A romance trend I wish would die.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t put books down.

Really, I don’t.

But I did last Friday. It was a romance, and I had almost reached 50% when I gave up on it. The last straw isn’t something I’m going to discuss, since I think it’s specific enough that people might recognize the book, and I just don’t do that.

I will, however share what had me laboring through a few hundred pages for eight freaking hours on a public holiday.

Conflict. See conflict to a writer is supposed to be something that keeps a main character from achieving his/her goal. When it comes to pure romance, it’s about what’s keeping the characters apart. Sometimes, it’s something like either the hero (MMC) or heroine (FMC) being engaged, or them wanting opposite things in life, or one just not possibly imagining that the other could be a suitable spouse/partner/whatever.

With the latter, it’s usually about one or both of the characters being magnificent assholes/bitches. (Think Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give or Sandra Bullock in The Proposal. Or my personal favorite: Harrison Ford in Sabrina.)

Now rule of thumb is that the more hard-assed and untameable the character, the sweeter the happy ending. And time and time again I have seen people simply taking this rule at face value and abusing it. Which often takes the form of the “Happy Ending” being with someone who’s either almost or fully abusive. This is particularly prevalent in the falling for the alpha male trope.

The argument could be made of “what message is this sending to the reader”, but as is very well documented on my blog, I don’t believe in moral preaching in my writing. As such I won’t expect it from others.

I do, however have a major issue with writers abusing that rule for one season and one reason alone:

Suspension of disbelief.

Any fictional story, no matter how realistically written, requires for a reader to suspend disbelief. With romance, this is incredibly important because the reader must want to believe that two characters will be together. Because unlike most other genres, this goal is usually not decided on by the characters. (The opposite, in fact.) It’s all in the reader’s mind.

So if one of the characters in the prospective couple is an asshole (since I mentioned the alpha male, the character will be male. This is the same for female characters too, though), the writer has an additional problem. She/he will have to engage people in the asshole enough for the readers to want him to end up with the FMC. And then, the readers must believe that the FMC would be happy with him. 

This can be done in a variety of ways. First, by showing the reader that there are other sides to him. That there’s more to him than the hard-assed exterior. (And even if there is, nothing excuses him from remaining an ass towards the FMC in the end. I repeat: NOTHING.)

The second (and I admit a preferable way) is for the character to go through a growth arc before the get-together in the end. Note the three movies I mentioned above all have this happening.

But in no shape or form is half-way the place to start with this. If it’s half-way into a romance and I as the reader would reverse over a character if I hypothetically hit him/her with a car, there’s something seriously wrong. And if I get to the end and the character has nothing redeeming him (hot sex doesn’t count), the writer of that book has essentially betrayed the trust required for suspension of disbelief. Because 1) I don’t want the FMC to spend the rest of her life with and asshole because 2) I can’t imagine her life being happy for long because of it.

So please please please, romance authors. Throw us readers a bone. Let us actually like the characters as much as you do?

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21 thoughts on “A romance trend I wish would die.

  1. I had never thought of this problem arising in romance before, but maybe because I don't read enough of it! I see your point, though. Someone isn't going to undergo a massive turnaround at the very end of a story, and if they did it would be pretty hard to believe – we want to see this happening gradually and root for them to change, no matter what genre.

  2. That did always bother me about romance. The dark hero had to at least have a soft side or we wouldn't relate. And he couldn't be mean to the heroine, no matter what he did. Even if he was pushing her away (figuratively), he still had to be likable. It was a fine line to walk…and why I always wrote beta heroes when I wrote romance!

  3. I understand what you mean. I write romance novels and I think this is a great tip for me. Sorry you had to spend so much of your reading time on a asshole character. I would not have been impressed either.

  4. I echo everything you've said, Misha. If the character is an asshole and remains an asshole, I have a huge problem. There has to be a character arc or some redeemable traits by the end. Period.

  5. I've attempted writing romance, but trashed it as I don't have the passion for it, like the mystery/suspense I prefer writing. But I do enjoy a good romance book occasionally. Your post has good points about the reader's expectations and the quality content a writer should deliver.

  6. Well said, Misha…

    I don't write romance, but I do have romantic elements in my second novel, so YES, YES, YES, the jerk must redeem himself/herself in SOME way before he/she gets the significant other…

  7. I think you hit that nail directly on the head. I can't read a book where one half of the couple is an asshole. Why care about an HEA for a person who doesn't deserve one. I could scream when the 'alpha' male is a controlling, jealous stalker type. Who wants to read that?

  8. Excellent post, Misha. Since I write in the romance genre, I'm being told a lot to make my males more alpha, more cocky and aggressive. I'm always careful of not making them too alpha. It does nothing for me, and I don't like to read about those really big jerks. I recently read a book that I had to say in the review I did not like the MMC because he crossed the line as an alpha for me. What's wrong with a nice guy? They can experience conflict just as much as arrogant guys!

  9. Oh great post Misha.

    I do agree with all you've said. The thing with alpha characters though, is that they seem mysterious, driven by darkness, broken and girls, who are supposed to be so very nurturing, have a need to heal him. It's archaic, but appeals to a collective fantasy. Most of us wouldn't touch an alpha in real life, but the satisfaction of falling in love with an alpha who we mend (as the FMC) is more than a more realistic narrative. Sad but true. Saying that, all alphas MUST have a soft side, even if it's only with the FMC, for this to be a successful story. An absolute shit is never going to appeal. And there must be a strong foundation for his dark side/being broken. Pure arrogance coming from a personality defect isn't going to work either. There must be growth, understandable and recognisable change for he reader to empathise and appreciate him as an individual. You mentioned Something's Gotta Give (a huge personal favourite) – I see him as an alpha male whose basically terrified of death, so dates young women to aid his denial of decay. When he breaks this fear, a genuine love is able to grow for Diane Keaton (love that woman) and we 'get' their union. We even understand her preferring him to Keanu (sexy doctor lover).

    shahwharton.com

  10. I've read a couple of romance-ish book, where in my opinion the ending ought to have been the FMC realising she was making a mistake and going off to spend some time alone… It's very possible I haven't fully understood the romance genre 🙂

  11. I've never been a fan of the alpha male. I've never seen those relationships working well. And I second what you said about believability. Too often the author expects us to believe a sudden change of feelings or a crazy plot twist just because it was written down, rather than because they made it realistic.

  12. I totally agree. This reminds me of a comment a dude in my writing group made recently. He said he wouldn't let his daughter watch Beauty and the Beast until she understood Stockholm Syndrome. LOL. Now that story isn't that bad, because the beast does redeem himself, but yeah, sometimes in these stories Stockholm Syndrome seems like the only explanation for the FMC falling for the guy.

  13. Throw us readers a bone, not a boner, to make up for the assholey ways. I've noticed the hot sex thing being used to make up for it, and no, it doesn't work. Once an asshole, always an asshole . . . unless they're a romance book character? Not believable.

  14. Well said, Misha. There is a line between a Flawed Human Being and an Asshole. We like flawed people, because we all are, but no one likes an Asshole.

  15. I don't read a lot of romance because I know the plot before I open the book – girl and guy get together. Not enough of a surprise for me. But yeah, the hero being an asshole would make it worse.

  16. I hate the nice girl going for asshole alpha male formula. Forget about the guy for a minute…the woman is written as a doormat, allowing herself to get abused, over and over, because the sex is so good?!? Really? Does that happen in real life? If so, it's a shallow existence. I would put the book down way before the halfway mark.

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