Tropes in Romance: Good fun or Bad idea?


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My answer at this moment: I don’t know.

I mean, I know with absolute certainty that tropes exist that are, without question, terrible ideas. The kind of tropes that can ruin entire books for me when they appear, even after spending the past five hours loving every word I read. But I also know that there are tropes I actively seek out when I’m feeling a very specific craving for a certain type of story, and Amazon is a massive universe with a small search bar.

To be totally honest, I haven’t spent much time thinking this topic through. Last night, I’d planned to write a post about outlining. But then, as I usually do, I picked up my tablet to do some reading right before bed. Specifically, I was reading The Deal by Elle Kennedy. A book I’d read once before, probably a year or so ago. When I picked it up again a couple days ago, I didn’t remember anything about it beyond the fact that I’d enjoyed the characters and the guy played hockey. Both of which assumptions are fairly safe for anything Elle Kennedy writes, in my limited experience with her as an author.

Unfortunately, about halfway through, things started coming back to me. Specifically, I recalled being extremely annoyed/disappointed/infuriated with the third plot point. You know, the one that comes right after everything is shiny and happy and perfect, that pulls the rug out from under the characters and sends them into their Lowest Point right before the climax. The most exciting and nail-biting point that everything’s been leading towards. Last night, when I picked up my tablet, I was dropped right into that point. And I seriously considered just finding a new book instead.

If I had to pick one trope to be stricken from humanity’s collective memory or imagination, it is the trope of miscommunication and/or omission. If your plot and your character’s primary arc hinge upon a conflict that can be solved with a five minute conversation, you have chosen the wrong conflict. Readers don’t like thinking the characters they’ve grown to love over the past 200 pages are so stupid that they can’t just pause and voice a serious concern or share a secret that obviously affects everyone around them. Readers like it even less when you try to justify it with the “I did it for love!” excuse. Because when you love someone, obviously you lie to them and make major decisions that affect their life without their knowledge. That’s the healthy relationship we want to see our romance couple aspire to.

I warned you this was my least favorite of all tropes. Yet, you might be thinking I’m being extremely unkind here. You’re right. I am. And in this instance, it’s totally warranted.

It’s like going to your favorite restaurant, and time after time ordering the same delicious sandwich that only seems to get better every time you buy it. But then, one day, you have to skip breakfast because you have a surprise 8:00 AM meeting at work that you aren’t prepared for, followed by your computer going all BSoD on you when you haven’t yet saved a report, then your spouse calls you to tell you the AC is broken and it’ll cost $1,000 to fix it. Then it’s finally lunch time and you’ve been fantasizing about that delicious, delicious sandwich for hours. Everything has gone to shit,  but it’s about to be okay because that sandwich is going to be even more delicious then you remember, and all will be well in the world once more. Plus, you didn’t have breakfast, remember?

But when you sit down and unwrap that amazing sandwich, it’s roast beef instead of chicken. There’s no undoing this horrible injustice either, because you’ve taken it to go and are back at your desk, and only have thirty minutes left in your lunch hour. This is it. You’re options are eat the monstrous interloper or let your stomach gnaw on your spine for the rest of the day. It’s like that.

Yes, that was a super long metaphor. But I feel as strongly about food disappointments as I do about character disappointments.

The point is, it’s a fucking lame trope and I hate it.

Other roast beef-esque tropes, in my opinion:

  • Instalove. If you decide to make your characters want to immediately bone each other, that’s believable. Making them instantly desperate to spend the rest of their lives together before saying five words? No.
  • Stupid smart people. Or, the “Prometheus” trope, as you may think of it. If your character is a scientist with advanced degrees and has been singled out in his field for his amazingness, how about not making him poke the mysterious, alien snake creature with his finger while giggling?
    • Admittedly, this one doesn’t show up quite as much in the romance genre as it does in sci-fi, but I still see it to a lesser extent. Usually it manifests in soldiers or detectives (extremely professional and disciplined fields) doing something that would get them immediately fired/discharged in the real world. Possibly slapped with charges for obstruction of justice and reckless endangerment, too. But in the story it’s cool because he’s the “bad boy” and his superiors know the score. Uh huh. Because the type of people who commit their lives to protecting the innocent and serving justice are totally understanding about that kind of prioritization.
  • Alpha Asshole. This seems to be the new norm in romance in the past few years. I’m not sure who these readers are who like seeing the lead guy verbally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically abuse the lead girl, until she finally gives him what he’s always been missing and learns to love, thus forgiving all sins Jesus-style. But it makes me concerned for those women in their own relationships. Yes, fiction is not real, but romance is supposed to represent a sort of ideal, right? Are they logging into OKCupid hoping to find a real-live asshole they can be abused by?
    • Side note: This is not a dig at internet dating. I internet dated all the way into a kick-ass marriage.
  • Female Unicorn Spirit of Unexpected but Totally Obvious Beauty. AKA Mary Sue. AKA Bella Swan. AKA Anastasia I-Can’t-Remember-Her-Last-Name-But-It’s-Not-Important-Because-She’s-Already-Replacing-it-with-“Grey”-on-her-Trapper-Keeper-Anyway. In real life, the plain, shy, mousy girls do not get the model-beautiful, billionaire vampires. Nor does every human with a penis in a fifty-mile radius become struck blind to all other girls and instantly want to fall in love with them and protect them. Again, I get it. Fiction. But suspension of disbelief only takes us so far. And yes, these are hugely successful books, so who can really say what is “good” and “bad” fiction?
    • Answer: Probably the entire literary field in about thirty years, when they look back on this period and just kind of stare in horrified fascination.
  • Virgins. I have zero interest in main female characters who are virgins. Partially, this may tie into how I have zero interest in any main character that is under 20. In the past few years I’ve discovered I’ve lost all patience for YA. Which is kind of sad because I used to love it. But it might also have to do with how the portrayal of the female losing her virginity–to the no doubt way above average-sized guy–is completely unrealistic. Or important. Like, her being a virgin adds nothing to the story. It’s just a cheap trick to add more emotional oomph to the sex, or to give a reason for them to put off the dickening until Chapter 10. But as soon as the hymen’s gone, so is any significance of it within the story.
    • Oh, also this assumption that being a virgin means she’s never experienced an orgasm before. But of course the first time she has sex, despite knowing nothing at all about her vagina–not to mention oodles of pain and awkwardness–BAM! Three screaming orgasms. Yeah. Totally how it happened for me, too.
    • Side note that makes me slightly hypocritical and shows off my obvious gender bias: I kind of like it when the guy’s a virgin. Sometimes. In certain, very specific instances. The reasons a guy might still be a virgin are more interesting to me (though I suppose there are interesting reasons a girl could be a virgin, you just never see them). Only example that comes to mind is Kel-Paten in Games of Command, who is a cyborg and so is not seen as human enough to get nekkid with for most women.

I’m sure there are more offenders, but these are the big ones that I see most often, and that are deal-breakers when I’m deciding whether or not to buy a book. Looking over them now, I’m spotting a trend: Author laziness. The exception being the Alpha Asshole, which I hate because it’s venerating abuse and the most unhealthy types of relationships. The others are all problems that can easily be avoided if the author just doesn’t take the easiest path to where they want their characters to go.

In the beginning of this little journey, I mentioned that there are tropes that I seek out. Tropes that, I feel, can still be done with novel and interesting twists that set them apart from other stories. But the above tropes are almost always the antithesis of “interesting” and “novel.” They are the mechanisms authors fall back on when they don’t want to think about motivation or meaning or plot too hard, and so it gives the reader nothing much to think about either.

These tropes commit the greatest crime an author can commit, in my thinking: they insult the reader’s intelligence. 

Okay, rant over. Back to the original question. Are tropes a good thing or a bad thing?

I know with certainty that they can be bad things. Obviously I feel strongly about this. But I don’t think they are all, by nature, bad. In the examples above, they’re used as short-cuts. But they don’t have to be. Take the Virgins trope. This could be interesting if an author can avoid the cliche and make it relevant to the story. If you’re writing a contemporary romance, and you decide to make your female lead a 20-year-old virgin, have a better freaking reason than, “She’s saving herself for her one true love.” Or, if you do that, make the sex realistically sucky and show how naive and ridiculous she’s been. Have it be part of her character arc to grow up, gain some perspective, and understand that possessing sexual experience can actually be a good thing in a new relationship. Have her unexpectedly become best friends with a slut she previously snubbed and ridiculed. Mostly, just make it logical, adhere to a believable reality, and add to the depth of the character.

I was thinking about giving examples for the others, too, and how to make them work. But no. They’re totally irredeemable. Instalove maybe can work if the character learns how dumb he/she’s been to believe it was possible. But personally, that still doesn’t sound all that interesting to me. At least it would show character growth, though.

So what tropes do I like?

I will tell you . . . later. Because it’s late and I’m tuckered out from all the ranting.

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