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Clichés to Avoid -- Or Reconstruct
by Anne Marble
While romance novels aren't always as clichéd as their critics claim, there are still some clichés that linger. Just because something is clichéd, that doesn't mean it won't sell -- many of these clichés can be found on the new arrival shelves. However, by avoiding the clichés, or at least revitalizing them, you can write a richer, fresher book, and give your book a better chance at succeeding.
The Evil Other Woman
The Evil Other Woman (E.O.W.) is a species that shows up in all genres of romance, and in settings both contemporary and historical. As you might guess, she is often the former (or in some cases current!) mistress of the hero, or failing that, she is an acquaintance or employee of the hero who secretly lusts after him. The E.O.W. is prone to fits of jealousy, and when the heroine steps into the picture, the E.O.W. extends her claws and attacks. In many books, the E.O.W. even creates the contrivances that drive the hero and the heroine apart.
Are there ways to make the E.O.W. trope new and fresh? Well, why does she have to be evil all the time? After all, what does it say about the hero if he consistently dates (or hires) evil women? Surely he should have better taste than that, not to mention common sense. Also, keep in mind that many readers hate the E.O.W. cliché because the E.O.W. is so frequently presented as a strong, assertive woman, while the heroine is meek and unassuming. To see what a great writer can do with a potentially clichéd character, read Anne Stuart's To Love a Dark Lord. In that book, Lady Barbara Fitzhugh appeared to be the mistress of the hero, but the truth is much more complex, and thus makes a better story.
The Evil Ex-Wife
A subspecies of the Evil Other Woman is the hero's evil ex-wife. In most books, she is no longer on the scene. Like Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, she may even be dead. However, she still influences the plot because she was an evil manipulative grasping nasty (get the picture?) woman who made the hero's life miserable. In return, the hero trapped in this cliché returns the favor by making the life of the heroine miserable. His ex-wife was evil, so all women must be evil, and he must remind the poor heroine of this at every turn.
But wait! Rebecca was a classic. So what sets most of these books apart from Rebecca? Well, for one thing, while Max DeWinter is haunted by his marriage, he doesn't hate all women because of his experience with Rebecca. Though he and his wife sometimes have their share of tense moments, he doesn't spend the entire novel accusing her of having an affair with his estate manager, Frank Crawley. Like Daphne Du Maurier, inject your heroes with inner strength, common sense, and personality. That way, they will be people both your heroines and your readers can easily fall in love with.
Romance heroes and heroines can face nasty, evil relatives ranging from manipulative overbearing mothers to avaricious stepbrothers. It's hard to imagine how they can cope with living in such dysfunctional families, yet they put up with these Relatives from Hell for years, or at least until they end up in the plot of a romance novel. Most unbelievable of all are the heroes and heroines who have lived with these evil relatives for all their life and yet never realized they were greedy, deceitful, or even psychotic. That smacks of the TSTL (too stupid to live) character.
Evil relatives can be a powerful part of a romance plot. A heroine who is bullied or coerced by a greedy relative can quickly gain read sympathy -- we all understand what it feels like to be in that position. However, relatives who exist for nothing else but to make the plot move along and have no personality are like empty boxes of chocolate -- they look great until you realize there's nothing inside. Ask yourself if your evil relatives have to be so very evil. In real families, good people clash, but that doesn't mean that one side or the other is necessarily evil. Even if you decide to put evil relatives in your story, that doesn't mean they can't be interesting. Evil relatives deserve love, too.
The Country Mouse Theme
This is a cute name for an often annoying story -- one that is very prevalent in series romances. Almost always, it goes like this: The heroine lives in the city, but she visits the country and meets the rough-hewn hero. He, of course, thinks all city women are vain and weak and scared of horses, but she proves herself by working on his ranch/farm/feed lot. Eventually, she learns to like the country (or small town), and he learns that she is nothing like his ex-wife, who deserted him for the big city the moment she got dust on her black pumps.
There are several reasons this plot often falls flat, and many of them involve big misunderstandings. On top of that, these stories are rarely about the true version of rural America. They are, instead, about a pastoral wonderland where the neighbors are either cute, eccentric yokels or cruel gossips. They never acknowledge the real problems of modern day rural life, and to make matters worse, "city folk" are also painted with a broad brush.
So does that mean you can't write stories with this plot? Not at all. However, be aware of what has been done before. Put your own touch on those "country mouse" stories. Do you like living in the country? Then present a truer picture of rural life. Do you prefer the city? Then consider writing a "country mouse" story in reverse, where the hero moves to the big city and learns to fit in.
The Naive Virginal Heroine
As the novels of Diana Palmer will attest, there are still fans of na•ve, virginal heroines. However, many readers are getting fed up with this type of character. So what's wrong with the virginal heroine? Like so many other clichés, what's wrong is that these heroines are so prevalent and often so alike. These heroines are often virgins not because of a moral choice but because they were burned by a bad relationship. Just as bad are the "near virgins" -- heroines who had sexual experiences but never enjoyed it until the hero came along.
If you want to write about a virginal heroine, then do so. Many readers will be grateful. However, avoid the trap of making her innocent of sexuality, sweet, adorable, and kind to animals on top of that. Virgin or not, a contemporary heroine should be aware of her body -- after all, we live in an era where sex can kill. Even in the past, most women were aware of the physical aspects of sexuality, unless they were extremely well sheltered. Also, try to give your heroine a better reason for retaining her virginity.
The Duke of Slut
The Duke of Slut is a term coined at All About Romance (http://www.likesbooks.com/49.html) for that hero who has, ahem, been around the block a few times. He is usually paired with the na•ve virginal heroine. Because in true cliché form, although he has known nothing but harlots, only the na•ve virginal heroine can tame him. Suddenly, the rakish hero can no longer enjoy the pleasures of philandering, so he settles down with that one special woman.
This story line wouldn't seem so bad if the heroes were believable. Often, it's hard to accept that these heroes are ready to reform or that, if they did decide to settle down, they would do so with a virginal heroine. Some aren't even believable as rakes. Some aren't even true rakes, giving rise to the term "the fake rake" -- the hero who was unfairly classified as a reprobate. This is not to say that heroes can't be experienced. Rakish heroes who reform are extremely popular, in both historical and contemporary romances. These stories can be quite complex, as in Mary Balogh's The Notorious Rake, Carla Kelly's Reforming Lord Ragsdale, or Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold. Readers also love charming rakes such as the heroes in Stephanie Laurens' popular Bar Cynster series.
The Will Stipulation
All too often, the hero and heroine of a romance novel are thrown together because of a stipulation in the will of a well-meaning relative, usually in an attempt at matchmaking behind the grave. They are often forced to marry, or forced to work together, or forced to manage a business together. If they fail, the inheritance will go to an undeserving relative. However, readers tend to roll their eyes at this contrivance -- especially when it's used in contemporary novels. Many readers are finding it harder and harder to believe that a relative would write a will with such a stipulation.
Many popular books use will contrivances, such as Rachel Gibson's Truly, Madly Yours (a contemporary romance) and Courting Julia by Mary Balogh (a Regency romance). Will stipulations can be a fun way to push characters together. However, instead of a will stipulation, why not find another way for matchmaking relatives to push them together? For one thing, relatives don't have to be dead to turn into matchmakers, and living relatives working behind the scenes can make more interesting characters than dead relatives working from beyond the grave.
Just like soap operas, romance novels also have their fair share of amnesia plots. These are particularly popular in series romance, although they appear in other subgenres as well, from historical romances to romantic suspense. There's only one problem -- amnesia has turned up so often in romances that some readers think there's an amnesia virus on the loose in romance novels. Also, most romance novel cases of amnesia are about as unrealistic as the episode of The Addam's Family where Gomez lost his memory after being clubbed on the head.
Amnesia can be a powerful story line, and indeed, there have been some great romances with this plot. For example, Uncommon Vows by Mary Jo Putney and Until You by Judith McNaught. Before writing a book with an amnesia plot, ask yourself what the draw of this type of plot is, and then make sure you can bring that element to your story. Many readers love amnesia plots because they bring to life the fantasy of making love for the first time all over again. In romantic suspense, amnesia plots can help make the heroine's dilemma even worse. How does she know whom to trust if she can't even remember her own name?
The Silly Big Misunderstanding
I mentioned this in more detail in the article Don't Treat Your Characters Like Puppets. Just as is true in real life, characters can have misunderstandings. How they deal with them can decide whether your novel is an emotionally wrenching read or a manipulative one. If your big misunderstanding can be unraveled with a brief discussion, then your plot might have some holes in it. Ask yourself an important question: Are your characters flesh and blood, or are they made of an old sock with plastic eyes glued on?
A Final Note
If you spend a lot of time looking at the romance bookshelves of your local store, you will find a lot of these clichés. In fact, you will find some of them in spades. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, just because a plot is a cliché, that doesn't mean no one wants to read it anymore. However, don't use this as a reason to write your own amnesiac virginal heroine on the ranch book, unless you can make it new and vital. For one thing, your readers deserve better. For another, by the time you finish that book and send it off to publishers, another cliché might be the bee's knees.
Copyright © 2003 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
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