Wed
Feb 16 2011 7:00pm

Romance Novel Tropes: Cliches We Love and Hate

Secret babies, ladies disguising themselves as men, ugly duckling stories, guys in love with their best friend’s girlfriend . . .

High Society by Maxine Sullivan

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.

Before There Were Sexual Harassment Lawsuits

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.

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

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?


Limecello is a reader, reviewer, lawyer, foodie, and discusser of all things random. You can also visit her at her blog or Twitter .

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29 comments
Keira Gillett
1. Keira
We like different tropes. Haha. I wouldn't be one to rec the friends/little sister trope as I much prefer enemies to lovers. The "I can't stand you - omg you're so hot let's make out - no really I hate you - but but I can't seem to help myself - nom nom nom - we are really bad for each other - let's get married and have babies because we're so in love" plot. lol :)
Samantha Grace
2. Samantha Grace
I'm a sucker for the mistaken identity trope, assuming it is written well. I don't care for the historical romance trope "I don't want to get married because I want to maintain my independence." For one thing, if a woman didn't marry, she usually had to live with a male relative who had control over her. So refusing a guy she's hot for because she wants to maintain her independence makes no sense to me.

I also like the "boy helps girl to get noticed my her heartthrob but they fall in love instead." And I love going back in time stories where one of the character's lives stink and even though they aren't supposed to do anything to change the future, they accidentally do something and when they return, there has been positive change. I don't see this in romance often, but I still love it.
Liz Maverick
3. lizmaverick
@Keira - I'm your opposite. I love the "oh my god what happened you were just my best friend's little sister and now you're...oh my god" plot more than the "enemies to friends."

My favorite, however, is the guardian/ward trope. Le sigh.

@Samantha Grace - Ooh, I love the time travel ones too! Only the ones that end well. Movie versions with this trope tend to end badly, though. Like the Jane Seymour/Christopher Reeve movie (weeper!) or the ones where the heroine goes home and leaves the hero behind and we're supposed to be satisfied with the guy she ends up with -- who just happens to be a descendent of the hero she loved in the time travel part. Grr.
Olivia Waite
4. O.Waite
I'm gonna say it: I love the marriage of convenience. I love the guardian/ward romances, too -- but marriage of convenience, in the historicals, where two people go from strangers to allies to friends to lovers, is my slice of toast.

@Samantha Grace: Oh, the "help me get that guy, and by that guy I suddenly realize I mean YOU" trope is a gem!
Liz Maverick
5. lizmaverick
@OWaite - Lisa Hughey has a marriage of convenience post going up tomorrow morning! Marriage of convenience only works for me in historicals. The contemporary version just falls flat. And makes me think of bad chemistry a la Andie Macdowell and Gerard Depardieu. (shudder)
Samantha Grace
6. cjewel
Well, shoot. I love them all. Or, rather, any trope skillfully written and explored, and I'm there.
Samantha Grace
7. Brandy W
I will admit to the marriage of convenience as long as the dude isn't blackmailing the chick into it. Mutually beneficial convenience.

I love the best friend's sister is totally hot now trope. And I greatly enjoy the single dad not meaning to fall for his neighbor idea.
Charli Mac
8. CharliMac
A good love triangle never gets old. Who doesn't want to pick between two hot guys?
Samantha Grace
9. NikkiD
I agree CharliMac- That's why there is team Edward vs. team jacob, team Bill vs Team Eric ( now Alcide:)- tough lives Belle and Sookie lead very fine, unclad men everywhere. What's a girl to do? We keep reading/watching to see-even the boys do too.
Lime Cello
10. Limecello
Keira - Hmmm the enemy lovers I'm less into - although in my mind it's based on some "misunderstanding" - like "I hate you because X" but the situation was *actually* "Y." Heh - but - sounds like you like the angry/can't help ourselves cuz the attraction is *so there* stories. Those are always fun.

Samantha - Ooo yes I've read some excellent mistaken identity stories as well :) And I agree on the "no marriage to maintain independence" - what? It just... not for that period! And I also sooo love the friends to lovers/actually in love with best friend who has been *right there* forever :) As for time travel... interesting. :X I don't read many of those - got an example of that one?

Liz - Yup - I love the "gah - friend's little sister now hot!" stories. He's all "I *want* her! ... but... my friend will KILL me." Hee. He has to dight himself and it's awesome.

O.Waite- I was browsing and one of the books in my TBR (can't think of the title) and it's a marriage of convenience story :D Can't wait to jump into that one. Love when two people come together unexpectedly.

Carolyn - you trope whore! ;) And I totally agree- they're tropes because they work and we love them!

Brandy - YES! Mutually beneficial convenience is good. I don't like the blackmail ones. I have a really hard time getting behind those. And for the single dad falling for neighbor... a bunch of Harlequin Super Romances have that theme right? Lots of options for you :)

CharliMac- YES! Exactly! Would love to see more of the woman torn between two hot guys ;) Hard to write well/believably but... when well done so!awesome!

Nikki - Oh no... Twilight of nooo ;) Heh - but yeah, you just gave the PERFECT example of why the love triangle persists. It really gets people involved! :X Um, am guessing the second set of names is Jersey Shore?
Charli Mac
11. CharliMac
I just fist pumped reading, "Jersey Shore". Team Snooki!

I've seen all the Twilight movies thus far, I have a twelve-year old. Sigh. I am almost finished reading Twlight, for research. There is nothing more pulling than a hot guy begging for the love of a woman who loves another man....double sigh...
Samantha Grace
12. ksb36
Okay. I admit it. I like the secret baby trope. I can't help it, I just do!

Marriage of convenience ranks rather high, too.
Samantha Grace
13. Kinsey
My 2 favorite tropes are the marraige of convenience/sham betrothal/pretend marriage and the best friend/family friend predicament. I like the first because it allows the h/h to get to know one another before they jump into bed - and, in fact, for a long time they usually try NOT to jump into bed, and the second because the h/h already know each other. It sort of builds in anticipation, whereas the straight meet / flirt or fight / fall into bed plot can get boring.

Does that make sense?
romance reader
14. bookstorecat
Can anybody think of a romance that doesn't fit any of the familiar tropes--especially those mentioned thus far? I'm just in the mood for something completely different (but how do you do a search for something you haven't seen before)?

I'd certainly be into a story where the hero falls in love first. You're right, that never seems to happen!
Samantha Grace
15. SharonS
Teacher/student which is like the guardian/ward thing. I have recently discovered m/m ;) talk about forbidden love! I like the gay/non-gay
Liz Maverick
16. lizmaverick
@ksb36 Lisa Hughey delves into the marriage of convenience trope today. Conveniently. http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2011/02/i-was-told-to-like-you

@bookstorecat I would also like a No Tropes list. Of course, they say everything's been done before and that there is a finite number of plots. Is a No Tropes list even possible?

Wait a minute, there must be stories where the men fall in love first! (And yet, I am drawing a blank.)

@SharonS I have not read in the m/m subgenre. Am wondering how the gay/non-gay relationship could possibly have an HEA. It seems doomed.
Samantha Grace
17. shyral
Bookstorecat do you like werewolf books? I would highly recommend Patricia Brigg's Alpha and Omega series. Even if you don't like werewolf stories I would recommend this series. It starts with a short story in On the Prowl, and continues in Cry Wolf and Hunting Ground. I love the relationship she creates between these 2 characters. I have reread it 4 times in the past year. The male wolf is smitten from the moment they meet, the women is skittish. Maybe I should go reread it again. It has been 6 weeks.
Lime Cello
19. Limecello
Charli - seems like you and Nikki have lots to talk about ;)

ksb36- I'd never really thought about it, but some of my favorite romances happen to have a secret baby trope. Have you read Leanna Banks before? I think she does it in a wonderfully natural and believable way.

Kinsey- YES! That makes *perfect* sense. And I like it when the hero and heroine already know each other some how as well. It makes the developing relationship much more realistic, imho. Also, that whole tension and denial thing... lovely angsty yearning. Heh.

bookstorecat- Actually, yes! I've read a number of books where the hero falls in love first... Hm... Hunting the Hunter by Shiloh Walker, Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas, Lost in Your Arms by Christina Dodd, oh gosh - Line of Scrimmage by Marie Force. She's on Top by Susan Lyons - it's cute, the hero and heroine of the last one share their fantasies, and the heroine has this horrified "it sounds like... he wants married sex!" after the hero wants just a night where they stay in and cuddle etc for his fantasy-turn. Any of those sound interesting? I'll have to rack my brain for more... I *know* I've read a bunch and always love it - it's nice to see a guy who is open about his affections and straight up tells the heroine "look - I'm falling for you, and I want this to go all the way. Just want you to know that from the start."

SharonS- Isn't the forbidden love fun! Although I don't think I've read many gay/non-gay romances... seems like that'd be a tough one.

Liz - get out of my head! ;) Heh. I'll just go with the "what she said." Although yes, there definitely are romances where the hero falls in love first. I want to say the ones I suggested have it/are good examples, but I froze when "put on the spot" and my mind is a panicked blank.

shyral- Oh how sweet! Thanks so much for the recommendation! (For everyone, but for saving my butt to bookstore cat - cuz it's all about me ;) )

Victoria- I do love the marriage of convenience, and it also allows so many other "tropes" I love to be woven in as well. Double - or triple win!
Samantha Grace
20. Larissa Ione
I love marriage of convenience and enemies-to-lovers! The two tropes that send me screaming for the hills are (one of your favorites!) the best-friend's-sister trope and the hero-waits-for-heroine-to-come-of-age trope. I can handle the first one if done well, but the second icks me out, and unfortunately, they're often tied together.

Secret baby? Hmm...IF the baby is a secret for a good reason. And I love social inequality tropes, though if written in modern times, they have to be well done, or the characters can come across as snooty jerks. :)

*Oh, and funny, my CAPTCHA word is Lawyer's pedue
Maggie Kingsley
21. Highland Lassie
Can I blow my own trumpet here for a hero who is in love with the heroine, and she doesn't realise it/ The Consultant Claims his Bride by Maggie Kingsley, a medical romance from some years back.
As for the hero who waits for the heroine to come of age trope.... No, no, NO! That really makes me feel very uncomfortable so I'd love a recommendation for an author who pulls it off. And Patricia Brigg's Alpha and Omega series are just brilliant. Hunting Ground is my favourite.
Lime Cello
22. Limecello
Larissa - Why would your captcha being "lawyer pedue" be funny, huh? HUNH?!!? :P Heh. And... enemies to lovers - I have the same reservations about it as you do with the best friend's sister. If they're truly enemies it's got to be not only believable but reasonable they fall in love. Or maybe I'm just that mean cuz the people I straight up hate, I *do not* like them. Can't imagine falling in love or even... no. My brain slammed that door shut.

As for the coming of age... yeah that gets me too, actually. Don't like the "I wanted you when I was twenty-four but you were only fourteen, and I've waited until you turned legal!" GAH! No! That's also an age thing for me though. Bleh *shudders*

Secret Baby... ok I'm going to have to get you to read one of those books...

Highland Lassie - Yes - I agree with the coming of age uncomfortableness. Of course you stated it much more eloquently than I did in my response to Larissa. :X
Samantha Grace
23. Amy Andrews
Sorry can I just clarify that tropes are used in ALL genre fiction - not just romance. Discussions like this - as interesting as they are cos God knows I love me a good hero secretly in love with best friends sister trope too - just add to the addage that romances are cliched and therefore somehow less than worthy.
Lime Cello
24. Limecello
Amy - Right. I definitely agree, and know that. It's merely that I chose to discuss tropes in romance specifically because this is a site dedicated to romance :)
Samantha Grace
25. Amy Andrews
Cool - just wanted to make sure everyone else knew it too :o)
romance reader
26. bookstorecat
Bookstorecat purrs in thanks for everyone's recommendations. Adding them to my little list of things to check out soon. Gracias.

While it's probably true that there's nothing new under the sun, in Romance, or Fiction in general--or Life in general, actually...I don't know, I'm just looking for something newish. Or something that's just New To Me. Probably this ennui is not about tired tropes at all; those who said it's all in the quality of the writing are right. But man, I just gotta say...

I'm so bloody sick of sexy vampires.

Anyone else?
Samantha Grace
27. SharonS
gay/non-gay, can you say Qhuin/Blay from JR Ward's series? . That is the most mainstream example. There is a book called Faith & Fidelity (Tere Michaels). A widower with 4 kids (he was married to a wonderful woman) and a 40 year old batchlor (not gay) ex-cop fall in love. It is truly one of the best *love stories I've read. Here is my review if you ever decide to try a m/m this is a great one to start with.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4801582-faith-fidelity
Laura K. Curtis
28. LauraKCurtis
@bookstorecat - I am SO right there with you on being sick of sexy vampires. Or werewolves. Or anything that's not a human. I want some new, fun contemporaries.

I am also a bit tired of the "reunion romance." I know a lot of people love them, but I want to actually see the process of the couple falling in love, not them re-discovering a love that was. It feels a bit like a cop out to me. That said, if it's really well done, I'll certainly read it!
Virginia Llorca
29. VirginiaLlorca
I can and have written entire novels about a girl trying to decide between two guys.
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