From the Middle Ages and earlier, wolves were feared as man-eating monsters that killed people and livestock alike. Thus when people wanted a villain for a story, wolves were the first monsters that came to mind (the Big Bad Wolf, for example). A man who could turn into a wolf became a great metaphor for a human giving in to his base nature and feeding upon his own kind.
Then came modern science, and people who studied these hated creatures. Wolves were on the verge of being wiped out due to ignorance and fear. Intrepid scientists risked everything to go camp out in the wilds and observe wolf packs, gambling that the animals weren’t the monsters they’ve been made out to be.
And hey! It turns out that wolves actually live in family units, care for their young, have elaborate social etiquette, and don’t really like eating humans. Wolves went from being hated and feared to being embraced as a sort of woodland fairy. They’re not nasty–they’re FLUFFY.
Cue the rise of the werewolf romance. Gone is the debased monster. A person who turns into a wolf is now a loveable, fluffy creature. Oh, sure, they may have some nasty habits, like killing people and eating them raw, but that’s not REALLY what werewolves are about. They’re about tapping into NAY-CHURE, maaaaaaaan.
If you go to Amazon and type in “werewolf romance”, you’ll find a plethora of romances, ranging from sweet to spicy, of hawt women who swoon for a smoking hot werewolf dude with perfect abs. Twilight brought the werewolf romance genre into the limelight. Writers like Patricia Briggs invented this nutty pack structure where the Alpha exerts a psychic dominance over his pack, and being his mate is basically psychic arranged marriage.
So, what can this crazy genre teach us about romance?
1. The Mask
Most people have layers to their personality. They have their true self (the essence) and the Mask, or Identity–the self that they present to the world. This can be a false confidence, or the face of an attention-seeker, or a delicate needy person who needs to be taken care of. Sometimes this is the opposite of their true self.
With werewolves, this is the human self: the face that blends with the crowd. Nobody knows about the beast inside them. Outwardly they’ve got it together.
I played with this a lot in my first werewolf romance, Turned. A Victorian-ish gentleman and lady marry to combine their fortunes. Outwardly they give a show of happiness, but they don’t like each other, and lead almost entirely separate lives. While lonely, neither of them knows how to penetrate the mask of the other.
2. The essence (or identity)
This is the true self, the actual emotions, insecurities, warts, and all. This is where a person’s wounds are, their secrets, all the nasty things they’d rather not present to the world. This is also what makes a character in a book the most interesting.
The wolf part of a werewolf is a personification of this true self. This is where the monster comes into the open–claws, teeth, fur, stink, everything. People can see what’s been inside them all this time, and it’s torches-and-pitchforks time.
In romance, however, when two people see the essence of the other, and fall in love with that damaged, sinful person–that is real love.
In Turned, the estranged lord and lady are bitten, and fall under the werewolf curse. They’re forced to flee into the wilds, where they face hunger, cold, and other problems presented by the elements. Being stuck in animal form, they each see what the other is truly like. First they begin to sympathize with each other, then begin to love.
The werewolf form becomes a metaphor for mask and essence. Like all good fantasy, it takes a complex topic and gives it a form that we can ponder.
3. Love triangles
This is a necessary part of romance–when two guys are interested in the same girl. Two girls can also be interested in the same guy (although this isn’t as common, for some reason). We’ve all read this in books or seen it on TV: one guy will be perfect for the girl, while the other will be less perfect. This is where shipping wars start (remember Team Edward and Team Jacob?).
Again, it comes down to essence and identity. One guy will see her essence and love her for who she is, while the other will only love her mask. This is like a guy loving the girl even though she’s a werewolf, while the other guy loves her as a human with no idea about her werewolf half.
Vampires can also work this way–or any monster that looks human half the time. This is the lure of paranormal romance, because it takes romance, which is such a sticky, uncomfortable thing, and turns it into tidy black and white.