Taboo is forbidden, and there is something innately provocative about peering into the forbidden.
In my most recent trilogy — Dirtiest Secret, Hottest Mess, Sweetest Taboo — I’ve had the pleasure of delving into taboo romance. I think it’s fair to say that all of my J. Kenner books feature characters that have issues (that’s the polite way of saying that I tend to write characters who are damaged and have some pretty intense trauma lingering in their backstory, cutting and child abuse being just a couple of examples). But until the Dirtiest Trilogy, I hadn’t written a taboo story. Hadn’t considered it, actually, until my editor put the kernel in my head when we were brainstorming, and suddenly the idea of penning a novel with a taboo storyline was irresistible.
Why do readers enjoy taboo stories (and there has been a surge in taboo novels, so someone is enjoying them)? And why do writers want to go there?
I have a few theories (that’s probably not a shocker considering I’m writing this article), so let’s dive in!
On the reader side of things, I see three intertwined reasons why taboo romance entices readers. The first is the gothic nature of those stories. Gothic romance has a long and beloved history and there’s something compelling about a love story developing around a possibly dangerous man. Look at Rebecca or Jane Eyre. The hero is dangerous and mysterious, leaving the reader wondering if the hero is not really heroic at all.
A story like that is fun for both the reader — who hopefully is rooting for the heroine even while worrying about the hero — and the writer, who has the task of maintaining that gothic quality even though readers in the romance genre know that, somehow, we’re going to get to a happily ever after.
And that leads into the second element that I think makes taboo fun. The how of it all. Because a story doesn’t have to be taboo to have a gothic component (for example, my Stark Trilogy isn’t taboo, but the first book especially has a gothic vibe). But with a taboo, there is always going to be the question of overcoming that taboo.
In romance, we know the hero and the heroine are going to get their Happily Ever After—that’s part of the genre’s contract with the reader. The question is how. And with a taboo romance, that how seems (or should seem) insurmountable.
In Dirtiest, for example, the taboo keeping Dallas and Jane apart is not only a moral one, but a legal one. They have to not only overcome their own hesitations, but to reach a true HEA they have to overcome the objections of both society and their family. But that’s not all, because is marriage and living together openly is going to be part of the HEA equation, they have to also figure a way around the legal barrier that stands in their way.
As a writer, that was a fun challenge to overcome from both a writing and a researching side. And hopefully, the how question was on readers’ minds as well, keeping them turning pages to see how everything was going to turn out okay, or if, this time, the HEA wasn’t going to come.
And, of course, that feeds into the third reason that taboo romance is so fun, especially as a writer. As I mentioned above, I like to write damaged people and the emotional drama that entails. Believe me, there’s a lot of emotional drama when the forbidden is involved! And that makes a story meaty—and fun for both the author and the reader.
But there’s another overarching reason that taboo romance is so compelling, and that’s the simple, basic, prurient aspect. Taboo is forbidden, and there is something innately provocative about peering into the forbidden. About experiencing it without actually participating. With brushing up against those emotions without having to get your hands dirty.
If you already enjoy taboo romance, I hope you check out the Dirtiest Trilogy. And if you haven’t dived into taboo yet, check it out. You might` find that the forbidden, the dangerous, the provocative is compelling…especially from the safe zone that lives between the covers of a book.
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