A few years ago, when I first starting reading romance, I could envision a life of reading nothing but romances (with a smattering of fantasy, YA, and fiction). But like when you eat nothing but dessert, after a couple of years I started feeling annoyed. Then frustrated.
Then angry. This isn’t restricted merely to romances. As I once discussed with my father (an avid sci-fi reader), when one reads genre fiction, 20% of it is entertaining, 10% of it is absolutely exquisite—and the other 70% is boring drivel.
Tiring of the genre after over-reading in it is hardly a new or original phenomenon. That being said, romance as a genre still has a history. As ideas and values changed over the years, so did the romances. However, certain ideas in the romance genre have become so stale and overused that they cast a bad name over the rest of the genre.
In this regard, I would like to cordially suggest that we send certain ideas and tropes into early retirement. Or at the very least, put them in a time-out area like an erotic Disney Vault, to be released back into the wild after a suitable period to let the fields lie fallow while other tropes flourish.
For example, let’s back away from the obsession with Innocent Heroines. I’m sorry, but if I wanted to read about a wide-eyed sheltered teenager discovering love and the world for the first time, I’d read Young Adult. More often than not, “innocence” is interpreted as “ignorant, obtuse, and infantalized”—and this is the perfect heroine for a hero with significant psychological and mental issues? There are too many stories of tabula-rasa heroines accidentally stumbling onto the mad, bad hero’s perfect mental health solution, like Mr. Magoo with a psych degree.
We can still have virgin heroines or young heroines, but let’s stop depicting their lack of experience as an innate virtue. Stop having heroes marvel at their “artless sensuality,” and how their “innate, unschooled goodness” is somehow better than those of women who’ve managed to travel more than a mile from their front door. If their goodness is so innate, then actual knowledge, experience, and sophistication isn’t going to tarnish that. More than likely, it will actually make your heroine more interesting.
In that regard, I call for more romance novels that let the story focus on who the heroine is and what she does—not on what she isn’t and what she hasn’t done yet. Granted, this is mainly a problem with historical heroines, but women didn’t suddenly receive a world-wide psychic signal allowing them to leave the kitchen in 1960. Women have been capable of outrageous, creative, and adventurous lives throughout history. Let’s focus more on those types of heroines than the untutored 17-year-old hoydens who’ve never left their daddy’s estate.
Secondly, let’s read and write romances that focus a little more on storytelling and a little less on wish-fulfilment. Whenever the idea of a chubby hero, or a poor hero, or even a red-headed hero comes up, a common reader response is, “I don’t want that in a romance novel, because I’m not attracted to that.” But isn’t the story supposed to be about whether the heroine is attracted to that?
Every other genre offers escapist reads without requiring a full-body immersion into a protagonist. Readers can empathize with aliens, and harpies, and PTSD-addled aristocratic detectives—it is so impossible to empathize with a woman who thinks red hair is hot? Or to share and live vicariously through the experience of a heroine finding her soul mate—even if her soul mate comes with a little flub? And when you think about it, paranormal romances from writers like Charlaine Harris and Lora Leigh are full of heroes that, while yummy on the page, most women would cross continents to avoid if they met in real life.
Let’s recap: red hair on a hero = Gross and Disgusting. A barbed penis on a hero= Awesome Fun Times.
With romance, we need a solid hook, we need thrilling tension, we need high stakes and real obstacles that will tear our hero and heroine apart, and we need heroes and heroines who are strong enough to overcome those obstacles and grab on to that happy destiny.
There is an inherent hypocrisy in the countless romance novels that tell us love comes from within and cannot be bought with money or beauty, when these books are filled with wealthy heroes, stunningly gorgeous heroines and storylines that focus more on lush descriptions of their luxury and hotness instead of building their characters or establishing believable emotional conflict. The result is a slew of romances that all sound the same: World’s Hottest Man falls in love with World’s Hottest Woman. Add Mommy Issues and a Secret Baby for Instant Drama.
What I mean is that romance needs to expand its boundaries a little more if it wishes to maintain a diverse, creative genre. Romance needs to try a few new things, explore some uncharted territory, and perhaps retiring the most tired and overused tropes will allow newer ideas to grab the spotlight. There are a million and one ways to achieve a Happily Ever After—why focus only on the Top Fifty?
Which tropes do you wish that romance would do without? And which ideas would you like to see romance writers try more often?
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.