Given the recent success of ABC’s romantic soap, Revenge, it seems like a good time to discuss one of the most narratively interesting of romance plots: the revenge romance. The storylines tend to follow a basic pattern—one of the protagonists seeks to revenge him or herself for a perceived offense by initiating a romantic relationship with the other protagonist, with the intention of using it to harm/humiliate/defeat the other, only to fall in love, realize they were wrong, reveal their true intentions, and stride off into the Happily Ever After Sunset.
Revenge romances are intriguing because they combine elements that normally shouldn’t work together. On paper, the idea of a protagonist eliciting feelings from an opponent in order to use them as a weapon against them is morally reprehensible. This idea is particularly strong in romances where the hero is the one seeking vengeance, since heroes tend to take the sexual route, often by seducing, ruining, then discarding the heroine to spite her (or whichever protective male relative or friend he’s really hoping to hurt). Heroines in general tend to go the romantic route—they usually aim to have the hero fall in love with them in order to leave them heartbroken. Social ruination doesn’t normally enter into it (at least in historicals).
However, much of the enjoyment of a revenge romance comes when the vengeful protagonist winds up hoisted on their own emotional petard, caught up in the same emotional “weakness” they sought to inflict upon their romantic counterpart. Revenge romances also tie in with redemption and forgiveness, powerful themes that provide endless opportunities for delicious angst and interesting backstory, which can make up for the hero or heroine’s initial dastardly intentions.
Like everything in romance, however, it comes down to execution and personal taste. For this reader, it depends on three things:
1) What are the reasons for revenge in the first place? (spilling red wine on a white carpet won’t cut it)
2) What reasons does the vengeful protagonist have for suspecting the other (many of the worst revenge plots use the dreaded “Big Misunderstanding” trope)?
3) How far do they take their revenge before they are sidelined by genuine affection?
One example of a lovely romance with a revenge plot is Slightly Tempted, by Mary Balogh. The hero, unjustly accused of rape and theft, is banished from England, and the one man who could have proven his innocence turns his back on him. When the hero and that man’s younger sister (the heroine) cross paths in Belgium, he decides to seduce her in order to spite his former friend. However, his vengeance is sidelined by the arrival of French troops, and he learns the heroine’s true worth as they survive the battle. He puts a halt to his schemes immediately thereafter, but the repercussions of his actions continue to haunt the pair throughout the novel—with the heroine’s forgiveness of the hero dovetailing beautifully with the hero’s forgiveness of the people responsible for his banishment.
For a truly appalling example of how a revenge romance can go wrong, there is Sweet Trouble by Susan Mallery. When the hero’s ex (the heroine) returns to town with a boy she claims is his, he’s outraged that she didn’t tell him—except that, um, she did, and at the time, he’d called her a whore and slammed the door in her face. He slut-shames his way to the moral high ground, blaming her former promiscuity for why he didn’t believe her the first time around. He decides to get back at her by secretly suing for sole custody of her son (who’ll be shipped to boarding school at the first opportunity), and he never truly realizes the depths of his idiocy until after he has the heroine served with custody papers three quarters of the way through the novel. So for the greater part of the novel and all the romantic scenes contained therein, the hero was still planning on taking the heroine’s child away.
Perhaps that is the appeal of a good revenge plot—the idea that it all could have gone horribly, horribly wrong but for the talented storytelling of the author.
Which revenge-plot romances worked for you? And why did they? Or which ones didn’t work—and why not?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.