Tropes are funny things. At their most basic level, they’re narrative devices, and in genre fiction in particular tropes form a fundamental part of what makes a story an example of a particular genre. A science fiction novel isn’t a dystopia without a broken society or corrupt ruler. A fantasy novel isn’t a high fantasy without a chosen one or a world-threatening danger. A good example of this is Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books. The original trilogy is undoubtedly high fantasy – secondary world, magic, a chosen one, a threat to the country and beyond – while Six of Crows is low fantasy; it’s still set in the magical secondary world, but it deals with the trials and adventures of a group of people within that world rather than the trials of the world.
Sometimes tropes are inherently problematic, like the Magical Negro or Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and these should be avoided unless you’re doing a deconstruction or subversion, but for the most part, tropes are impartial building blocks for stories. Whether they’re good or bad in a particular story depends on the execution. Few readers I know express a particular interest in magical boarding schools, but Hogwarts is almost universally loved because of the way Rowling envisioned it.
That’s not to say readers don’t have tropes they like and tropes they dislike. Some readers are partial towards magical boarding schools, while others can’t stand them. And when it’s a trope you like, oftentimes even if the execution is fudged you’ll still enjoy the story. I know I tend to feel this way about chosen one narratives; while nothing compares to a nuanced exploration of unwanted responsibility or the influence of fate, I’ll take a whiny teenager and call it good.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed there’s one glaring exception to this for me: Romance tropes. For a long time, I thought I disliked a lot of these tropes, before reading a stellar example and realising that I actually quite like them, but with caveats. I don’t know if it’s because romance is so common across genres so I’m more likely to come across poor examples of these tropes, or if I’m just really picky, but I find with a lot of the romance tropes I love, I always qualify them with ‘good’, because there are a lot of times I don’t really enjoy them. So I like a good love triangle, a good hate-to-love, or a good forbidden romance, yet often when I see one being set up I mentally groan. Another bloated love triangle taking attention away from the corrupt government – or worse, a love triangle between the ‘nice guy’ and the ‘bad boy’ who disrespects the protagonist’s rights? Another nonsensical romance where I can’t work out why the characters end up in love – or why they hated each other in the first place? Another couple who put their desire for each other above their other obligations?
You could fill a book with my criticisms of these three tropes. At the same time, however, they’re some of my favourite romance tropes. I love it when a protagonist has two competing love interests, both of whom are good people and who represent very divergent paths for the protagonist to take, like Kiaran and Gavin in The Falconer. I love it when a romantic relationship forces characters to grow, turning them from people who were prejudiced against or unfair to one another to a loving couple, like Daniel and Eleanor in Something Strange & Deadly. And I love it when two characters are in love with each other but for very good reasons cannot be together, and they recognise this, like Emma and Julian in Lady Midnight.
It’s rare for me to come across an example of any of these romance tropes and be ambivalent about it. Either it will irritate me to no end and I’ll think the book would be better off without it, or it will be one of my favourite parts of the book. There’s very little in-between.
What about you? Are there particular tropes – or categories of tropes – that you both love and hate, but are never ambivalent about?