Back before I published anything, when I was writing M/M novels just for my own fun, I wrote the first draft of Unacceptable Risk, in my Hidden Wolves series. I’ve always enjoyed all the genres, and I decided to try my hand at a paranormal.
Now, at the time I was kind of naive. I’d read a fair amount of gay lit, LGBT fantasy, and gay mysteries but not genre M/M, which I didn’t realize existed despite the decades I’d written it in private. I decided that I’d go for the lesser-known paranormal, because there were probably many more gay vampires than werewolves.
I’ll just wait here until the laughter dies down.
Right. There are actually a boatload of M/M werewolf books— to be sure, many more now that there were in 2006, but even then it wasn’t close to uncharted territory. Lots of werewolves, and a growing array of other shifters can be found on the M/M shelves. But I’ve come to see the fun in all the variations there can be in writing shifter paranormals. So many choices, that make your book unique.
The first question, as you dive into the fun of writing shifters, is what kind of shifter are they? I picked conventional wolves, but by now you can find books with everything from hedgehogs to dolphins, big cats to chinchillas. There are mermen shifters too, and dragon shifters, and others whose forms are not seen in our own universe.
And therein lies the next choice. How close to our own is the shifter-world you’re creating? Does your whole human society know about shifters and magic in some alternate universe, or are they potentially hidden parts of our modern world?
There are challenges to both versions. In an alternate universe where dragons thrive or shifters participate in politics, you have to construct a logical replacement or revision for our familiar settings. World-building. But if you put your shifters in our world, how do you keep them hidden? Why aren’t they on someone’s video on YouTube?
In my books, I decided secrecy would be one of my guys’ big challenges. I wanted my wolves to live firmly within modern society, which meant they had to be really well, and very ruthlessly, hidden. Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. My wolves would have to cope with that truth.
The third challenge is… what I call hand-waving. Magic. How much are you going to try to keep the biology and physics of shifting plausible? Obviously, as you have your hot, sexy guy change shape and put on fur or feathers or scales, you have to allow some suspension of disbelief. But how much? Ye canna change the laws of physics, Jim? Except in fantasy, you can. So… Are you writing quasi-science or full-out fantasy?
Will you keep to laws like conservation of matter? A 170 pound man can become a small tiger, but it’s not a workable size for an opossum-shifter. So where does the extra 160 pounds of him go? Will you try to explain, or just say… “magic?”
Some shifter books aim more toward scientific plausibility. Andrea Speed’s excellent Infected series has her big-cat shifters infected with a virus. Many of the details, from infection routes to individual reactions, longevity, detection, size, up to her main character Roan’s own mutations, stem from this version of shifting. Similarly, the Ukiah Oregon series by Wen Spencer (of which the last book has a heterosexual but homoromantic MC) has shape shifting made possible by being composed of tiny-particle alien organisms which can assemble in different ways. Which leads to the cool effect of the MC’s blood reassembling as mice if it pools outside his body when he’s injured…
Others, like Patricia Briggs’ mainstream Mercy Thompson series, have a clearly magical basis in a paranormal setting. One of her characters can shift back to a fully-clothed human, because of his magic skills. Her shifters share the world with vampires, witches and the fae. Magic lives, although in a world very much like our own. And then some shifters move all the way into a fantasy world, like Jaye McKenna’s dragon shifters in Burn the Sky or Alex Gabriel’s siren-like Nix in Still Waters.
Writing shifters is so much fun partly because there are so many options. All it takes to be successful is imagination, and some internal consistency. A bit of logic. It’s exciting to work with. What does shifting do to heal injuries, or even remove dirt, tattoos, circumcision, or hair dye? Does it affect aging and lifespan? What if a shifter is pregnant? Are they cross-fertile with humans? How much humanity do they have in animal form? What animal traits do they keep in human form? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
And in romance, do they have fated mates?
Some people favor that option – the chance to create acceptable, believable insta-love or at least insta-connection via magic and destiny. Two men who are inescapably drawn together at first sight, or first scent. “Mine.” Others look for shifters who break the pattern, falling in love as other MCs do, without the pull of inexorable fate. Fated mates can be a crutch to make the relationship faster and easier, or a great tool to push characters into impossible dilemmas— a driver for emotion and intensity. I’ve loved some books that use this trope, but in my own I decided not to go there.
So many options, so much fun. My own writing choices were partly driven by my background in science, and my love of trying to answer logical challenges. My wolves live in our real world, as close to plausibly as I can make them. I love the brain-teasers of having them deal with life as it is today, and forcing our world to deal with them. And yet… I do love dragons.
What are your favorite types of shifters? Are you a fan of fated mates? Is there a species of creature you haven’t seen, that you are looking for in your next shifter read? Are you the kind of reader who wonders where the extra pounds go, or why someone’s DNA-free hair hasn’t changed length when they shift back and forth, or whether a muddy werewolf shifts back to a muddy human? What’s your favorite thing about shifters?
Back when I first wrote my wolves, I avoided reading other werewolf books, for fear of unconsciously absorbing details from other authors into mine. Now, with the fourth novel almost done (Unsafe Exposure is in line edits), my world is codified and set, and I’ve been reading more. There’s some great world building in shifter M/M. (Another recent favorite with some BDSM is Axel’s Pup by Kim Dare, where werewolves are a known but oppressed underclass.) I’m really enjoying reading other takes on shifter men with dual natures, and single-minded hearts.
Kaje Harper grew up in Montreal, and spent her teen years writing, filling binders with stories. But as life got busy, the stories began to just live in her head. The characters grew, met, endured, and loved, in any quiet moment, but the stories rarely made it to paper. Her time was taken up by work in psychology, teaching, and a biomedical career, and the fun of raising children.
Eventually the kids became more independent and her husband gave her a computer she didn’t have to share. She started putting words down in print again, just for fun. Hours of fun. Lots of hours of fun. The stories began piling up, and her husband suggested if she was going to spend that much time on the keyboard she ought to try to publish one. MLR Press accepted her first submission, the M/M mystery Life Lessons, which came out in May 2011. Kaje now has many novels and short stories published, including Amazon bestseller The Rebuilding Year, and a selection of free short stories and novels in a variety of gay romance genres, available on Smashwords and elsewhere. She currently lives in Minnesota with a creative teenager, a crazy omnivorous little white dog, and a remarkably patient spouse.
Goodreads Author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4769304.Kaje_Harper