I have a friend who doesn’t “get” shape-shifter romances. That’s because she sees the romance only on the surface of animal/human interaction. She isn’t able to look beneath the overt differences to the qualities that make shifter romances appealing. Community, overwhelming passion, and a lifetime of fidelity are what readers find compelling about these stories.
One central theme in shifter romances is the focus on the pack or clan, which is in essence a small community that looks after and protects its own. In a world of increasingly far-flung families, spread out from our safety net, this sense of community is incredibly attractive. The knowledge that you have people watching your back, willing to care for you and your family if something goes wrong, allows a layer of insulation against the stresses of today.
In Nalini Singh’s sci-fi futuristic romance novels, the Psy-Changeling series, the Changeling Pack (made up of panther, wolf, and leopard shifters) looks after anyone who becomes a member of the Pack. The Pack also is fiercely protective of its cubs. Everyone watches over the children. In Play of Passion (November 2010), Indigo and Drew, wolf changelings, must work together to prevent the Psy attacks on the SnowDancer Pack, even though they are at odds over their own brewing romance.
Another draw of the shifter romance is the way in which shifters trust their instincts. Nowadays, we rely so much on research and statistics and other means of making a correct decision that we forget or suppress our own instincts. In the shifter world, instinct is key to survival.
Most shifter romances also contain the element of an overwhelming compulsion to be with the other person and to protect him or her at all costs. Everyone remembers that flush of newness and sparkly that coats every moment with a new love, and the intense feeling of needing to be with the other person all the time. In shifter romances, when the male recognizes his mate, he is irresistibly drawn to her with the need to touch and openly claim her by showing physical affection. The mating bond is so strong as to render the male helpless against the female attraction.
Christine Feehan magnifies those feelings in her Wild series that feature shifter leopards. In Wild Rain (February 2004), the first in the series, Rio almost immediately feels an inexplicable attraction to his mate, Rachael. Against all common sense and his own need for isolation, he cannot let her go.
The last and likely most intriguing major aspect of shifter romances focuses on finding your mate for life. There is rarely divorce or separation. In Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books, the were-animal (she has everything from bears to panthers to leopards) males are unable to have sex with anyone else after they have sex and bond with their female mate. The fantasy of being the one and only person that your spouse or significant other ever has sex with again is a strong one.
In Night Play (August 2004), Vane is a were-wolf and Bride is fully human, hurting because of a former boyfriend’s betrayal. When the mating mark appears, it is a surprise to them both and Vane must overcome Bride’s wariness of any male, let alone the fear of committing herself for the rest of her life. Bride must finally be willing to trust Vane with her heart.
There are other minor draws of shape-shifter romances as well, including the exotic draw of a race as comfortable outdoors as indoors, the usually super-human strength associated with their animal, the mental bond that makes the hero and heroine hyper-aware of each other. Of course, the totally hot, off-the-charts sex probably has something to do with these books' appeal as well.
Ultimately, shifter romances remind us of the need to connect with other people. Although we have little control over mating for life or overwhelming passion, we can take steps to build our own community, to interact and relate to the people around us. Even if you live in a big city, you can find a community within the geographical limits of your home or work. Talk to the florist or butcher, smile at the newspaper stand operator, wish your neighbor a good day, pet the shop owner’s dog—the key is in those small gestures. Every moment is a connection, and while it may not be Pack, it will still be community.