Popular Romance Tropes and How to Pull Them Off!
You’ve used tropes in every story you’ve ever dreamed up.
That may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Tropes are the fuel behind every good story, the foundation for every book. They’re the prompt or concept that makes itself clear before we create characters or worlds. And they are probably one of the most valuable and fragile things in writing.
Even though there are tropes in every genre, some of the most iconic are romance tropes. They’re not confined to just the romance genre—these tropes are exactly what makes the romantic subplot in your favorite fantasy epic or historical novel, or even the idea behind the non-romantic relationship between the protagonist and a secondary character.
More often than not, authors rely too heavily on the mechanics of their chosen trope and don’t focus enough on their characters and plot, leaving their story cliched and uninspired. Today, I’m going to tell you how to pull off four of the most popular romance tropes—friends-to-lovers, hate-to-love, forbidden love, and the love triangle—while still creating deep, authentic relationships!
Description: two old friends fall in love with each other. Usually, one will begin to develop, or has already developed, feelings for the other, but won’t admit them for fear of their reaction and/or losing their preexisting relationship. Eventually the hero and heroine reevaluate their friendship and, in the end, pursue a romantic relationship.
The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White
A Passion Denied by Julie Lessman
Love, Life, and the List by Kasie West
This trope is my least favorite. I shy away from it in the books I read and the ones I write, because authors rarely put as much effort into creating a believable, meaningful relationship between the hero and heroine. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re already friends or simply because the friends-to-lovers trope lacks the facets that most other tropes do.
When I took a moment to ask myself why I felt such a lack, I thought of two of the most important aspects of this trope and why they matter more to a friends-to-lovers romance than anything else.
#1 A background on a cross-gender friendship
Before you even begin writing a friends-to-lovers romance, the very first thing you need to know is how/why your hero and heroine are friends. How did your hero and heroine meet and become friends? Not only in the physical aspect—such as where and when they met—but also from a mental/emotional standpoint. Did your hero stand up for the heroine when she was being bullied in middle school? Is your heroine best friends with the hero’s younger sister?
One of my few friends-to-lovers romances, which also happens to be my current WIP, is all about two old friends who try to rekindle their relationship after years of separation. My heroine Daisy used to be best friends with my hero Keaton’s younger sister, and because their families lived next door to each other and Keaton helped out on the neighbors’ farm, they were always together. When Keaton’s sister passed away, he and Daisy grieved together, and their common loss strengthened their bond, even though they’re eight years apart in age.
Physically, they became friends because they’re neighbors. Emotionally, they became close friends because they lost a best friend and sister.
Knowing and understanding the background of their friendship helps strengthen their romantic relationship and gives you a starting point to work from. Regardless of which trope you use in your romance (or even in a non-romance novel), the background on your characters’ relationship is foremost.
But feelings will always get in the way, which brings me to my next point.
#2 A good reason to not be in a romantic relationship
Now we know how and why your hero and heroine are friends—they live next door and go to school together. Their personalities complement each other, and they’re always standing up for one another and doing what’s best for their friend. It’s a picture perfect relationship, right?
So why aren’t they in a romantic relationship?
The most common reason out there is that they’re afraid to lose the awesome friendship they already have. In some situations, this is a good reason, and in others it’s kind of shallow. You decide for your story and characters, but whether this is the reason or not, you still need a perfect motive.
Are they vulnerable to romantic relationships in general? Have they lost friends due to bad decisions before? Are they afraid that they’re not what their friend needs for a lifelong partner? Do they think their friend could never have feelings for them? (Which begs the question, why would they think that?)
These are just a few of the reasons you can choose from, but remember that only one is right for your characters. Get to know them and their goals and fears, then you’ll begin to understand why they think they’re better as friends.
Once you’ve discovered their reason for staying friends, I suggest you let your characters recognize them. Have them consider the possibility of a romantic relationship (if not in the book itself, then in the past), and decide they’re better off as friends. Maybe even go so far as to have your hero and heroine go out on a disastrous first date, then make a pact to remain only friends. Not only does that strengthen their relationship, it also gives the plot more intensity.
Speaking of intensity, here’s a kissing tip for you! If your characters have been friends for years, I doubt they’d lean in all of a sudden to kiss each other. So, the best way to sneak in a kiss but keep it realistic is to take advantage of the moment (in more ways than one). Every memorable, heart-stopping kiss (in books and real life) is borne of emotion. Use sadness or joy to inspire a quick kiss. All you need is one impactful moment to affect your characters, and pretty soon they’ll be dreaming of more.
Hate-to-Love (or Enemies-to-Lovers)
Description: two enemies fall in love with each other. However, the conflict between them prohibits their romance from sprouting early on, so it’s up to one or both characters to resolve the issue—or risk losing their newfound love.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Han and Leia from Star Wars
I could write an entire book about enemies-to-lovers romance—there are so many possibilities! I love reading and writing this trope above every other one—in fact, most of my romances are hate-to-love.
When it comes to writing this trope, the rules are fairly simple, and it’s very easy to get creative. In a story where the characters have known each other for a while, you can employ the cat-and-mouse technique (the hero and heroine bounce alternate between tolerating and hating each other); or when the characters are newfound enemies, it helps to go headfirst into their disdain for each other and create a slow-burning romance.
Sometimes, enemies-to-lovers will sneak up on you. Maybe you didn’t intend for your characters to be rivals, but their personalities or goals clash and make the hero and heroine butt heads at every turn. Or, on the flip side, the characters were never supposed to fall in love, but they united over a common goal and ended up burying the hatchet. Your characters can and will surprise you, so it’s always a good idea to get to know them and develop them carefully to ensure your plot remains strong and believable.
Which brings me to my first tip on how to create a strong relationship between your hero and heroine—not only their romantic one, but also their rivalry!
#1 Don’t be afraid
Like with the friends-to-lovers trope, you must construct a good foundation and backstory for your characters. Ask yourself why they’re enemies, rivals, or unable to work together. What’s the reason for their conflict? Don’t shy away from establishing a strong foundation and continual conflict—maybe they’re part of a generational family feud, or they’re on opposite sides of a war. Like with the forbidden love trope, readers love a sense of suspense and insurmountable odds, so don’t settle for petty rivalries over different music tastes or hurt feelings over a childhood prank.
In the same vein, don’t be afraid to make your characters angry with each other, argue all the time, or even try to kill one another. And, yes, I am very much serious here. I know murder attempts might not fit your characters, but in some situations it works out well. Your characters have a right to be mad with each other (and if they don’t, go back to the paragraph above and work on creating one). They don’t like each other, after all, so if they want to argue or be prejudiced or jump to conclusions about the other, let them!
Utilizing anger, prejudice, and miscommunication makes their dynamics much more realistic. This is exactly what Jane Austen did with Pride and Prejudice—and look where that novel is now!
Hate-to-love romances stem from vulnerability on the characters’ parts. The hero dislikes the heroine because he’s known women like her in the past. The heroine is afraid of the hero because of her own insecurities. They hate each other because they know better than to trust someone working for the enemy. Embrace their insecurities and vulnerabilities and let them lead their relationship into something deep and abiding, a love that will chase away the fear and prove that love truly does conquer all.
While I’m on the subject of anger and embracing, it’s time for Kissing Tip #2. The best kiss stems from anger or frustration. Whether your hero is trying to get the heroine to shut up, prove something to her, or in one of those kiss-them-to-get-them-out-of-the-way-of-danger situations, using anger at her or just at the circumstances to inspire action is the best. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or detailed—just long enough to make an impact.
#2 Keep their personalities in mind
Never forget who your characters are and why they’re not compatible. The best enemies are too much alike and too different to work together. You know what I mean? They have totally different goals, but they’re basically the same person. The hero and heroine of one of my enemies-to-lovers, Elliot and Crimson, are so much alike that it’s hard to tell them apart–same way of doing things, same reactions to stuff, same basic personality–but they’re on separate sides of a family feud. Because they both react to this feud in the same way, they target each other and butt heads.
For example, she defends her family by getting angry with his best friend, so he defends his best friend by getting angry at her and her family. Back to Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are very similar. They’re both honest and authentic, unabashed about how they feel or what they think. They’re both easily turned off to certain people, places, and things. They both care greatly about their family and friends—Lizzie and Jane, Darcy and Georgiana. Though one is prideful and the other prejudiced, even these traits have similar roots and outcomes.
Austen kept their personalities in mind all throughout the book. Darcy was condescending in his first proposal, so Lizzie, in her skewed judgement of believing him as uncaring as ever, turned him down. Like I mentioned in my first point, this established a strong foundation and continual conflict, which kept the reader on the edge of their seat, wondering if the two would ever find love in the end.
On the other hand, maybe their personalities are different, but their goals are the same—so they team up to stop a villain or save their families. Along the way, they disagree on how to do things, try to one-up each other, or even feel betrayed when a secret about one of them is discovered. You have to establish a reason for these enemies to be thrown together all the time, and a common goal is one of the best—but that doesn’t mean they have to become bffs immediately.
This goes hand-in-hand with Austen’s method of continual conflict, so as long as the characters are together, keep their personalities and feelings in mind. If you can do that, then you won’t be in danger of falling too fast or making their relationship seem contrived or inauthentic.
Description: two characters fall for each other despite an external force of conflict. Most of the time, social status, familial connections, religion, race, or even something like an engagement will prevent the characters from being together.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The forbidden love trope follows a lot of the same guidelines the friends-to-lovers and hate-to-love tropes do. You need a strong foundation and some very good reasons for your hero and heroine to avoid a romantic relationship.
But, unlike these two genres, the force is not internal. It’s external. Because of their families, nationality, religion, or even a current engagement, your characters simply cannot fall in love.
Nowadays, most people tend to gravitate to a Romeo and Juliet style forbidden love romance, and with good reason. During the 18th and 19th and even the 20th centuries, a lot of authors wrote about extramarital affairs—like in Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, and Dr. Zhivago. Stories like these don’t always honor God, so it’s best to stick with Shakespeare (which is something I never thought I’d say). If you can pull off a story like this without being a stumbling block for your readers or portraying adultery as good and wholesome, more power to you, but that’s a difficult feat.
So I’m going to tackle this trope from the Romeo and Juliet perspective, helping you create a relationship that has its boundaries but can be fully explored. However, I’ll be focusing on how to obtain a happy ending—not write a tragedy in which everyone dies at the end.
#1 Respect for the boundaries
Creating loveable characters is the first step to any novel. You need real and relatable characters who have faults and flaws, fears and failures…but you can’t lose yourself in all the dishonorable aspects of your character. Not even your villain is completely heartless (or is he?).
Forbidden love romances often disregard the good, moral, and selfless elements in people, instead replacing them with a lack of respect and wholesomeness in the hero and heroine—which is probably why you’re more liable to find a secular or Harlequin romance with this trope than a clean or Christian one.
I love reading about a hero or heroine (or both) who stands up for what is right and maybe even sacrifices for the good of their friends, family, love interest, or enemy. I’m not asking you to write a tragedy here, folks, where your hero and heroine sacrifice their love for each other because of social norms, dictators in their lives, or their circumstances. But what I am asking you to do is create characters who do have morals (or fears) and won’t push their limitations to have something they shouldn’t.
If your hero can respect the boundaries between him and the heroine (or vice versa), then you’ve shown that he also has respect for the heroine herself, which is one of the most important things in romance—fictional or real.
Kissing Tip #3: This is where you don’t kiss at all. You heard me right. You can still have romantic tension without an actual kiss, and by doing so you create a stronger, more beautiful relationship! Instead of pushing the boundaries and stealing a kiss, have your characters refrain from doing so.
#2 Overcoming the odds
Speaking of boundaries, you have to put up walls between the characters that are daunting but also penetrable. What I mean is this: there needs to be a legitimate something (i.e., disgruntled family members, a war, religious beliefs, etc.) between the characters, but they don’t need to be impossible odds.
For example, in Romeo and Juliet, their families hate each other. This puts any kind of relationship between them on hold—but not impossible. Had the two not run off and gotten married, resulting in their demise, they might have worked things out between their families and everyone would’ve lived happily ever after.
To establish a strong foundation between your characters, you need boundaries that deserve respect (as in, something better than a petty family feud) and odds that can be overcome (preferably without death or destruction). This way, you can sympathize with characters that feel undermined by rules or limitations and rejoice when they move past them. Perhaps your hero and heroine make peace between rival families or nations, or unite different people over a common goal. Instead of making a mess of things, they’ve mended brokenness and you have written a story that will inspire!
The Love Triangle
Description: the protagonist is torn between two love interests. It’s usually a girl and two guys—in which case, you have a bad boy or enemy vs a friend/ally—but sometimes you’ll stumble across a love triangle the other way around.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Unblemished by Sara Ella
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Y’all, I think we can all agree that the love triangle is one of the most popular romantic plot tropes of all time. In some stories, like the ones mentioned above, it’s pretty obvious, whereas in others, it can catch you unawares or even be unintentional. Sometimes, it makes for one of the dumbest stories you’ve ever read, and others it only serves to make the story better.
What’s great about the love triangle, making it one of the most creative tropes out there, is that you can combine it with one or more other romance tropes. Like I mentioned in the description above, oftentimes two members of the triangle represent a different trope, or the love triangle can take the face of both itself and the forbidden love trope.
It sounds easy, but most authors don’t recognize the one thing a love triangle requires to make it perfect: mystery. To make it simpler, I’ll examine two different types of well-done love triangles and show you how a sprinkle of mystery and suspense makes the trope unique and exciting every time.
#1 The Unsolvable Triangle
One thing I—and the vast majority of the public—dislike about love triangles are how obvious they are. I mean, of course Jane won’t fall for Harry because he’s a two-timing jerk, and of course James didn’t betray her because he’s working for the good king. It’s no surprise when the ending arrives and only one character is chosen to pursue a romantic relationship with the protagonist—after all, their motives have been clear from the start and the author has built the entire six-book series up to this. By this point, we’re all bored out of our minds and some of us have already stopped reading because we’re tired of the inauthentic relationships. Am I right?
There’s only one way to hold a reader’s attention, and that’s by keeping them guessing.
One of my all-time favorite series is the Unblemished trilogy by Sara Ella. I’m not one to devour YA fantasy, but this trilogy captivated me! From the first few chapters, one thing was apparent—this was a love triangle. I was both terrified and intrigued, uncertain if the author could pull it off.
Suffice it to say, she did. But how?
She kept me guessing. I never knew if the heroine, El, would end up with Josh (her best friend) or Ky (the sarcastic enemy-turned-ally). It seemed plausible that she could end up with one or the other, since they both sincerely cared about her and were pretty loveable guys. Of course, all the readers (myself included) had our preference, so some of us weren’t surprised when the ending arrived.
My point? Pour as much of your heart and soul into the character who isn’t The One as you do the character who is. Give him a soul, fears and dreams, a story. Don’t make him (or her) a stock character or an obvious villain. If they are the antagonist, don’t make it as plain as day and then expect your readers to see a romantic relationship blossom between them and the protagonist.
With a trilogy, you have a lot more room for character growth. Just like Sara Ella utilized her three books to establish firm relationships between her heroes and heroine and develop all three characters, you can use your series to your advantage. Even if you’re not writing a series, you should be able to define three main parts to your novel and have your characters develop more with each transition.
Bring both characters to life, so that way it’s not obvious that James up there is The One or a poorly foreshadowed twist when we find out Harry is. Keep your readers guessing.
Kissing Tip #4: Say what you will, but the best way to inspire mixed feelings on both the reader’s and the protagonist’s part is to have two kisses—one from each love interest. But you can’t make Harry’s kiss rough and unfeeling while James’s kiss is tender and sweet. Remember, no one but you knows who the heroine will end up with, so keep it that way by having both kisses be sweet or by mixing things up a bit. Use kisses as Agatha Christie used red herrings in a murder mystery—to make the reader (and Hastings) wonder.
#2 The Unintentional Triangle
What’s the opposite of being the omniscient author?
Having absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
This happened to me when I was writing my second novel, Prisoner at Heart. I began reconsidering who my heroine fell in love with, which was a strange occurrence for me. My doubt only lasted for a few days (I ended up sticking with my original choice), but between my moment of doubt and my book summary, I was able to inadvertently convince a reader that I had written a love triangle.
To be honest, this method really only works if you’re a pantser (like myself), drafting, or writing a series. It’s not something you can plan or expect to happen. Sometimes it just does, so my advice to you would be to roll with it! Even if you only tease a possible relationship for a few chapters, you can still inspire a bit of mystery within your readers—and, better yet, you’ll have the perfect basis to reintroduce that unexpected love interest in their own story one day!
When you devote time and thought to every character, you’ll watch them bloom into vibrant, realistic people before your eyes, and sometimes that even means they’ll take the reins of your story and start writing it themselves. Let them. They’ll surprise you and take your story to new heights.
And sometimes those new heights may be unintentional love triangles that morph into something more over the course of a novel or a series. Who knows—maybe the love triangle from your favorite book was never supposed to be there.
Remember: Your characters aren’t like ones from other books, movies, or TV shows. They’re your characters and they’re unique, so make their story different and engaging. Pay attention to their interactions with each other and deepen their backstory to make their romantic relationship more believable and interesting!
What are some of your favorite romance tropes? Which one(s) are you using in your story? Better yet—what’s your favorite love triangle? (Obviously, mine’s from Unblemished by Sara Ella—you should check it out!)
Originally published on Kingdom Pen.
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