Thu
Oct 4 2012 1:30pm

Mandatory Retirement: Putting Tired Romance Tropes Out to Pasture

Dessert by Alexis Fam Photography via FlickrA 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?

Dessert image courtesy of Alexis Fam Photography


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.

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15 comments
Jordan R
1. jrojrojro
"Let’s recap: red hair on a hero = Gross and Disgusting. A barbed penis on a hero= Awesome Fun Times." - there was almost computer death from the water-spewing laughter.

I agree - I'm getting burned out on Romance (and it's been less than 4 years since I started reading it) because of that 70% you mentioned. And I guess I'm the minority, but I'm super duper attracted to red heads. I'd rather have that than a blondie any day! So bring on the Auburn Haired Hotties!
EC Spurlock
2. EC Spurlock
Hear hear!! And can we have some heroes who are NOT nobility/royalty and NOT super billionaires? Men who are that rich and privileged only care about their egos and their money. What makes a guy your prince is not how much money he has but how he treats you. Let's see some more realistic, ORDINARY guys.
Rakisha Kearns-White
3. BrooklynShoeBabe
And which ideas would you like to see romance writers try more often?

1. May-December romances where the woman is older and I'm not talking about a woman who is 33 going out with a 26 year old. I'm talking about at least a 10 year difference!

Which tropes do you wish that romance would do without?

I'm sick of heroines being described as slender but with womanly curves. How about curvy with womanly curves?


Heroines who can't break out of their self loathing shell long enough to actually believe that the hero finds her hot after he has said "you're hot" and has just finished having sex with her.


I actually don't mind reading books where the heroes and heroines are not physically perfect. Spaced teeth, soft bellies, red hair (who hates the gingers? I'd love to read about a hero with red hair!), webbed toes....Escapism doesn't mean perfect people in perfect romantic scenarios. It just means different scenarios from where I live but with more sexy fun times.
Evangeline Holland
4. EvangelineHolland
I'm probably in the minority, but this type of topic doesn't work for me. A year or so ago, someone on the AAR boards challenged everyone who complained about certain elements dominating the genre to list the books with those complaints. Needless to say, that stumped and stopped all of us in our tracks. No one could really name an entire list of books that fulfilled our frustrations because it was really just one or two recent reads and plot/summary hearsay on which we based our complaints.

Part and parcel with this topic is the frequent tendency in Romancelandia--readers and writers--to focus on books that step outside of the so-called norm (i.e. virgin heroes, unlikeable heroines, poor characters, etc). In turn, we just creates more tropes instead of smashing them, IMO. ;-) When I read, I want to read about people, not tropes or anti-tropes, and I rather believe the success of romance/romantic novels that weren't written within the "Romance Genre" atmosphere proves that a majority of readers are seeking emotionally-fulfilling novels, not so-called do's and dont's that get stuck in Romancelandia's craw.
EC Spurlock
5. Torifl
LOL I just ranted on twitter about this very topic.

I'm tired of the paring of over dominant alphas with virginal wide eyed breathless speaking heroines to be gone. I'm tired of every thought and sentence being said or thought in a "breathless" tone. I'm tired of erotic romance using sex as a cure all for everything from a tramatic past to a hangnail. I'm tired of sex being used as the conflictor the main plot of a story. I'm tired of, in erotic BDSM, the forced seduction in to submission of a heroine who is dealing with something VERY tramatic (usually sexually related) with the explict gain of taking her pain from her. Don't people need to work through it in order to heal? Why can't anyone just go to see a shrink anymore?

/end rant
EC Spurlock
6. JacquiC
I posted earlier but my rant-like post vanished into the ether, I think. I probably didn't do the verification part right.

Anyway, I too am tired of some of the worn-out tropes. The innocent unawakened heroine who hasn't had a sexual thought in her life until alpha male comes along and magically knows how to turn her into a sex fiend only for him, without ever having to ask her what turns her on, is enough to make me want to poke my eyes out. And if he is a billionaire to boot (just how many billionaires can there BE in the world?), I want to hurl the book across the room. Needless to say, I have not and will not read 50 shades or any of the other books that are supposed to be "just like" 50 shades.

Yes, if we encourage romance authors to retire these tropes, we may just invite the creation of other tropes which then get tired in their turn. But at least there will be a period where things seem a bit fresher, won't there? I know it's a matter of taste, but ugh.

And I totally agree about the books that use sex as a magic healer for incredible trauma. Just finished Sarah McCarty's Caine's Reckoning. I was on board with it for quite a while, but the final "breakthrough" sex scene where the heroine who had been traumatized by being turned into a sex slave magically overcomes all her fears is one where she asks the hero to "claim her fully" and he takes that to mean have anal sex. WHAT?

There are romance authors out there who write intelligent, thoughtful books with real adult characters, grappling with legitimate issues that are not magically fixed by amazing sex. Janice Kay Johnson is an example, in my view. No billionaires in sight. No breathless virgins either. Just characters dealing with real life issues, talking to each other like real people, without being over the top gorgeous or good looking.
EC Spurlock
8. pamelia
I can't say there are any specific tropes that grate on my nerves. I don't mind a well-done version of anything. For awhile there I thought I was over shifter stories and then I started reading Jennifer Ashley's shifter books and loved them!
I happen to love innocent heroine meets jaded hero books as long as I feel for the characters. I happened to love Fifty Shades of Grey, but I've read plenty of those types of books where it just didn't work. I blame the individual book and not the type of story.
I would hate for an author who has a great book in her or him to hold back from writing it just because we as readers are "over" that type of book. A good writer can make magic out of even the most tired idea. A mediocre writer (or a good writer having a bad time of it) can make even the best idea tired.
EC Spurlock
9. jsmom2
Amnesia. Hero and Heroine hate each other. One case of amnesia later and, viola, true love.

I don't even read them anymore, which is a shame because I've left entire trilogies/series unfinished...just can't do it.
mandy troxel
10. mandytroxel@gmail.com
all i can do is switch what i read, i go from romance to syfi, then add a little paranormal. otherwise i know id get bored.
Darlene Marshall
11. darlenemarshall
All tropes can be reused by a skilled author, but the bar can be pretty high. If someone's going to write a "controlling gazillionaire and wide-eyed innocent" tale set in 2012, she'd better be prepared to dazzle me.

Don't forget, redheads have sensitive skin and amazing blue or green eyes. You could work that with the right hero.
Claire Louise Thompson
12. Nefersitra
I quite like that most romances show tropes/cliches - I find it comforting. I read romances for the comfort of knowing that however bad it gets for the heroine and hero there is a HEA waiting for them.

This does mean that if I dislike either of them the story may not go on my re-read list (depends on the storyline) and if I find both unsympathetic I'll donate the book to someone else/charity (and I keep all my books. Forever - or until they fall apart).

However reading this and the comments I realised there are a 2 tropes I'd gladly never see again:


1 - When the hero's uber-controlling behaviour is seen as romantic especially when it crosses into stalker/abusive territory. Just no. I lost hope with Twilight because Edward's behaviour was treated as romantic and even desirable for a boyfriend. It reminded me of the second series of Buffy when Angeleus did some of the same sort of stuff (sneaking in to watch his "beloved" sleep etc) and it was, rightly, seen as horrific.

2 -When a physical trait that is not seen as generally attractive in the "real world" becomes the most desirable physical trait in the world in a book. This has really started to annoy me in the Anita Blake series, where everyone seems to see the small men - for example Micah who's able to wear the petite Anita's clothers - as more attractive than the taller ones; if it was just Anita who prefered them, I wouldn't care but it's were everyone wants Micah or Nathaniel rather than Damien or Nicky. This doesn't include things like hair/eye colour because I know that is a preference and I really don't care if the hero has red hair or is bald (although I may see him as Patrick Stewart in my head regardless of how old he's supposed to be).
EC Spurlock
13. Lisao79
I have to agree with Pamela, I loved Fifty Shades and Twilight, but for me they are a form of escapism. In my own marriage I am more Alpha than my wonderful husband and there are times when I long to be taken care of - most romance books provide that environment for my brain.

I also get a sense of comfort mentioned by Nefresistra by reading books that follow an established formula - I want to know there is going to be a HEA, it gets me through the rough spots of the book. So call me an old fashioned romantic but I don't think there is any tropes I would want to see done away with, but I do love the fact that there is a whole new range of them coming forward. You don't need to do away with the old to appreciate the new :)
S Tieh
14. infinitieh
As long as the Romance has a HEA or HFN, I'm okay with it. I've just read a slew of historicals so it was all virgins, all the time for me although at least one was 28 instead of 18. I think all the stalker-ish nonsense is more forgiving in historicals or paranormals than contemps. Likewise the whole destined mate/true love business.

I think the reason that those dewy-eyed virginal heroines is so popular is that it reminds the reader of their first time, their first love. All that teen hormones adding to the new experience adrenaline rush is really potent. And considering the maternal mortality rate back then, it would make sense that only the young women would truly believe that there will be a HEA.
Chrystina Williams
15. bookliaison
Great Post :) My favorite hero from a book is a readhead! Jamie Fraser from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. One thing that is funny about that book is that the roles are reversed a little, Claire wasn't a virgin but Jamie was lol.

I guess I'm okay with virginal heroines as long as it's done well, definitely agree with previous posts on that, it all depends on the skill of the author.
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