In my class on Writing Romantic Comedy last week, we discussed recognisable tropes, and when they were comforting and when they veered into stereotype.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a trope. Give me a ‘hate-to-love’ romantic pairing, forced to share a room with only one bed in the middle of a storm in December – I will read the heck out of that.
But what about the romantic tropes that haven’t aged well? How do we walk the line between what romance is, calling out bad behaviour and not writing ‘woke’ characters just for the sake of it?
I guess it’s about perspective.
I’ll give you two examples:
There’s this guy who is head over heels for this girl, but she doesn’t know he exists. He goes back to the coffee shop she works at a couple of times a week, just hoping to get the chance to talk to her, and even if he doesn’t, just to see her smile and laugh with her colleagues makes his day feel a little brighter. He teases her, and she always bites back with something sarcastic, he takes it as a good sign. She might not realise he’s been trying to ask her out for the last three months, but he’s hoping eventually she’ll realise.
There’s this guy who is head over heels for this girl, but she makes him feel like he doesn’t exist. He goes back to the coffee shop where she works every day, he’s memorised the times she starts and ends her shift, eager to get to talk to her. He waits until she’s finished work and locking up, because he wants to talk to her alone, without any of her stupid colleagues who always stop him from talking to her, or insist on taking his orders instead. She flirts with him, she smiles and nods when he makes jokes, so she must be interested. She’s said no every time he’s asked her out, but he’s just not asking the right way, clearly. When he does, he’s sure she’ll say yes.
There’s a distinct difference there, right? At least, I hope so! The first one is how I met my soon-to-be husband. The second is the start of some creepy stalker story.
The difference? Misreading signals and ignoring the word ‘no’.
With so much focus on consent and power, along with a big focus in fiction right now on emotionally abusive relationships (See: Our Stop, The Flatshare, How Do You Like Me Now?) it’s important to remember to represent a good kind of love (if that’s what your story is about). If your romance is unhealthy, it’s going to be hard to get behind. Just because your leading man is hot, doesn’t mean he’s not a creeper.
A good way to check this is to see if the same dialogue and actions could be carried out by someone you didn’t consider an attractive male lead – does it still seem dominant and appealing, or does it seem forward and creepy?
There are so many of these actions in older books, films and TV that just don’t hold up now – look at so many of John Hughes movies. Getting a girl drunk and swapping her for a different girl with some guy. Making a deal in return for a girl’s underwear. Inappropriate touching without consent.
There’s so much creepy stuff that we just kind of accepted as part of the story. Luckily, I’d say we have a much higher level of expectation for what’s acceptable in life as well as on screen, but that means your story has to keep up.
Is your male lead strong and attractive, or is he bullying and obsessive? Is he rude and teasing, or is he negging? Is your female lead giving into her own desire, or is she being manipulated?
Consider whether the kind of relationship you’re giving your main characters is one you’d want your kids to be in. If it seems like an epic romance for your character, but if your daughter bought that dude home you’d kick him five ways to Sunday, it’s not woke enough.
What do you think, do writers have a responsibility to write good romance? Are there any examples of good or bad romantic relationships that have made you pause?