers do, and vice versa? (Too often, after all, I’ll have one opinion of my work’s category/subgenre, and readers will tell me otherwise.)
So I’m going to take this post to explore: What exactly are dark romance and erotica?
In Pursuit of a Definition
Unfortunately, a quick Google search doesn’t turn up anything definitive. One might end up venturing to the Wikipedia page for Dark Romanticism, but its focus is the literary movement from the first half of the 1800s, not the modern genre we know and love. Even articles like this one, entitled “What is Dark Romance?” use the word “dark” to define dark romance, which doesn’t clear up anything, at least for me. Author Roni Loren has a blog post of dark romance recommendations, and “for her purposes,” defines dark romance as “one that has an anti-hero, a villain type as the lead guy, and/or completely mindf*cks you.” That’s probably closer to a solid definition but I don’t think it’s comprehensive enough. A post by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books contrasts dark romance with light romance, which I agree is easier to conceptualize. Wendell describes light romance as “funny, friendly, not painfully emotional or wrenching,” and a dark romance as “one wherein there’s going to be a happy ending eventually, but it’ll hurt a bit first, for everyone involved, including me, the reader.” I like that definition, but it seems way too broad. Doesn’t almost every romance have that oh-no-maybe-they-won’t-really-make-it scene, and it doesn’t it “hurt a bit”? I disagree with much of what Cari Silverwood has to say in this post (she seems to believe liking dark erotica must involve self-doubt about one’s morals), but I think she hits on something significant when she says “Dark erotica is meant to disturb readers.”
Books Categorized as Dark Romance or Dark Erotica
Browsing through BookBub’s Dark Romance & Erotica category, I find books featuring forced ownership/slavery between enemies, BDSM with a little edgeplay, plain old BDSM, an unforgiving alien prison, a motorcycle club and main characters with abusive pasts, a woman on the run from her criminal father’s enemies, coerced pretend sexual slavery, mafia family arranged marriage, and a motorcycle club death dealer. (I’ll assert right now that BDSM on its own does not make a book “dark,” since kink comes in many, many flavors, from soft and sweet to rough and intense.)
Heading over to Goodreads’ dark-romance shelf, I peruse the first few most popular titles and find themes of kidnapping, dubious consent, rape, crime, homelessness, forced sexual slavery, stalking, monstrous men, revenge, and underground fighting rings. Because I write M/M romance, I also check out a relevant Goodreads listopia list: Best M/M Dark and Edgy Books of 2016. Listed reads “deal with dark, edgy, controversial, taboo, uncomfortable, disturbing, pushing boundaries themes” and must contain “at least one of the following: abuse, rape/non-consensual, dubious consent, forced submission, blackmail/coercion, captivity/kidnapping, slavery, psychological manipulation, self-harm, substance abuse, incest, extreme violence, torture, killers/assassins as main characters.” Listed books include some of my favorites: Max by Bey Deckard, which features an emotionally manipulative, psychopathic love interest and his therapist’s riveting downward spiral; Safe in Your Fire (The Village #1) by Darien Cox, a creepy sci-fi horror romance; and The Rebellious Pet (Alien Slave Masters #2) by Samantha Cayto, a forced alien/human sexual slavery story.
Definitions of “Dark”
Merriam Webster’s applicable definitions of “dark” are:
- arising from or showing evil traits or desires; the dark powers that lead to war
- dismal, gloomy; had a dark view of the future
- relating to grim or depressing circumstances; dark humor
Google offers the following definitions:
- (of a period of time or situation) characterized by tragedy, unhappiness, or unpleasantness.
“the dark days of the war”
- gloomily pessimistic.
“a dark vision of the future”; “dark thoughts”
- (of an expression) angry; threatening.
“Matthew flashed a dark look at her”
- suggestive of or arising from evil characteristics or forces; sinister.
“so many dark deeds had been committed”
Romance or Erotica + Horror
If you’re reading this post, you’re almost certainly already familiar with the romance genre. But since I often encounter negative opinions about dark romance which seem to claim that it isn’t really romance, I’ll include here RWA’s definition of the romance genre:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
As for erotica, Wikipedia’s Erotic literature page offers this as a definition: “Erotic literature comprises fictional and/or factual stories and accounts of human sexual relationships which have the power to or are intended to arouse the reader sexually.”
Simple enough. But the horror genre can get a little more complicated. As I delve into some Wikipedia pages on the topic (Horror fiction, Horror and terror), I find this definition of horror: a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror,” with terror defined as “the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience,” and horror defined as, “the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced.”
A Proposed Definition
So, taking into account all of the above, a definition of dark romance or erotica might be: romance or erotica which is intended to or has the capacity to scare, disgust, or startle readers by inducing feelings of dread, frightful anticipation, or revulsion via evil, manipulative, threatening, or criminal characters and abusive, grim, or tragic situations.
Wow! That’s a lot of words! Let’s condense it: Dark romance or erotica features horrific elements, non-heroic characters, and/or distressing situations.
What do you think? Does that definition suit the subgenre? Leave a comment or @ me on Twitter.