Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “trope” as:
a : a word or expression used in a figurative sense : figure of speech
b : a common or overused theme or device
Romance readers, however, know there is a lot more to the real definition. Tropes can be secret codes, a quick reference point to let us know what kind of story, character, or author to expect, a way to refine our reading palates, and, most of all, a whole lot of fun. How so? Glad you asked.
As the addictive website, TVTropes.org reminds us, tropes are tools. The same as a hammer can be used to build a house or inflict injury, tropes in romance fiction can be used well, or used, well, the opposite. It’s not the tool itself that is effective or not, but the person who wields it. Think of some of your favorite bits in romance novels, the things that make you say “shut up and take my money” as soon as you hear Book X contains one of them. A category romance reader, for example, may be all over anything with a sexy single dad in it, no matter if he’s the richest billionaire on the block, or the hardscrabble rancher down the rural route. His income doesn’t matter. He’s a good dad, who’s loved and lost, and that’s all that matters to this particular reader. They may well stop reading the blurb at the mention of the term, “single dad,” pop that book in their real or virtual shopping cart, and on with the day.
That’s an easy example, that can apply across any genre; category, single title, contemporary, historical, paranormal, inspirational, romantic suspense, m/m, what-have-you. Probably not a lot of single dads in YA (though there are a few) and, if there are any in erotic romance, or outright erotica, hopefully the kiddos are in another room when the grownup funtimes ensue. Depending on the age of the single dad, his offspring may be young adults themselves, though they still probably don’t want to hear too much about dear old dad’s love life, whether that’s with mom or not. Other common favorite tropes can include such fan favorites as plain heroine and hot hero, fairy tale retellings, friends to lovers, second chance at love, and can we talk for a minute about the unusually high number of unmarried thirtysomething dukes in Regency England? Especially those with black hair and blue eyes, who seem to travel in packs? There sure do seem to be a lot of those meandering around romancelandia these days. Why is that?
Probably the same reason we have all those rugged cowboys with hearts of gold, mysterious billionaires looking for love, and vampire clans living along with the rest of the world, frequently falling for mortal women. What reason might that be? Most obvious answer: readers like them. The reason why readers like them is a bit more complicated; we’d have to interview each individual reader to get that answer, and, even then, a good portion of the readers questioned may answer with a shrug and something along the lines of “I don’t know, I just like it,” and that’s good enough.
The heroine, plain or otherwise, who marries one of those Regency (or really, any other era) dukes can usually be assured she’s not going to be wanting for financial security, once she’s married into the highest rank of the peerage, not counting the royal family (and hey, category heroines have been doing pretty darned well with dukes, princes, and even kings of fictional countries, for literally decades.) Nobody tells pirates what to do, to light on another favorite romance staple, and rivals or enemies who become lovers by the end of the book remind us that trying to understand the other person’s point of view can go a long way towards resolving the conflicts in our lives. Let’s go back to that single dad for a moment. If a hero is on his own, with kiddos, and looking for (or at least open to) love, we know that he is both responsible and resilient, and, hopefully, dedicated to making a better life for those he loves.
Many of us have gone into bookstores or libraries, wandered the shelves and pulled out seemingly random books, not knowing what we want, but anything with a favorite trope mentioned in the back blurb is enough to warrant a second book. Meh, not really into Historical Period X at the moment, but heroine disguises herself as a boy? Sold. Marriage of convenience? Gimme. There is a scene where the heroine cleans the hero’s castle that has fallen into disrepair? Bring. It. On. (This is so totally a trope that it isn’t even funny. It is possibly the only way that housework counts as a pleasurable leisure time activity.) Hands up for those of us who have ever discovered a new favorite book, series, or author, merely because of a favorite trope? Not interested in a plumber hero, but wait, he’s actually a merman? Give. Now pour mama a lemonade and go away, because mama’s reading.
Not every trope is for every reader, and for every reader (or non-reader) who turns up their nose at Book Y, because it’s “just” another gender flipped fairy tale retelling, there are more who respond with a knowing smile and a glint in their eye, because they’ve unlocked the code long ago.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you have a favorite trope, one that will get that book into your hands no matter what else may be going on within the pages? Have you ever picked up a book because of a trope, when you would have passed that book right by otherwise? Have you ever seen a favorite trope executed particularly well, or particularly poorly? If you think the whole trope discussion, period, is nothing but a tired old cliché, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.