One of the best parts of the writing process is building up the relationships between characters. Whether it’s platonic, antagonistic, awkward, or romantic, the way they evolve over the course of the story is one of the things that keeps readers interested.
Relationships are important in any genre, but establishing a strong sense of chemistry between characters is highly important in romance. For your protagonist and your reader, a love interest needs to be someone to fall for.
There are plenty of tropes and characteristics that can have your reader swooning and shipping the couple in question, but there are just as many that can be a turnoff.
Some turnoffs are collectively agreed upon, like a character who insists that “real men don’t show emotion” or “that a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” but many are subjective.
A lot of the times I’ve DNFed a romance read had something to do with the love interest. Anything from a not-so-cute meet-cute to an action taken or a line of dialogue that made me uncomfortable. I’m all for redemption arcs, but some things are virtually impossible to come back from.
Remember, these are all my opinions. There are tropes I typically dislike I’ve seen done really well, and others I tend to enjoy that didn’t make me feel the warm and fuzzies.
A popular trope you’ll encounter in romance is the rakehell or the playboy. These guys have a habit of boasting—and exaggerating—the number of sexual partners they’ve had, bragging about exploits of special interest, and might express little concern over who they’re jumping into bed with just so long as they can be satisfied.
And, yes, these can also be female versions of this character.
Oftentimes, these characters are introduced as having gone too long without sex for their liking or have done the deed recently enough to brag to their friends about it—or complain should it have failed to meet their standards.
When the playboy love interest is introduced, they’re usually being set up for a redemption arc. That usually has them ultimately wanting to settle down with their true love and leave their bachelor(ette) ways in the past.
However, there has to be something truly compelling about the character or the path of the story for me to want to read on.
I don't go into a romance read expecting every character to be a virgin. That's not realistic. And I'm cool with characters talking about their sex lives.
But when a romance protagonist is introduced as bragging about having seduced a mother and her daughter—as was the case in my most recent DNF—or considers their soon-to-be love interest merely as their next conquest or a means to an end, it's harder for them to win me over.
Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater
On a similar note, when a character cheats on their partner, it can take a lot for them to get back on my good side—and it's almost never in the same standing as before the incident.
Cheating is often the catalyst in second chance romances, whether it's presumed and a misunderstanding or someone needing to redeem themselves after being caught in the act. Plots typically revolve around the offender realizing the error of their ways and working to earn the forgiveness of the person they wronged, while the scorned party might grapple with feelings of betrayal and how they simply cannot move on from this relationship despite many of their closest friends cautioning them against accepting the apologies and trusting this person again.
Cheating is very much a real thing that happens, and can be a high-stakes conflict in a romance novel. But I read romance for escape and to believe in love. I don't want to read about adultery and flings with the mistress while they are supposedly in a committed relationship.
It's my personal preference here, but I find this trope to be likable only when it is a misunderstanding and the character is not actually sneaking around. Like being seen in town with another man who turns out to be her cousin from Nashville or a character's alleged affair turning out to be staying late at the office to finish up a project that puts them in the running for a major promotion and not because he's hooking up with the secretary in the janitor's closet. Rumors get out of hand and a quick snap of a phone's camera doesn't tell the entire story. Mistakes and poor assumptions happen all too easily.
But when it's a deliberate decision on a character's part, like going back to their high school sweetheart's hotel room after the class reunion or doing the devil's tango while their spouse is out of town, I cannot support it. No matter how they claim it was a moment of weakness or, even worse, blame it on their other half for not fulfilling their desires in the bedroom or for some other thing, I am unable to view that character in a favorable light.
That kind of broken trust is hard to come back from.
When people fall in love, they’re likely to share parts of their life with their significant other, which may include sharing a hobby or inviting them to join in a family tradition. They may also make changes to their own, pre-relationship routine to accommodate that of their new significant other’s, like finding recipes that exclude an ingredient they are allergic to or baby-proofing their home if they have a child from a previous marriage.
However, there have been a few romance reads in which changes in a character’s life were not so much out of a desire to meet in the middle, but because of pressure from their new partner to fit into their lifestyle. When I see this starting to happen, chances are I’m not reading to the end.
I’ve seen a character ask their love interest to cut meat from their diet because they’re vegetarian, give up their gaming hobby even though it was their favorite pastime, and one who told their new partner to tone down their culture's customs
give up a cultural holiday because it didn't align with their upbringing.
Yikes all around. Just not good.
Let me preface this example by saying I have absolutely no problem with reading about characters who are religious. However, there have been instances where a character’s devotion has caused them to fall out of favor with me as a reader, and it has to do with the way they conduct themselves and their expectations of the other person in the relationship.
There was one contemporary romance I started reading a few years back in which one protagonist was determined to bring his love interest into his faith. His statements about wanting to save her soul felt more to me as a reader like overstepping boundaries and a refusal to accept her for who she was.
Coupled with a “holier than thou” attitude, I just couldn’t get on board with it.
I would much rather see characters who compromise and find ways to weave their lifestyles together.
Pop Goes Perfection
Romance heroes are often written as being larger than life. A lot of that has to do with wish-fulfillment. Many writers write romance characters they would be attracted to in real life—and many readers gravitate towards the genre for the same reason.
That's one of the things I love about romance as a genre. It gives us space to indulge in our guilty pleasures. No matter if it’s who we wish we were, who we would want to be with, or situations we would just love to be in with that person, it gives us a chance to live out those fantasies. It's one of the reasons the genre has become known for scantily-clad cover art.
I would be lying if I said that many of my characters' physical appearances were not inspired by what I'm into, and that also extends to their traits and personality.
But it also includes imperfections.
When a character is flawless, that in itself is a flaw to me.
I'm talking the tall-dark-and-handsome, can do no wrong, adored by everyone sort. Characters who are just so perfect they could not possibly exist in the real world.
Some flaws are relatively unforgivable or even toxic, but there are plenty that can make for a love interest your readers will fall for.
It's endearing to see love interests trip over their own feet or be at a loss for words. Maybe they're not an Adonis or don't fit the criteria of an "accomplished woman" in a historical setting despite their best efforts. Seeing them work through their insecurities, try to improve themselves, and make peace with their imperfections and accept themselves is far more intriguing than someone who is too good to be true.
Characters with blemishes, be they something on the surface or hidden beneath, are not only more believable but worth rooting for. When you've got two of these characters coming together and establishing their own personal definition of what beauty is and what is perfect for them, that is, to me at least, what writing romance is truly about.
The great thing about writing is being able to tell the stories that most appeal to you, explore the themes that interest you, and chase your most intimate desires in a completely safe and open space.
But sometimes, your favorite tropes or character types don't aren't as engaging for others.
Remember, it's possible for things I've mentioned here to be done well, just as it's possible for those I wholeheartedly adore to be done poorly.
Inclusions on this list might even appear in my own writing someday. They may have been painted in an antagonistic light this time around, but there is something intriguing about taking a trope I generally dislike and adjusting it to better fit my own tastes—and hopefully sweep my readers off their feet in the process.