Most genre fiction uses some kind of trope as a shorthand way to hook a potential reader. So what is a trope?
What is a Trope?
Tropes are plot devices, characters, images, or themes that are incorporated so frequently in a genre that they’re seen as conventional. (Source: Reedsy)
Many genres have tropes. For example, consider any Star Wars movie. They all use The Chosen One trope—a main character with some kind of natural advantage that enables them to defeat their foe. Annikin Skywalker has The Force. Luke Skywalker has The Force. Rei (not Skywalker … yet) has The Force. And that enables them to defeat the evil around them. Okay, so Annikin then joins the forces of evil, but that sets up Rogue One and the second (first?) trilogy of movies.
And we’re still waiting for the end of Rae’s story, but that’s another trope: Good Defeats Evil (even in the face of unbelieable odds).
What is a romance novel?
A romance has to end with an “emotionally satisfying ending”. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a romance (according to Romance Writers of America, and romance readers everywhere). Most readers take this to mean a “happy ever after” (HEA) ending, although some general romances will have a less final “happy for now” (HFN) ending.
Below, I’ve listed some of the common romance tropes along with a brief definition.
Note that in Christian fiction, any reference to “lovers” is meant in the Victorian sense, not the modern sense! Also, Christian romance is always hero and heroine, and it’s implied that the “happy ever after” ending is “will you marry me”, not “do you want to move in with me and my teenager and our new puppy” (which sounds to me more like live-in unpaid housekeeper than forever love).
Yes, some Christian romances have a “happy for now” ending, but those tend to be stories where the hero and heroine hadn’t met before the story started, and which take place over a short space of time (days or weeks). In these cases, it’s not reasonable to expect the couple to be ready to make a lifelong committment, although the implication is that’s where the relationship is headed.
So what are some popular romance tropes?
Friends to Lovers
The hero and heroine are long-time friends, but come to realise their feelings are more than mere friendship. The challenge with this story is that one or both of the main characters wants to take the relationship to the next level but is afraid to make the first move because they’re afraid of ruining a good friendship.
This is one of my favourite tropes, both because it represents my own journey and because I think it’s important that marriages are built on a base of friendship and respect, not attraction and lust. This is especially true in Christian romance, where readers expect the characters to model Biblical values.
Enemies to Lovers
The hero and heroine already know each other, but don’t like each other. Those reasons seem rational at first, but as the couple get to know each other, they realise they had a false impression of the other person. These stories don’t have the awkward “do I make a move and risk ruining a friendship?” question, because their is no friendship to lose. As such, they are often fun stories … especially as the reader knows the couple are destined to be together long before they work it out.
This is similar to the Friends to Lover trope in that the hero and heroine are long-time friends. The difference is that one has been in love with the other for a long time—often years. The story centres around the lover’s uncertainty over whether to tell the friend or not, and the friend’s slow journey to realising they see the lover as something more than a friend.
These stories can often be bittersweet, as one perfectly nice character has had to watch the person they love date other people, and sometimes even get married.
Two people fake a romance to satisfy some external plot point e.g. a character wants a date to a family function. The couple spend more and more time together, and eventually realise they love each other. This can be complicated when one or more of their family/friends knew it was a fake romance, so the couple then have to convince the unbelievers that their relationship is for real.
Example: I’m sure I’ve read books with this trope, but can I remember any? No. Can you?
One main character is forced to choose between two possible partners. This can go two ways:
- The main character has to choose between two wonderful people (so a perfectly nice character ends up getting hurt).
- The main character thinks they’re in love with A (or is in an existing relationship with A), but is also attracted to B (who is much nicer than A).
The problem with the love triangle is that if you’re not careful, half your audience will be convinced the story ends with the wrong couple getting together.
The hero and heroine meet and fall for each other, only to find there is some external reason why they can’t be together. This could be a family feud, religious differences, or racial differences (especially in historical fiction, where there were often laws prohibiting interracial marriage).
Note that Christian romance readers expect the hero and heroine to both be Christians, so a romance between a Christian and a non-Christian would fall into this category, and readers would expect the non-Christian to have become a Christian before the end of the story.
Example: Romeo and Juliet
A regular member of the public meets and falls for a member of royalty, a billionaire, or a famous actor or sportsperson without knowing who they are. The Secret person likes being treated as a person instead of as a title/wallet, and the two start a relationship. There is the inevitable dustup when the regular Joe/Joelene finds out their partner’s true identity before they can get their happy-ever-after ending.
It used to be secret millionaire, but a million dollars doesn’t sound as impressive as it used to!
A woman falls pregnant but never tells the father that she’s had his baby, usually because they are somehow separated and she never gets the chance. Months or years later, they meet again and the father works out his ex had his baby and never told him.
I went through a phase of reading and enjoying secret baby romances, but then the improvements in technology and social media made it harder to believe that the woman couldn’t tell the father she’d had his baby. This meant she hadn’t, which meant she had to have a good reason for not telling him … and many didn’t.
Belated Love Epiphany
One main character realises they love the other after the other character has left the city or country (who left because they realised they were the victim of Unrequited Love). This epiphany is followed by the late-to-the-party main character chasing the other through the airport or across the world to declare their love.
Second Chance Romance
A couple break up for actual reasons (as opposed to being separated for reasons beyond their control), then meet again months or years later, discover they still have feelings for each other, and try to rekindle their relationship. This usually means they have to work through whatever obstacles prompted them to break up in the first place … and sometimes some new obstacles as well.
So there you have ten popular romance tropes. I’ll be back next week with more. What are your favourite—or least favourite—tropes in your favourite genre?
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