We meet a girl. She’s awkward, klutzy, and kind of plain (although everyone says she’s pretty) with a good head on her shoulders and a clear-cut path in life. She’s “not like the other girls”. (All girls are empty-headed ninnies, you know.)
Enter… boy. He’s dashing, disarming, and admittedly a bit of a baddie.
Suddenly she’s swooning, falling all over herself, she simply can’t live without him. Forget her dreams, forget her goals, forget her family and friends even–any character dimension is diminished as she takes on an accessory role to her man that moments ago she criticized the “other girls” for wanting. But that’s okay–she gets it now–Life is simply not worth living without her boyfriend.
Boyfriend? Well, kind of. You see, they hate each other at first. They really, truly despise each other.
Not to worry, though. When boys treat you badly that just means they like you… right? That’s what I’ve always been told by romance novels anyway.
Please, can we break away from some of these tired romance tropes? The best romance writing is founded on an element of realism. Not every romance is a whirlwind of cat fights, betrayal, abusive dynamics… What does it say about attitudes towards women when female characters are written exclusively as an accessory to or in competition for men?
Furthermore, why do these depictions of womenhood seem so normal? Why is it that real life women say they are “not like the other girls” and find it difficult to form meaningful relationships with other women? I know I am a multi-faceted individual and I’m damn sure a woman reading this feels that way too. So why do we attack each other?
I think the answer to this question is a deep stain on the fabric of our society and I know for certain that the romance tropes we consume do nothing to lift the grime.
Avoid these over-used tropes to write romance right:
1. The “bitchy” popular girl whose only role is to break up the protagonist couple.
Why it doesn’t work: What is her motivation? Why does she want to break up the title couple so badly? Spite? For what? It simply doesn’t make sense. When you have a character whose only defining character trait is “bitchy harlot” it cheapens the story as a whole.
How to make it better: Delete this person entirely. Can’t do that? Add some complexity. As complex an individual you see yourself as, everyone else sees themselves that way too. Represent it. Nobody is entirely good or bad–our actions, even if flawed, are motivated by something. Consider this character’s motivation. What does she stand to gain? What does she really want? When people hurt other people, very rarely is it out of spite or revenge. When people hurt others it is because they are so consumed with what’s going on in their own lives that they can’t see past that bubble.
2. She’s not like the other girls…
Why it doesn’t work: No, no, no. Do not bring a woman up by tearing other women down. By saying “She’s not like the other girls” what you’re really saying is that she is that ALL other women are flawed in a way that our title character is inexplicably immune from. Usually this statement is used when our main woman couldn’t give two shits about our main man’s gravitational sex energy. He’s never heard no before. Women tear their clothes off to get at him. The thing is, you know our main girl will be in bed with him by chapter 4. See the problem?
How to make it better: It comes back to complexity. Is she really that different than “the other girls”? Spend some time fleshing out your main female’s characterization. What is it that makes these two characters so compatible? More interestingly, what makes them incompatible? How refreshing it would be if our love interest decided the relationship won’t work out and moved onto other people.
3. Why is everyone so straight and white?
Why it doesn’t work: Honestly, I’m a white woman in a relationship with a white man and even I’m sick of only reading about characters who look like me. Then, if a character of color IS used in the narrative they are almost always used in a violent context, as a fetish, or as part of an inconsequential relationship because our main protagonist will have a brief fling with them before moving on to the “meaningful romance.” It is to the point where I can pick out the first two white people introduced with detail in the plot and know for certain a romance will follow.
How to make it better: Imagine the world differently. Don’t toss in token characters to check off a box but instead consider the time and setting of your plot and aim to represent the people who live in this place accurately.
4. Big blowout arguments caused by crappy dialogue
Why it doesn’t work: You know exactly what I’m talking about. After our protagonists finally have sex around chapter 4, by chapter 8 a sudden wrench is flung into the newly formed romance. Why? Because these characters don’t speak like real people speak. 90% of romance novel arguments would be solved if people said what they would say if faced with this situation in the real world. A blast from Mr. Dashing’s past, Miss Harlot, is suddenly back in town. Dashing doesn’t give two shits about Harlot but Miss Vanilla misreads the energy between the two and instead of confronting him, like any reasonable person would do, Vanilla packs up her things and moves 6 states away. How does this make any sense? It doesn’t. We know it doesn’t. They’ll be back together by chapter 10.
How to make it better: Want to break up your characters? Fine, but emotionally devastate me while you do it. Don’t give me 4 chapters of filler chapters while you bide your time before their inevitable reunion. Up the stakes a little. Instead of a big blowout fight caused by crappy dialogue, what else could drive these characters apart? Maybe they really want to be together but are torn apart by responsibilities to other people, or war, or a job six states away, or incompatibility, or death.
5. Happily ever after, really?
Why it doesn’t work: You present this quasi-abusive relationship filled with manipulative mind games that uproots the title woman from her family and dreams to live in relative isolation with her partner and you expect to tell me that this relationship will last? Why? Because the sex is good? I find it frustrating because these romances are read as hopelessly romantic while in real life I think I wouldn’t tolerate a relationship like this for five minutes.
How to make it better: I’m very insistent that self-love and self-respect is essential to loving other people. Maybe this relationship is just a step on the journey of our character’s self-discovery. It doesn’t have to last forever (I wouldn’t expect a relationship with a vampire with a kink for blood to last much longer than 3 months). If romance novels offer readers a sense of escapism, something to say “hey, this could be you,” why would we offer anything less than strong, independent women with a firm understanding of themselves? That’s the sort of self-love I could get behind.