Like most romance readers, I have favorite tropes—reunited lovers and friends-to-lovers head my list. But more than any single trope, I love books that take the conventions of the genre and give them a twist. Sometimes the twist is just a little spin, noticeable only to the discerning eye; other times it’s blatant, a stand-the-motif-on-its-head move that no one can miss. Subtle or spectacular, twisted tropes earn cheers from me.
Here are five favorites (Warning—these examples may contain spoilers):
1. Secret baby may be the most overused and most derided trope in romance fiction. The conventional secret baby story has a woman (the heroine) pregnant, by accident or design, who keeps her pregnancy a secret from the father of her child (the hero). The father discovers the truth, but the revelation can occur at any point in the child’s life, from before birth to the teen years.
In A Lady’s Secret (2008) by Jo Beverley, the heroine is the secret baby.
Robin Fitzvitry, the Earl of Hunterdown, escorts a “nun on the run” (Beverley’s phrase) to England. But while Petra d’Averio is definitely on the run, she’s no nun. She’s running from an Italian villain who wants to make her his mistress; she’s running to the man whose illegitimate daughter she is. His identity is a stunner. Petra’s father is Beowulf Malloren, Marquess of Rothgar. Imagine the Eminence Noir with a grown daughter. Imagine poor Robin confronted with him as a father-in-law.
2. “The Ugly Duckling” is not only a beloved literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it is also a popular romance trope. Typically in ugly duckling stories, the heroine is plain—often in comparison to a bevy of beauties—until she (1) grows up, (2) has a makeover, or (3) proves herself so kind, intelligent, spirited, etc. that the hero forgets all the beauties in the illumination of her inner worth. Then, she becomes the beautiful, graceful swan. Some of my favorite romances have an ugly duckling theme, but my top favorite in the group, The Perfect Rake (2005) by Anne Gracie, gives the theme a decided twist.
When the Merridew sisters escape their abusive grandfather and find sanctuary with Uncle Oswald, the kind-hearted old gentleman insists that plump, plain Prudence find a husband before her beautiful younger sisters are allowed to enter society. When Gideon, Lord Carradice, enters the story through Prudence’s fabrication and a case of mistaken identity, he is dazzled by Prudence from the beginning. He thinks she is far more beautiful than any of her sisters and is certain Uncle Oswald is delaying their debuts so that Prudence won’t cast them all in the shade. No makeover is required. In Gideon’s eyes, Prudence is beautiful just as she is. Sigh!
3. Another of the most popular themes in romance fiction is the older brother’s friend/little sister pairing. How often have you read the story of a young heroine who has been in love with her older brother’s best friend for much of her life? He doesn’t notice her until one day . . . but he fights his feelings because he feels guilty. This one shows up in most subgenres. Even J.K. Rowling used it. One that I have a special affection for is Goddess of the Hunt (2009) by Tessa Dare in which the author gives the convention a small tweak.
Lucy Waltham has grown up riding, fishing, and hunting with her older brother and his two best friends, Sir Toby Aldridge and Jeremy Trescott, Earl of Kendall. Since Toby named Lucy his “Diana, Goddess of the Hunt” when she was only eleven, she has believed herself in love with him and cherished the dream that he would one day return her affection. If dare followed the convention, Sir Toby would realize that Lucy is the woman for him and after an appropriate amount of conflict and complication, the two would achieve their HEA. Instead, Lucy decides to practice her seduction technique on Jeremy, and the fun begins as Lucy finds herself more and more attracted to her brother’s best friend—not the charming Toby who’s held her heart for eight years but the protective, in-over-his-head Jeremy.
4. Just the word amnesia makes me cringe. I’d certainly include it in my list of tropes I hate, but unquestionably it is among the most popular of romance tropes. All About Romance lists 105 titles on their “Amnesia . . . or Not” special titles listing, and a NoveList search returns more than 160 hits. Even I, with my stated antipathy for the theme, counted 18 amnesia plots among my keepers, proving it’s the writer, not the trope, that makes a keeper. The amnesia book that gets the highest marks from me is a recent one, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (2011) by Miranda Neville. What does Neville do to jump ahead of long-time favorites? Come on, you know the answer. She twists the trope.
I can think of several books that use the amnesia plot in which the loss of memory serves to render vulnerable a powerful hero. I can also think of several where the hero hides the recovery of his memory from the heroine. But I can’t think of another in which amnesia becomes a weapon for the heroine’s revenge against a hero who has been carelessly cruel. Nor can I think of another amnesia plot that made me laugh so often. Tarquin Compton is a dandy. It is fitting that when he loses the clothes that define him, he also loses his memory. Celia Seaton gives him a new identity—Terence Fish, who is different from Tarquin Compton in status and character. When he becomes Tarquin Compton again, our hero is not the man he was. Some part of Terence Fish remains.
5. The kidnapping trope is another one that sometimes makes me cringe. The cringes grow in intensity and are accompanied by nausea if the Stockholm Syndrome is involved. I’m a little more tolerant of the hero or heroine as the rescuer, but I like the kidnapping motif best in lighthearted romances. (I fell in love with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at an early age.) My favorite use of the kidnapping trope occurs in an old favorite, a traditional Regency, Kidnap Confusion by Judith Nelson. Nelson truly does stand the trope on its head.
She wraps kidnapping, mistaken identity, and reputation in jeopardy all in one delightful package. Gillian, the middle of the three younger brothers of Giles Mansefield, Earl Manseford, decides Giles’s lack of sympathy for Gillian’s shenanigans is the result of being parted from his former mistress. When Gillian learns through the services of his servant Jem that the mistress is traveling on the Great North Road, he sets out, with the help of his younger brother and Jem, to kidnap the mistress and restore her to Giles. But all Gillian’s plans go awry. The coach they hold up is carrying the eminently practical and capable Miss Margaret Tolliver. In the comedy of errors that follows Gillian is shot by Miss Tolliver’s coachman. She goes to the aid of her would-be abductors and ends up in a forced engagement to the earl. Complications ensue with the arrival of a supporting cast that includes Margaret’s aunt with her prescient pet rooster Lazarus and the aforementioned mistress. When Margaret insists she cannot marry the earl, his brothers propose to her in turn, including not-quite-thirteen Peter. And it all started with a topsy-turvy kidnapping.
Can you recommend any twisted tropes to add to my list?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.