Hi Indies! In this post, I’d like to cover some of the more common tropes used in the romance genre. I think we’re all pretty familiar with them and have our personal favorites and those we absolutely despise. I won’t be holding back on my opinions here, fair warning.
10 MOST COMMON TROPES IN THE ROMANCE GENRE
#1: Rags to Riches: It’s timeless, some might even say it’s a classic. Those who despise this trope would rather call it the most unrealistic cliché in history. I think it all depends on how it’s done. We’ve been hearing/reading Rags to Riches stories since we were children and not all of them had to do with a poor girl being swept off her feet by a prince (I’m looking at you, Cinderella). Some, like the musical “Annie,” weren’t about romance at all. Even “A Christmas Carol” had an element of Rags to Riches at the end when Scrooge stopped being stingy and gave Bob Cratchit a raise, then provided a rich man’s feast for their Christmas supper. The thing is, most writers are poor as shit, all of their problems are money-related, and writing is our way of escaping reality and living out our greatest fantasies. Poverty, or being close to it, is simply a ‘real life’ experience that most writers are drawing from, so going from Rags to Riches will continue to be a common trope.
Currently this trope can be split into two main categories for romance: The plot where a desperate need for money is the heroine’s main motive for doing/being in a position to meet her wealthy hero in the first place (virgin auction, escort, sugar daddy, etc.) – Or – The plot where their meeting is happenstance/work related, and the heroine is either defiant against her lover’s wealth or extremely intimidated by it. The problem with the second category is that it causes the hero’s wealth to be repeatedly brought back into the spotlight, often as a negative element – sometimes as the main obstacle between or against them being together. Depending on how this is handled, it can either come across as understandable to the readers or the reason why they stop reading your book. It’s a risky minefield to play around with. The best advice I can give is to follow the golden rule of “less is more.”
My book, Collar Me Foxy, would actually fall under both categories, even though my heroine, Tessa, was offered the opportunity to make money, rather than it being a desperate situation she went looking for on her own – her love interest’s financial and societal status will play a negative part between them – but not until much, much later on in the series. So, it’s not something that I continuously bring up. Personally, I enjoy reading the Rags to Riches novel where the hero’s wealth isn’t the main theme or topic throughout the entire story line. Where the heroine going from Rags to Riches is simply a byproduct of the relationship, and the characters are too in love and busy with a hundred other things for it to matter more than being together.
One thing I feel obligated to note here: Rags to Riches is a highly popular trope in romance, with hundreds of thousands of books titled “The Billionaire [something or another]” Those lovely gems make it easy to avoid the trope if you’re not a fan. However, not all books are that obvious. So, as a writer, if your title isn’t that specific, it might be a good idea to mention the trope somewhere in your book description. Trust me, presenting your books as clearly as possible to readers can help keep those bad reviews from popping up.
#2: Light vs Dark / Purity vs Impurity: This is Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf in all of its countless mutations. The heroine is a virgin, inexperienced in every way, pure of heart, full of life and light, and her love interest is the walking epitome of depravity and sin. The main ingredient is temptation. Now, this trope can have a few different kinds of heroes. The Corrupter, who doesn’t care about protecting the heroine’s virtues, he wants to consume and claim her in every way, and be the only one to bring out her inner sex kitten. The Brooder, who believes himself beyond redemption and undeserving of the heroine’s love so keeps her at arms length while his desires fester and he falls deeper into self-loathing. Or – The Protector, who knows that he will destroy the heroine’s purity, taint her lightness, so spends the whole story fighting his desires for ‘her own safety’ and believing it’s the right thing to do.
This is another tricky trope to use without irritating the crap out of your readers, because all 3 of those Hero types can go from lovable to “get the eff over yourself, already” real freaking fast. My personal favorite is Hero #1, my least favorite is Hero #3. Mostly, I’m not a fan of this trope at all. It’s more commonly used in New Adult/Coming of Age romance, which I avoid at most costs because of this trope in particular. The whole wishy-washy, indecisive, back-and-forth behavior by The Protector or even The Brooder goes way too far, or I should say, goes on for waaaaaay too long in most of these books and will even continue AFTER they’ve already had sex. To me, that’s just beyond ridiculous, not to mention it’s more emotionally traumatizing and damaging to the heroine’s self-esteem than anything their ‘dark’ sides could have done if they’d just get the fork over it already.
My advice to any writer who’s going to use this trope is – don’t make it the only one! Provide other tropes in the plot for tension/conflict between your heroine and hero than just this ‘moral dilemma’ so it can be resolved faster, rather than being drug out to the point of annoyance. Give them some other reason to fight against and then for being together. Please. I beg of you.
#3: I/We Were Drunk: This trope can be used a few different ways. It can be the backstory for a Second Chance romance, or the cause of one of the Secret Baby romances (shudder) – but my biggest pet peeve is: When the entire book is thick with sexual tension between the hero and heroine, the build-up to their first time having sex so ripe it has readers on the edges of their seats, flipping the pages so fast they’re in danger of spontaneously combusting – and then one or both of the characters gets drunk, they have sex, and one or neither of them remembers the details the morning after – or feels so guilty about it, that it takes them forever to get over it.
This is the most ANTI-CLIMATIC trope EVER used in romance and I will throw your book in the goddamn trash! I’m not kidding. Not even a little. I HATE when I read this in books and I don’t use that word lightly. I don’t care how realistic drunken sex or drunken one-night stands are, using it in this context–as the couple’s first time having sex following a massive build-up– is the crappiest let down in a novel I have ever read. The fact that I’ve come across it more than once or twice, even in books by my favorite Best Selling authors, just floors me. Why would you do that to your characters, let alone your readers? It completely obliterates all of the fantastic build-up in an instant. It’s robbery. You are robbing your characters and your readers of what should have been the “Finish Line” euphoria deserving of such a rigorous race. Using “I was drunk” is just as pathetic an excuse in writing as it is in real life. It cheapens everything, and in my far-from-humble opinion is the epitome of Lazy Writing. Don’t be lazy. Find some other way to throw a wrench in your couple’s happiness, ffs!
#4: Independence vs Pride: I am all for a strong, independent heroine, as I mentioned several times in my previous posts. All of my heroines are independent in their own way, even if they are kneeling at the feet of a Dom. While independence is more of a personality trait, it can also be a trope – and quite a common one in romance. The trope of independence is often tied to the heroine’s inner-strength, her career, and her list of responsibilities/obligations – so, even if she’s not rolling in riches – she’s still working and taking care of her own with her own income. Sometimes, the woman is at rock bottom and jobless, yet we’ll still see her strive to help herself before asking for hand-outs. Independent women ask for help as a last resort, they have to be desperate to go looking for assistance or agreeing to do something that goes against their morals/beliefs. I like this trope, because it’s believable and it maintains the character’s integrity, even if she ends up doing something immoral to get money out of that desperation. Readers can still relate to that and root her on.
Where independence as a trope becomes a negative thing is when it stops becoming about maintaining independence and starts becoming a matter of pride. Not dignity kind of pride, but the whole “cut off your nose to spite your face” kind of pride. This is when the heroine repeatedly goes against or argues with the hero, even when by doing so, she finds herself in deeper trouble and/or in need of getting rescued by the hero. Yet, she never stops doing it. She never takes a moment to realize she’s the one making her situation worse by being stubborn and unwilling to compromise. She’s too hell bent on proving she’s right and the hero is wrong to see beyond it – and that’s not about independence, that’s about ego and pride. The worst of the worst, is when this trope is used throughout the entire story and the heroine still gets her HEA without growth/compromise/giving equal effort to building a strong and healthy relationship. It’s another book I will throw in the trash after leaving a scathing review on every platform I can find. I have absolutely no respect or support for this heroine type as a reader. She’s an immature hypocrite with double standards, and that has NO place in a romance novel.
#5: The Love Triangle: This is more popular in YA, but is still a classic trope that works. Most readers love it. It’s a great way to show emotional conflict within the heroine, giving readers a more in-depth feel for her personality and those traits that come by her naturally. It can also bring out the ‘ugliness’ wrought by jealousy to show how worthy the hero or heroes are to win the heroine’s affections. Just as in real life, though, this trope can easily slip into the negative realm: If the heroine is leading both men on because she’s indecisive or too afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, there’s a delicate time frame when this is understandable and relatable to readers, but then it should be resolved, otherwise it starts making the heroine look weak, cowardly, and just like a really bad person.
Now, in some cases the love triangle isn’t experienced by all three people. Often times, the heroine loves only the hero, but she is loved by both the hero and a second man. The unrequited love isn’t her fault and she’s not leading the man on, most likely he is a good friend or someone she has regular contact with. Using the trope in this fashion can lead to numerous results. Frequently, the ‘rejected’ man will become one of, or the main antagonist, or at least some kind of obstacle in the way of the heroine and hero’s happiness. Sometimes, he will recover from this on his own and bow out with some of his dignity left. Other times it will take the heroine or hero confronting him. Usually, it results in the heroine breaking all contact with the man and him simply disappearing from the story line. This trope can also cover the heroine stuck in an arranged marriage, while being in or falling in love with someone else.
The Love Triangle is one of those tropes that can be 100% unique each time it’s used, simply because the characters involved are completely different from any other characters who have already been in this situation – therefore, their reactions and behavior are going to be their own and not what someone else would do/have already done. My advice if you’re going to use this trope is have fun with it, try to make it as unique as possible while maintaining realism. Also, even though jealousy brings out the worst in us, try to stay as true to your character’s personality as possible, even if it’s the ugly side of it.
#6: The Other Woman: This is quite a popular trope in romance and can range from a very small part to being thoroughly integrated into the story line. Either way, somewhere in the plot is another female character who has her sights set on the hero and will cause some kind of tension/conflict between the main characters or will be an obstacle they have to overcome. It is so varied in use, I wouldn’t even be able to list all of the different scenarios here, but I’m sure as readers you have seen this quite often. I have used it a few times in my own books. It’s another classic trope in the romance genre that readers seem to enjoy. I’ve also seen and written scenarios where the ‘other’ woman doesn’t necessarily have her sights set on the hero, she just can’t believe the heroine would be chosen over her, she believes herself more beautiful, better status in society, whatever the case may be. It’s more about a slight against her ego and envy, than desiring the hero, himself.
For example: I have a “other” woman in my current WIP that doesn’t even know who the hero is, she’s just infuriated when she sees my heroine wearing a collar, because she believes herself far more attractive, yet no one bid on her at auction. She’s going to be a small, one scene problem, but it still falls under the umbrella of this type of trope.
#7: The Secret: Another trope that’s readily used is when there’s a secret that will be revealed, usually at the most inopportune time, causing tension/conflict between the heroine and hero or providing them with a challenge that threatens their relationship’s survival. The secret can come from just about anywhere and be about anything that fits your story line and where you’d like the plot to go. Either one of your characters can be harboring the secret or it can be one that neither of them are aware of, but is dug up by a friend or found following the death of a relative – or from the woman who shows up on the hero’s doorstep announcing he’s the father of her child. There are endless ways The Secret trope can be used for your book, and just like The Other Woman, it can be a ‘side’ obstacle they have to overcome or it can be one of the major plot conflicts/twists.
#8: Love For Hire: We’ve seen this popular trope not only in our books, but often in movies, where either the hero or the heroine has to obtain a ‘partner’ at short notice for an event or to achieve something, so they hire or ask someone to pretend to be their lover/spouse. Of course, the more time they spend together, get to know each other, the more the relationship between them becomes real, rather than fake. I loved The Proposal with Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock and especially, Betty White – but that’s far from being the only time this trope has been used and loved by viewers/readers. This is a trope I’ve yet to attempt and may not ever, but it’s not one I dislike, either.
However, I do think that this trope is at higher risk of coming across as completely cliché – in a bad way – than most other tropes. Simply, because there are only so many reasons why a person would need a ‘stand-in’ partner at the last minute and I’m pretty sure they’ve all be covered a few times.
#9: Friends-to-Lovers / Friends With Benefits: Either of these tropes can be used in romance, and it seems to be a fan favorite. I think FWB is still less common than just FTL, but either one is a trope where the heroine and hero start out as friends and then eventually become lovers, then fall in love and HEA. It’s also one of those ‘generalized’ kind of tropes that gives writers plenty of creative freedom to make it unique from all the rest, as it can be applied to a million different scenarios and plot settings.
10: Enemies to Lovers: This trope is more commonly seen in Mafia, MC, and Paranormal romances, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or has never been used in contemporary romance. It can range from the Romeo & Juliet scenario where the love is forbidden due to family loyalties; the Sleepless In Seattle scenario where they’re business enemies; or the Second Chance romance where something happened in their past that made them enemies and now they’re stuck being around each other again for some reason – There are many ways the main characters can be or became enemies, but usually the ‘attraction’ element is always used to get them from enemies to lovers, to in love, to their eventual HEA.
Recently, the favorite type of books where this trope is the main plot thread are the “Abduction” romances. And those can fall under any of the types of romance sub-genres. However, the “Abduction” scenario is a trickier story line to navigate. One, it’s at higher risk of being cliché because of how popular it is and how many times it’s already been done. And two, unless you’re writing “Dark” or “Psychological” thrillers with this trope, you have to make sure readers are convinced the heroine’s affections for the hero are genuine and not the result of Stockholm Syndrome.
Whew! That was a lot to cover and it’s really only a small amount of tropes. What’s your favorite and least favorite trope?
❤ In my next post I’m going to finally conquer the topic of writing BDSM/Kink, the popular scenarios, tropes and how you can make your BDSM novel pass scrutiny by members of the Alternative Lifestyle, even if you’ve never experienced a single kinky thing in your life outside of a bendy straw. 😉