Romance tropes are fabulous, truly delightful, and awesome. Yeah, I know, that sentence sounds over-the-top silly, but it’s true. And it’s not just romances. Tropes exist in all stories, and it is part of what we love about them. And when I say all stories, I mean all stories, from cartoons to scripture. Really.
And I may be biased (definitely biased), but I think romance tropes are especially fun. For one, there are bazillions of them. And for two, you can mix and match them to your heart’s content.
What are some of the most common romance tropes?
Some of the most popular involve the basic set-up of the entire story. Here is a list of some the them. Do keep in mind that not all romances are between two people (of whatever sex), but also can be between more than two people depending on the sub-genre. Most of these tropes listed below imply two-person romances, which are by far the most common, but they can be adapted to more than two. So when you see “couple,” you can substitute “throuple,” “reverse harem,” etc., depending on your sub-genre preferences. I am easily confused and can’t keep more than two people in mind at one time, and that is the reason I have listed them as couples.
- Friends to Lovers: Two people who start off as friends end up as a happy romantic couple.
- Enemies to Lovers: two people who start off as enemies end up as a happy romantic couple.
- Second Chance: two people who were a couple, and then were not, end up as a happy romantic couple.
- Secret Baby: a subset of second chance. They were a couple, and then they were not, one doesn’t know there is baby (for what I hope are obvious reasons, the one who doesn’t know is usually a man), and they end up a happy romantic couple.
- One Night Stand with Consequences: two people have a one night stand, the consequences usually show up nine months later, and they end up as a happy romantic couple.
- Forced Proximity: two people are going to be stuck together (think snowed in, stuck in an elevator, in the same shelter during the zombie apocalypse, etc.) and end up as a happy romantic couple.
- Forced Marriage/Marriage of Convenience: two people get married who are not in love and end up a happy romantic couple.
- Fake Relationship: two people who are not in a relationship pretend to be in one and end up a happy romantic couple.
- Hidden Relationship: for some reason they have to hide their relationship, and that almost forces them apart, and they end up a happy romantic couple.
- The Wager: someone bets someone else that they can’t pick up the eventual partner, they do, then the partner finds out, but they end up a happy romantic couple. Variation: the wager is between the main characters, and one or the other is prize of the wager, and they end up a happy romantic couple.
Do all romance tropes set up a whole story?
Nope. Some add other familiar dimensions. For example, some tell us about the main characters’ temperaments or professions.
- Opposites Attract: the main characters are very different from each other in ways that would seem to make them an unlikely couple.
- Grumpy and Sunshine: One character is grumpy (usually, but not always, a man) and the other is all sunny and bright (usually, but not always, a woman). Yes, this a version of opposites attract, but it is such a very beloved trope, it deserves its own category. How popular? Look that opening novel in a bunch of different romance series and see how many are grumpy and sunshine. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
- Royal/Billionaire: one of them is a royal or a billionaire, and this is such a universal fantasy, that it is slipping from trope to actual sub-genre.
- Celebrity: very similar to the above, but one of them is a movie star/rock star/sports star, etc. Again, a pretty universal fantasy.
- Forbidden Love: two people not allowed to be together. Think Romeo and Juliet, but they get a happy ending, because it literally wouldn’t be a romance novel if they didn’t.
- Sibling’s Best Friend: this is sort of along the lines of forbidden love, but a very specific one that is apparently a big fantasy for some. Apologies my brother’s friends when we were growing up, but this one isn’t a fantasy of mine. It is, however, a trope many romance readers adore.
- Protector: one of them is a protector of some kind. Could be military (practically a sub-genre in romance), police, firefighter, bodyguard, martial arts master, etc. Someone with big-time physical protector skills.
- Virgin: one is a virgin and the other isn’t. One is going to teach the other.
- Age Gap Romance: one is significantly older than the other.
Are those the only Romance tropes?
Not even close. Not even in the same zip code as close. Those aren’t even the only categories of tropes. There are hundreds, probably thousands more tropes, and as far as I know, no one has created a comprehensive list that people generally agree on. The fact that there are so many, and that so many of them cross genres, is part of what makes them so fun. They are familiar enough that they give us a sense of what is to come, but are broad enough that we can still be surprised on every single page while we read.
Do romance tropes only show up one at time?
They can show up one at a time, but often they show up in all sorts of delightful combinations. And they can be turned on their heads. Take Princess Leah from Star Wars. Not only is she royal, but she is a damsel in distress (yep, you know that trope), but she doesn’t sit around. She grabs a blaster and becomes a self-rescuing princess. I love a good self-rescuing princess, and so do a lot of other romance readers.
In my novel Devil in Our Hearts, you will find a forced marriage, virgin hero, and another one I won’t mention because it would be a spoiler. Yes, some tropes have to do with endings. I am beta-reading a friend’s novel right now that is an age gap romance, set in an exotic locale (yep, you know that trope, too), and while I am just starting it, it seems like it maybe a bit of a forced proximity, as well. The combinations are both endless and endlessly fun.
Aren’t tropes lazy and not very creative?
I will forgive you for asking. Eventually. Was Shakespeare lazy and not very creative? Would you like me to list some of the tropes he used? Royals, forbidden love, enemies to lovers, opposites attract, forced marriage, and I am just getting warmed up. Shakespeare wasn’t even writing romances. Ok, in that era, comedies ended up with everyone getting married (as opposed to everyone getting dead in tragedies) so he kinda sorta started tending toward romances in some cases.
Tropes are everywhere. In my grad school days I attended a history conference where an eminent historian warned about taking old stories at face value because they used tropes to make information relate-able and memorable, even if things didn’t happen exactly like the author portrayed it. Tropes like they-met-someone-at-a-well-in-an-oasis. Yes, that used to be a trope. Not heavily in use today, but read old stories from any desert region, including a lot of scripture from various faiths, and there it is, waving hello to you.
Do writers always think in tropes?
Some do it intentionally, some do it accidentally, but most humans, not just writers, think in tropes of some sort even if they aren’t aware of it. Where do we assume people chit-chat at work? The water-cooler. Trope. Where do powerful business leaders work each day? The corner office. Trope. It’s how human brains work, so why not have fun with it?
What are some more romance tropes?
Tropes are everywhere, and luckily, lists of them are, too. Here is one list of 150 romance tropes. I think the author doubles up a bit, but what is a separate trope and what is a variation of a trope is in the eye of the beholder, so who the heck am I to say they miscounted? Here is another that talks a bit about how tropes are used in romance in addition to listing them.
What are your favorite romance tropes? I have been playing around with a bunch as I plot out my current series, set during the Seven Years War/French and Indian War/Great War for Empire (all names for the same war, and they are all “accurate,” except it lasted more than seven years, so that name is annoying). What romance tropes, or more general tropes, should I consider including? What are some of your favorites? Ones you hate? Please share in the comments below!