I’ve been doing a lot more delving into romantic subplots in writing lately. It used to terrify me because I was afraid of “getting it wrong” or leaving readers with a bad impression of the couple. While I’ve found myself settling into my stride when it comes to these subplots, my research into writing better romance has also led me to discover a few tropes that are considered tired or problematic across all genres.
Click through to read about five of the romantic tropes that often turn readers away:
This one is as old as storytelling itself, it seems, but its longevity doesn’t make it any less eye-rolling. More and more readers are turning away from the idea of “love at first sight” and diving into stories where the romance is built up realistically over a period of time. I’d like to note, however, that there’s nothing wrong with attraction at first sight. It’s the “I would die for you, I love you at eye contact” first encounter that can start a romance arc on the wrong foot and give readers a bad impression.
2) You Are My Entire Life
While one’s significant other can and should hold a very important place in their life, it’s generally considered problematic if one or both characters have nothing tangible in their lives outside of one another. If a character is antisocial on principle, a hobby can also fill this position – like painting, reading, or even something central to the plot, such as crime-fighting, sleuthing, etc. The point isn’t that the characters need to be Mr./Ms. Popular, but that they have a life outside of their significant other. Otherwise, the relationship can read as codependant, stalkerish, or overly clingy.
3) Loveable Abuser
This is a fickle trope, because fans and critics understandably disagree on what’s considered “abusive.” Two people can look at the same romantic couple and call them healthy or unhealthy. Ultimately, if one character is robbed of autonomy, disrespected for the wishes or assumed “needs” of the other, neglected, physically or verbally harmed, etc., then there is an imbalance there that should be addressed, not romanticized. While some of these things can be present in the beginning of a story where the abusive party eventually grows to realize the error of such behavior and reconciles with their partner, it does no story any favors if this kind of behavior is condoned and continues on the premise of a character’s “tortured past” or “bad boy/girl personality.”
4) The Tortured Love Interest
This trope can be done well. I’ll admit there are some books on my shelf that feature a tortured love interest with a sordid past. Brooding heroes and heroines and the people who love them have long been a hot-topic item. But there are also a lot of readers out there who are starting to look for the softer, less-tortured, more emotionally available characters to fall in love with each other. Romance is a dramatic thing; it doesn’t necessarily need the added drama of a character with a dark history who must learn how to be romantic or emotionally available along the way.
5) Miscommunication for the Sake of Drama
This was a trope I only started to notice when I became invested in several TV shows at once. I’m going to call out a few for it: Once Upon A Time, House, and Stranger Things. Without giving too much away, each of these dealt at least once with a romance or romance-lite where one character would either do something deliberately opposed to their partner’s wishes (keep a secret, tell a lie) or do something innocent and have it misconstrued (spend time with the opposite sex), which would erupt into romantic drama when it came to light. In all of these cases, the issue at hand was never dealt with by conversation or a mature meeting of the heads. It usually spiraled into a separation or total break up, all because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.
There is some potential in miscommunication as a plot device. However, it’s a very slippery slope that often leaves readers – or viewers – annoyed rather than engaged, because in order for it to really engender the desired level of drama, the characters have to behave like fickle children. One person has to keep a secret, often for a nonsensical reason according to the plot, and the other person has to take that to the extreme and blow up, then break up or put the relationship on hiatus until the other person redeems themselves. There’s no room in those kinds of arcs for mature dialogue. It’s all reactive…which people often are, but it’s a fine line between realism and immaturity for the sake of drama in such cases.
There are many tropes both romantic and platonic in the writing world. Tropes become tropes because they work, so by no means is this list meant to imply that these should be thrown out the window. But consider approaching them with new twists and insights if you approach them at all – and who knows, you may breathe life back into a trope in a way that makes readers fall in love with it all over again!
Got any other tropes that grind your gears? Leave them in the comments below!