Like other unrepentant addicts whose substance of choice is BookTube, I recently perused some vloggers who spoke with varying degrees of passion about tropes they’re sick of seeing in fiction. No two lists of top 5 literary pet peeves was exactly the same, but almost all of them kicked off with a phenomenon known as “The Love Triangle.”
They hate it. Hate everything about it. Wanna kick it in its shins and insult its mother.
I respect that. I have my own fiction tropes I’d cheerfully boil in oil, if I could.
What I understood less completely were the vloggers who both hated tropes of this kind and asked, “Why? Why do authors keep doing this? It’s immature. It’s the lazy persons way of adding tension to the story. Why must authors so relentlessly beat this, of all dead horses?”
I believe I know why the love triangle and 4 other maligned tropes are still in consistent use by writers in a multitude of genres. I would therefore like to share my own top 5 list of awful tropes, the underlying problems that keep those tropes alive, and 2 potential solutions to those problems, starting with – wonder of wonders –
- The Love Triangle. Picture a teenager with few friends to her name and no positive attention from the gender she fancies (there’s no rule that the teenager has to be a “she,” not a “he,” but I have experienced teenage womanhood, so “she” is my default pronoun). In the movies, all awkward girls need is puberty and a makeover to turn them into prom queens. For the real life teen, the makeover does nothing, puberty brings bigger (perceived) pimples than boobs, and the boys she likes can’t even be troubled to give her meaningless sex. “No thank you,” they say. “We don’t want girls who want us. We have too much tunnel vision for the objects of our own affection who want nothing to do with us.” Now, send that girl to a new school, college, workplace, or vacation destination where the boys’ priorities are different, and she gets attention from 2 dudes at once. Is it immature to lead them both on? You bet it is. But the girl may to do it anyway, ’cause guess what: She’s immature! And if you spend your first couple decades with no positive male attention then suddenly get lots of it, you hate to turn any of it down. The dreaded love triangle is wish-fulfillment for persons who have never been in demand before and haven’t thought through the consequences of that particular brand of getting “too much of a good thing.”
- The asshole with the pretty abs and tendencies toward physical or psychological abuse. Loneliness is lonely, and love-starved humans measure attention on an absolute scale. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s also good. Also, abusers make for nice, dramatic reads, and if your goal is to keep readers turning the pages, that kind of drama will often do the trick.
- The “maybe I can change him” girl. Often but not always found proximal to the asshole with the pretty abs, “I can change him” girl is fantasy fulfillment for the end of her tryst with with the bad boy. 20 chapters of torrid, awesome sex, and then what? We tolerate a certain amount of badness in bad boys. Once they become bad men, we send them to jail or marry the bastards and make our lives a living hell. If your romantic fantasies involve a bad boy, and romance must end happily (I hear from experts that to qualify as romance, it indeed must end happily), she either has to ditch the asshole with pretty abs and find someone better or marry the asshole whose fictional nature will allow him to be redeemed because… fiction. I’m looking at you, Mr. Rochester!
- World-rocking first time sex, especially for virgins. I personally despise this trope more than the love triangle and the asshole with the pretty abs because when I first started having sex, and my world remained 100% un-rocked, I thought there was something wrong with me. Some gentle hints that virgins are rubbish in bed and that I should not to expect miracles right away would have helped me a lot in my twenties, but I get why that message is not prevalent in most genres of fiction. Comical sex is for old pros and their partners who have a great sense of humor about their bodies. Unsatisfying sex is for people who don’t really like sex and can’t wait for the scene to be done. Neither falls into conventional categories of romantic fantasies, so world-rocking first time sex it is!
- The empty shell heroine who “isn’t like other girls,” either in her own estimation or that of the hunky male protagonist. Of all the items on this list, this one raises my blood pressure the most. Too frequently, when the author invites the reader to superimpose herself onto the empty shell heroine, the male protagonist proceeds to use the same tactics a sexual predator uses to lure in his victim to emotional ruin. No joke. A lot of predators seek out the victim who looks remarkably like Bella Swan from that first Twilight movie: few close friends, the posture of someone with zero confidence, and clothes that suggest she’s either ashamed of her body or does not know how to dress like a girl her age customarily dresses. The predator then looks closer to see if she checks off other boxes on his list, like feeling rejected by others or compulsion to self-sacrifice for / allow herself to be dominated by people she cares about. Bonus points if she has a past or a current unhappy relationship. Every time she compares new dude to that other nit-wit, he’ll look like Sir Galahad. Then, all you have to do is pay her a little attention and make her feel special, and she’ll follow you anywhere until such time as you get bored with her and give her the brush off (one predator of mine unfriended me on Facebook to let us know we weren’t an item anymore). These awful tricks are used over and over again because everyone has felt rejected and everyone wants to feel special, so the predator-like romance persists in fiction. And in real life.
That’s the end of my list, but it’s not the end of the problem. All 5 of these unfortunate fiction happenings have their roots in one, basic marketing principle: Women with low self-esteem are good for the economy. We have whole industries dedicated to making our girls feel bad about themselves so they can buy products thereafter to make them feel better: make-up, jewelry, perfume, lingerie, hair removal, hair regrowth, diet pills, cosmetic surgery…say when.
Millions of people would have no jobs if women liked themselves, so we are programed from an early age to think we’re crap if we don’t have the right product to enhance the arbitrary attribute du jour without which we will never be accepted, included, or loved.
Isn’t capitalism fun?
Our fiction reflects a deeply-ingrained lack of self worth in our girls and women grown, and fiction will continue to reflect that unless 2 things happen:
1) We program our daughters to think glass ceilings are for other girls. Don’t get me wrong. Female empowerment has come a long way, and we as mamas and daughters have always done the best we could for each-other. But can you imagine the things they could read, write, invent, promote, and change if they weren’t told what they couldn’t do by fools who have a financial interest in making them feel small?
2) If if we as readers raise our standards, the authors will meet them. I say this to empower readers, not to blame them, because lots of authors love their readers and want badly to write books that make them happy. I don’t know if Penguin Random House hears the tortured pleas of a readership sick of the same old tropes, but the indie publishers do. So do the self-pub crowd. When I worked trade shows, more often than not, it was on behalf of a wee Kentucky publishing house whose proprietor’s kids did not eat if she was not sensitive to the tastes of her readers. If more than one customer complained we had no cookbook in our lineup, we had a cookbook in our lineup the following year. I don’t know if we ever found a historical fiction title that tickled our fancy, but when multiple customers asked for it, we made historical fiction part of our acquisitions list. If you’re a reader who’s sick to death of the tropes above, and you (constructively) let authors know what they could be doing better, some of them will listen and write better books for the world and you to enjoy.
That’s all I got for you, today. As always, if you think I got it right or wrong, leave a comment or ask me questions. They make me smarter.
Until next time, be kind to yourself and your home girls in the sisterhood, or by and by, future generations will forget how its done.
G’bye for now.