In writing, the word trope is used to describe frequently recurring elements like themes or relationships between characters. Every genre has tropes specific to it, and some might be found in more than one genre.
Keeping with this month's theme of writing love and romance, and following up last week's post about my favorite romance tropes, it's time to flip that head over heels and explore some of the tropes that don't have me as enamored.
Bear in mind that these are my opinions and there are always exceptions. A beloved trope may fall flat just as easily as one I typically like less can blow me away.
Let's get to it!
Love At First Sight
This is perhaps one of the more common in romance. One character sees the other and falls inexplicably and intensely head over heels for them, so much so that they know this stranger is exactly who they want to spend the rest of their life with from the first time they see them.
It's a classic that can work, but it's one that comes with a few things to consider.
For some readers, much of the fun of reading romance is in watching the characters fall in love. If you're like me and love slow-burn romances, where the development of that relationship is more gradual, love at first sight can make the story feel rushed depending on how it is written. I have read books where characters might be attracted to one another from the get-go in a Love-At-First-Sight fashion, but it still takes a while for them to fess up to their feelings, or one experiences Love-At-First-Sight and has to work to prove themselves a worthy suitor for the other. Either way, I tend to prefer those and other takes to instantly being in love.
Having a foundation of friendship or at least knowing the person is so important. Without it, there's only so much proverbial glue holding things together. You don't have as strong a sense of their interests, how they act under pressure, or their aspirations.
Infatuation or lust in the blink of an eye can and does happen in reality. Sitting on the subway and catching a glimpse of someone and thinking they're cute, for example, or having a classmate you'd like to study more than what's on the syllabus with. But falling in love at the snap of a finger is different.
When it's used as the basis of a romance plot, a lot of that buildup can be lost. It also runs the risk of characters coming across as shallow because Love-At-First-Sight hinges itself on falling in love with a stranger, not because you've gotten to know them. As such, it can make the character seem more interested in their love interest's appearance.
There's nothing wrong with liking someone's hair. But liking them only because they're blonde and not because you have a sense of who they are is not the recommended route. After all, you can dye your hair, but your personality is your true colors.
A middle ground can exist, though, like a character falling for someone because of his playful showmanship and voice while belting out an 80s rock anthem at the local pub's karaoke night, or a character seeing their future partner from across the cafe and being drawn to their smile while they're laughing at something on a phone call. There's a bit more to this scenario than being falling in love with someone just because they are of the tall, dark, and handsome ilk.
Like I mentioned last week when referencing this trope, this is one I have more mixed feelings towards. The desire for redemption or learning to forgive can be terrific motivations in for your characters and a universal theme readers can connect with, but there are variations I find to be less endearing.
It mainly boils down to what the character is trying to make amends for. If it's something like forgetting the specific date of the love interest's sister's engagement party or getting tied up at the office, that's not as big of a deal. However, when the Second Chance romance trope dips its toes into toxic waters, that's where I start to take issue with it.
There are plenty of romances I've encountered over the years where one member of the relationship is consistently an irksome human being. It might be the way they talk about their partner's career or family, maybe they tip poorly on dinner dates or don't tip at all, or care more about their car than their significant other. The list goes on.
With a lot of these, one person is putting more work into the relationship than the other and getting taken advantage of. And the taken-advantage-of party doesn't seem to care or even acknowledge it.
When this is the basis of a Second Chance romance, it can set itself up for one character trying to "fix" the other or just settle because things could be worse or that is the kind of romance they believe they deserve and aren't worthy of something better despite their obvious feelings for the guy next door. Going through the motions but not getting anywhere.
For a Second Chance romance to work for me as a reader, the redemption has to be wanted and warranted. The character needs to earn that forgiveness, recognizing they need to do and be better and then actually making those changes to improve themselves.
Actions speak louder than words. Having a character recognize their faults and work to improve themselves because they realize they're not perfect makes for such a compelling narrative. It's why I love Mr. Darcy's arc in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth calls him out on his ungentlemanly conduct and rather than just shrugging it off and carry on as he has been, he becomes determined to change for the better.
That said, there are some things that make a person irredeemable, of course, and seeing a protagonist doing their best to "fix" them mitigates their agency. Although a serious, real-world problem, seeing a character completely refuse to acknowledge toxic behaviors can be exasperating for readers with the outside-looking-in perspective.
On a similar note, Second Chance Romances can work if it explores realizing a first impression isn't accurate. A guy who gives off the archetypal bad boy that turns out to be a total cinnamon roll who loves Renaissance faires? Sign me the heck up! A lady who introduced as being on the more promiscuous side actually being the head of an architecture firm and running the joint like the captain of the tightest ship? Yes, please!
Two characters who barely tolerate each other being paired to up for games at the company picnic and both realizing there another side to them they didn't see before spending so much time together? You know I want more of it.
But this is conditional. If this sudden realization is based on physical attributes, it falls more into the realm of the next vexation on this list.
While I've noticed it is often geared towards middle school and high school audiences, it's definitely popular in adult books.
The premise is the stereotypical nerdy kid has a major glow-up and is now the prettiest or most handsome kid in town. It might be an overnight thing, or may not happen until adulthood and they wow everyone at their class reunion ten years later. The character always getting picked on for their looks is now suddenly a catch everyone is vying for, including those who put them down time and time again.
The example springing to mind when adding this one to the list is from Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide. Lisa Zemo is introduced as the unpretty girl at school. Thick glasses, allergies that have her often seen with a nasal spray at the ready, frizzy hair.
Come season three, Lisa undergoes a makeover. She gets contacts, is put on a better medication that eliminates her allergies, starts experimenting with a little makeup, and comes back from summer break stunning the student body. As it often happens with the Ugly Duckling trope, boys who either paid no attention to her or very openly joked about her looks are suddenly tripping over themselves to get a date with her—including protagonist Ned Bigby.
It gets to the point that there is a literal waitlist to go on a date with Lisa. When Ned's turn comes around, he's expecting the new Lisa, but is shocked to see Lisa 1.0 instead. Her allergies are flaring up. She's wearing her glasses again. And Ned's not exactly happy.
Over the episode, following some reprimands from his friends, Ned eventually realizes that Lisa is still Lisa and that her personality does not change because she doesn't look a certain way. It's a good lesson, but not among my favorites in the show's run.
A bit of the prom-themed number planned for the musical in High School Musical 3: Senior Year notes how Kelsi is unrecognizable and "looks so good" in her formal clothes and with her makeup and hair done., even adding on how "You'll never really notice, but you probably should."
We also see it whenever there's a makeover montage, common in YA and chick flicks. A character who is not considered as attractive as their popular friend either asks for or puts up with that friend doing their makeup and hair, maybe a shopping excursion is involved. Though not always, it often occurs before a significant event where a bachelor of interest will be, and his head and others turn as soon as the newly made-over gal walks in so quickly it causes whiplash.
Mia's transformation in The Princess Diaries, though iconic, is another installment of the Ugly Duckling trope, but I'm not as frustrated with it. The key to this is that it's not about trying to land a man, but instead part of coming into her own as the ruler of a kingdom—and she even makes point to tell her former bullies about how their looks will change, but the kind of person she is on the inside will remain the same. And we love to see that.
Within the romance genre, it can be common to have a character become attracted to someone they've known for a while because their appearance has suddenly undergone a dramatic change. While this can be something on the smaller scale, like wow they look good in blue, it's often the result of a change of many things within a short timeframe.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this is Sandy Olsson.
Grease is a classic. "Tell me about it, stud." is among the most quoted lines in cinematic history.
But despite its catchy tunes, memorable scenes, and a cast laughably older than the teenagers they portray, Grease is also problematic thematically.
"You're the One That I Want" is my favorite number, though the events leading up to it can make listening to it on Spotify and watching the film different experiences.
Sandy is introduced as something of a goody two-shoes, and she maintains so throughout 95% of the film. There's even an entire musical number devoted to making fun of her innocent and upright nature behind her back.
Her relationship with Danny isn't what I would consider ideal, with there being some pressure on his part to get down and dirty, and his getting upset when she objects to his advances at the drive-in.
A bit later, Sandy realizes she still loves Danny and enlists friend and Beauty School Dropout Frenchie to give her a makeover, transforming her into a greaser gal.
Just a few minutes before the film ends, Sandy rocks that iconic leather ensemble, lit cigarette in hand, and she and Danny hop in a flying car (for some reason).
The message in this last scene isn't exactly shocking when the majority of the film is taken into account. There's a musical number where those involved are essentially begging to know if Danny and Sandy hooked up. Sandy is sung about being "lousy with virginity," meanwhile Rizzo is slut-shamed following a pregnancy scare. The overall bravado of the guys being acceptable and Danny wondering what his friends will think after Sandy sets her boundaries compared to the way women are viewed for expressing even a hint of openness towards sex.
Part of me wants to view Sandy's transformation as her taking hold of her sexuality and desires, but I have mixed feelings about it because she never displayed such inclinations before. It's not like she let Danny get a little frisky to experiment before telling him to stop.
No. She shut that down as soon as he tried anything, was appalled by his trying to pressure her, and then shut the car door right on his crotch.
It's harder for me to see this as a power move or empowering herself and taking ownership of her womanhood because of that.
Sandy willingly changes everything about herself for Danny despite his overall conduct towards her.
It's almost a twist on The Taming of the Shrew when you think about it.
As far as the Ugly Duckling goes, it's a trope I find more enjoyable when the realization of possible attraction occurs without having to also realize the character is a good person. That there is no expectation of maintaining the swan's look after a special occasion because the way their appearance is not a direct reflection of their who they are on the inside. It's a flawed trope, but it can work in a few scenarios.
With the Ugly Duckling, there's an element of wish fulfilment. It's often assumed that writers draw from real-life experiences when crafting their stories, hence the threat of "Don't anger a writer or they'll kill you in their next book."
Writing can be cathartic, and with that comes a way to find some semblance of revenge, so to speak, or say or do the things we wish we could have in the moment.
I could definitely see myself in Lisa Zemo's shoes because I was that kid. I wanted to be Mia, just like many others. I had the bad allergies. I was fighting acne up through college and still have to deal with it in my mid-twenties. On top of that, my weight's always been an issue that I only recently learned is in part linked to having PCOS (as is the acne and my facial hair running rampant).
I would have loved to have that glow-up moment of walking into homeroom on the first day after summer vacation or having that head-turning moment at prom. And I've included these moments in my works to some extent. But in recent years, I've tried to become more cognizant of these moments and make sure the characters already have a bond established to avoid a sudden change of heart or reversal of unfavorable or even harsh opinions firmly rooted before they dolled themselves up.
Hot For Teacher
These pop up in high school hallways and college campuses. The teacher tends to be on the attractive side, not to mention intelligent. You'll have a student unable to look away during a lecture because their instructor is so captivating.
And sometimes, extracurricular activities come about.
Even though I haven't seen much of it, one of the central romances on Pretty Little Liars revolved around Aria and Ezra. In the first episode, they meet at a bar, chat each other up, and end up making out in the bathroom.
Monday rolls around, Aria goes to school, and discovers the new hot English teacher that her classmates are raving about and fawning over is the guy from the bar.
Ezra tries to be as professional as one can be in this messy scenario and break things off, telling her they cannot do anything like that ever again.
Of course, it does. Often.
And they eventually marry.
There is something deeply unsettling about this dynamic to me.
My freshman year was the music teacher's first year teaching. I mention this because I estimate the age difference between her and her students then would be about the same between Aria and Ezra. We all loved her, and a lot of my peers were eager to add her on Facebook once they graduated. She was adamant about instituting a rule that you could not send her a request until you turned twenty-one. I think there was someone who tried to add her about two days before their twenty-first birthday and had to wait an extra year since the teacher wouldn't accept it as a result of their trying to test that boundary.
Teachers, regardless of where they are in their career, can get in massive trouble if even suspected of inappropriate engagement with a student, especially if they are a minor. If that kind of thing is actually going on, as was the case with Ezra and Aria, it can be disastrous for everyone involved.
While Pretty Little Liars is a contemporary show with at times chaotic plot threads and twists that paved the way for the absurdities of Riverdale and others, the Hot For Teacher trope extends beyond that genre.
Although it didn't get the same hype that The Hunger Games did, Divergent was a popular read at my high school.
If you're not caught up, the trilogy revolves around Tris, who lives in what is later revealed to be a dystopian Chicago divided into various factions. In the year they turn sixteen, residents have to decide which faction they want to live in after an aptitude test that admittedly has little bearing on their choice. It's not like the sorting hat where if it determines you to be in Ravenclaw, that is the house you are assigned to. You could be told you are a perfect fit for Amity and instead declare yourself a member of Erudite if you wanted to.
Tris learns she is Divergent, meaning she fits in with more than one faction, and is strongly advised to keep that a secret. She ends up choosing Dauntless.
Part of Dauntless's initiation process involves testing new recruits. You might say you want in, but you have to earn your right to be there. If you don't make the cut, you're kicked out and sent to live among societal outcasts known as the Factionless.
Part of the lead-up to this is a training period where new members are trained in combat and tackling fear simulations (Dauntless, as the name suggests, is all about bravery and general badassery). This is where we meet a guy introduced as Four.
We later learn his name is actually Tobias, and he originated from Abnegation where Tris is from. He is also Divergent.
Tobias is one of the group's mentors, and he takes a particular liking to Tris, determined to make sure she earns her way into Dauntless. While this can be seen as his understanding her on a deeper, personal level being from the same faction and being Divergent, but it takes a romantic turn.
One of my classmates, who actually introduced me to the series, shipped Tris and Tobias pretty early on, but I wasn't as easily on board with it.
Although they are much closer in age, with only a year or two between them in the books, that instructor/student dynamic is still there. And for some reason, that stood in the way of my cheering on the romantic relationship. Aging him up to his twenties for the movies to better fit Theo James's casting while keeping Tris at age sixteen didn't help in that regard.
In a previous post, I mention my appreciation of The Hunger Games's Finnick Odair, who after surviving his Games, is placed in the role of mentoring the Tributes who are reaped in subsequent years.
Throughout the series, we learn about his relationship with Annie, who he eventually marries in the final installment. Annie was also a Tribute at one point, and Finnick mentored her, putting him in a similar position as Tobias.
The difference is, we don't know when Finnick and Annie became romantically involved, or even when they met. They could have known or have known of each other prior to his Games. Her Games could have been their first introduction. They may have become a couple between their respective Games, or it may not have happened until after hers. In my head, I see it developing over time, perhaps bonding in recovering from the torment they suffered in the Arena.
With Finnick and Annie, even though he did mentor her ahead of her entering the Games, there isn't as strong of an indication they became a couple during that training period, whereas we see Ezra and Aria getting involved while she is his student. Finnick and Annie aren't presented in that mentor/mentee dynamic that Tris and Tobias are.
Overall, my biggest grievance with this trope is when it takes in a typical school setting like Pretty Little Liars, especially when one person in the relationship is a minor.
Major red flag.
There are a few other tropes I omitted from this post, both for the sake of time and because a couple of them are topics I want to dedicate entire posts to.
Again, these are just a few opinions. There are times where a trope included on this list can work for me as a reader, just as those on last week's post about tropes I typically enjoy can fall flat. It really all depends on the way the trope is implemented.