Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: Merpersons

When we made our 2022 Smut Resolutions, Ingrid requested that we take a closer look at smut with merfolk. So here we are, kicking off a full week of nothing but mermaids.

Bottom line: Do you like the merperson archetype?

Holly: I am the right age and temperament where Disney’s The Little Mermaid was my number one favorite movie of all time growing up. So I have a soft spot for merfolk, which is ironic because the idea of being on (or even worse, in) the ocean scares the bejeezus out of me. Also, now that I come to think of it, I can’t say that I’ve read all that much mer-smut.

Erin: Ingrid and I totally pretended to be mermaids in the pool when we were kids, AND I grew out my bangs so they could be like Ariel’s (spoiler, they never actually were), AND I have advanced open water diver certification, but I have never sought out mer smut and it’s not really one on my list of “Gotta try, this is gonna be bananas!”

Ingrid: I actually suggested we do a mermaid deep dive (see what I did there) because I was feeling sassy and didn’t think there was mer-smut. I was so very mistaken. I mean, Erin’s right—we were obsessed with mermaids and although I have since found Ariel’s age to be a bit off putting I was very curious once we actually started digging in.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as merperson romance?

Holly: One of the MCs has to have a fish tail and live underwater. Shapeshifting is allowed, but not required.

Erin: Yeah that’s pretty much it.

Ingrid: Yup.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: There’s a lot of space for angst because the MCs are literally from different habitats. To quote Tevye, “A bird may love a fish, but where would they make their home?” So authors can explore ideas of how really different people can make a relationship work. 

Erin: I mean, sure, what Holly said. OR they have to figure out how sex works because there’s a tail there. 

Ingrid: I want to say my mind went straight to Tevye and philosophy like Holly but actually I’m with Erin. 

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: So, with the caveat that I haven’t read much mermaid smut in mind, there is definitely the opportunity for some self-sacrificial nonsense. Going back to my girl Ariel, there is a strong case of “I will give up everything I know, including my body, for love.” 

Erin: I’ve been trying to think of something else that would be uniquely problematic for this archetype, but I really can’t. Changing your entire world and your body for love is pretty huge. 

Ingrid: Why don’t they have gills? They never have gills. 

Holly: They definitely have gills!!! At least in all the books I read for this week they do. Sometimes they even have gills in human form.

Ingrid: whaaaaaaat…

How might merfolk romances differ from other types of paranormal romances? 

Holly: I suspect that merfolk romances are less codified than vampire or shifter romances, for two reasons. First, because there are fewer of them, so there hasn’t been time for a genre standard to develop. Second, there are three really different strands of mermaid lore in the widely-known source material. There’s the little mermaid, who sacrifices her life under the sea to live on land for true love. There are sirens, who lure unwary sailors to their underwater deaths. And there is Mami Wata of African and Caribbean folklore, who, like the sirens, is associated with sex, but is much more powerful.

If you’re writing a vampire romance you’re part of a larger conversation with the tons of vampire romances already written; you’re probably referencing Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, at least obliquely. When I pick up a vampire romance, I know that there’s going to be blood and guilt—or that the author will be explicitly playing with (and potentially rejecting) those conventions. In contrast, when I pick up a mermaid romance, I really don’t know what to expect.

Ingrid: Well, my first thought is that these romances would take place underwater. And then, you know…what Holly said.

Holly: Jumping back in to say that there seems to be an explosion of mermaid smut happening, so the archetype might solidify a bit more as it becomes more popular. We’ll find out!

Erin: I don’t have much to add except that I’d prefer it if they weren’t just shifters like every other shifter—having to make difficult choices to completely physically change (for any reason, not just love) gives the merfolk certain high stakes. 

What’s one book you loved that features merfolk? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Holly: So I think I’d only read two mer-smuts, like, ever before I started reading for this week. One was the short story Marine Biology by G.L. Carriger, and one was the Daughters of Arianne series by Joey W. Hill (review coming on Friday). A lot of the action takes place on land in these books, and we don’t see a lot of the merfolk society—the Carriger is too short to get into a lot of details beyond the immediate plot, and the mermaids in the Hill books are isolated from the larger underwater society for various reasons. I’m not sure if that’s common in mermaid stories—again, hearkening back to Disney’s Ariel and her sense of isolation from life under the sea—but it makes it hard for me to really get a handle on the archetype. No recs, sorry. 

Ingrid: I haven’t read a single one prior to the novella I just reviewed (which doesn’t really count because she was just role playing as a mermaid). So I’m going in with a pretty open mind and very few preconceived ideas of what mermaid smut should or could be like! It’s going to be fun…

Erin: I think I’ve read one? I’ve DNFed a few. But what with shifters in play, I can tangentially recommend Ocean’s Light by Nalini Singh because the DarkSea pack is super interesting and almost the whole book takes place underwater. Or, now that Holly mentioned sirens, Catalina Baylor really comes into her badass boss prime self in Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews. Neither book ACTUALLY includes any merfolk, though, sorry.

Books mentioned in this discussion:

Have you read much mer-romance? What do you think of the merperson archetype? Have any recommendations for us?

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Archetypes: Merpersons”

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