Secret babies, ladies disguising themselves as men, ugly duckling stories, guys in love with their best friend’s girlfriend . . .
What are all of these? Tropes. Tropes are regularly used in Romance to create conflicts that will be happily resolved by the end of the book. A trope is more commonly known as a cliché. But for our purposes, it's a trope.
Webster's offers this definition: “a common or overused theme or device.” While “theme” or “premise” might be less pejorative, the fact remains that there are tropes out there. Ones we love, ones we hate, and ones we love to hate.
A trope is only as good as the writing, though; I'm going on the assumption that the book I'm talking about is well written. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how much I enjoy the trope. A badly written story will get no love from me, even if it has every story element I typically enjoy.
Personally, I'm guilty of loving the boss-secretary romance. I glom on to those stories, which probably is a big part of why I love Harlequin category romances (Silhouette Desire, especially). I love this trope in fiction, but I do not like it in real life. I find it rather skeezy, the imbalance of power . . . and all those sexual harassment torts just make the real-life version of it not sexy.
It's difficult to write, because generally the heroine (most often the secretary), has been in love with the boss (our hero) forever. (A quick note: the hero and heroine don't actually have to be the boss and the secretary. One of my favorite romances of all time that I'd classify under this trope is Shocking the Senator by Leanne Banks. The heroine is a campaign manager, and the hero is a senator).
Oftentimes the hero doesn't notice the heroine or realize (or sometimes even decide!) he loves her until something drastic happens. She gets a makeover. She decides to leave. They have sex. Of course, these can bleed into other themes. The Plain Jane heroine who undergoes the (blonde) makeover. I take exception to the makeover romance because it implies the “hero” loves the woman only for her looks. I realize looks are important—we make snap judgments about people based on them, first impressions and all that—but I feel like if you're going to love someone, especially if you've known that person for years, then taking peroxide to hair isn't the best initiation or basis of a relationship. That said, there are still makeover stories I love. And, you know, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie could fit, because Min does get made over by her sister. What's key in that story, however, is that Minerva's personality doesn't change. Too often, the heroine's personality changes with her looks, which is hard to believe - at least within the story’s time frame.
However, another trope I love that goes with knowing someone for years is the best friend/little sister romance. It's that whole “forbidden love” aspect that makes it so wonderful. That, and the angst. I always love a good tortured hero story, and in this case, the hero has a lot to worry about. He's in love, but if he goes after the girl of his dreams, his best friend since boyhood might never speak to him again. Romance, or bromance? Oh no! What to do?! And of course the hero is a great guy, other than the fact that he's tomcatted around. So while the brother, a key secondary character (who, these days, all too often will get his own book later), would risk his life for the hero, he does not want the hero anywhere near his precious baby sister. Of course generally the “out” for the conflict is our hero realizes he's had enough wild sex with hordes of women, and having got that out of his system he can be perfectly happy having wild sex with one person: Our heroine.
For some reason, usually the heroine is overwhelmingly in love first. Have you noticed that? It is so rare for a hero to fall in love first. Even the stories where the hero is working for it, the heroine is generally in love with him already, but just . . . unwilling to give up her independence (usually in a historical), or trying to complete some goal/task (contemporary/paranormal). At least that seems to be the way it's spelled out. I believe the reader is to assume the hero generally is in love much earlier than the “big reveal,” but being male, he's slower on the uptake.
Another trope that oftentimes involves targeting a man’s younger sister that I don’t love is the revenge plot. I just can’t get into the whole “I hate you and I want to ruin your life—and I’ll emotionally mess you up, but oh wait! I just learned you’re actually not a terrible horrible person, and I guess I love you. Um . . . please ignore the fact that I totally betrayed you and tried to take down your family and everything you care about?” Now depending what the misunderstanding is . . . and how it’s written, I can believe this story, but it’s generally something else that draws me to such a book. I generally don’t see a revenge plot and think “Oh, I definitely want to read that.”
Last is a trope that many feel is overused, but it works for me: the love triangle! Beloved and hated by many, occurring throughout books, history, film, television . . . I like the ones where two males are vying for the affections of one female. Although with erotic romance these days, the author will just write all three characters together. (And possibly more.) I generally don’t like the female-male-female love triangles, because too often the females are played off against each other, or it gets too catty. Too many insecurities and other issues come to the fore.
I know I didn’t cover all the tropes, so which ones do you love? Or hate? Do you have a trope you don’t want to admit liking, but actually do? Are there ones you wish you saw more of? Got any suggestions of books with the above?