Cruising through the internet last week I came upon a conversation between highly successful romance authors looking for recommendations for romance novels. Many complained that they were bored with the same old tropes played over and over again. As readers, they wanted something fresh to grab their attention and keep them turning pages past their bedtime.
There were many responses along a similar vein and the recommendations seemed to be for re-reading old favourites. As a romance author I found the discussion interesting and worrisome.
To trope or not to trope. Readers have certain expectations of romance novels. If an author doesn’t meet those expectations, the book is likely to flop. Yet meeting those expectations results in reruns of the same old themes — and bored and disgruntled readers.
What is a writer to do?
Here are five top tropes in romance along with some suggestions for freshening them up.
- Spunky heroine. The belief is no one wants to read about wimps. Heroine’s must be proactive, kick-ass, goal-oriented, tough . . . you get the picture. And yet, fairy tale heroines beloved of romance authors are often placid and reactive. Cinderella needs her fairy godmother to get her to the ball. She needs prince charming to rescue her after the ball. So, perhaps there is hope for a “non-spunky” main character. I read one book recently where the heroine irritated me no end because she wouldn’t stand up for herself, yet, in the end, she did grow and find love and she “rescued” herself. What kept me turning the pages was the author’s voice, the engaging cast of secondary characters, and the setting. If you are really tired of writing about or reading about the perky, spunky female, you can go a different route, but you need skill to pull it off.
- Jilted at the altar. This one incorporates the “cute meet” beloved of romance readers too. Usually the bride, or groom, left standing alone meets the perfect mate while picking up the pieces of the disastrous day. I just read a book that began that way. I yawned, but kept reading. I liked the heroine’s voice. However, the book exceeded expectations as the story delved deeply into family relations, small town castes, and an old mystery. So the trope was useful to hook the reader, but it did not determine the entire story.
- Proximity. This is the one where the two main characters are snowed in by themselves in a remote cabin, or stranded on an island, or locked in an old castle. There are many variations but the point is they are together and cannot get away from each other. In the world of tropes this must lead to romance. But what if it doesn’t? What if enforced proximity exposes a nose-picker, or a soup-slurper, or a bully, or a whiner? Perhaps this trope could be used to separate a couple who were romantically inclined at the beginning of the story and can’t put enough distance between themselves when they are finally able to escape? I haven’t read a book like this yet but there must be one out there somewhere. I think if would make a great comedy.
- Marriage of Convenience. I admit that this is one of my favourites, especially in historical romance and especially when handled deftly — witness Georgette Heyer. Inevitably the pretend couple ends by falling in love and turning their fake marriage into the real thing. What would happen if they didn’t? What if her old sweetheart, left for dead at Waterloo, returns, alive and well? How does she get out of her “convenient” marriage? Walking away is a possibility in contemporary romances, but for a regency lady to desert her husband and still have a happily-ever-after? Again, such a story would challenge the author but it might satisfy the reader who is tired of same-old, same-old.
- Billionaires/celebrity/royalty. I don’t like this one very much. The characters are too unbelievable for me. The billionaire who never seems to work, the celebrity who misbehaves, the royal who doesn’t understand protocol . . . I’m apt to throw the book at the wall. But it is a trope that is adored by many readers. So, how to make it work? Be realistic. If you put a public figure in your story, give them something worthwhile to do. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, let me judge them by their character, not their bank account. Celebrities often spend a lot of time helping charities, or advocating for the poor or hungry or traumatised. A person who expects adoration because of his wealth or social status isn’t “hero”material. If he loses all his money, will the reader still love him? I’d read that story.
So, dear reader, what are your favourite tropes? Can you recommend a romance that turns an old faithful on its head and sends that author to the top of your reading list? Please share in the comments section. (click the button under the post title.)