Clichés are easy. They pop into our heads, and consequently onto the page, so naturally that we hardly even realize it happened. A few years ago I did a whole post listing 101 clichéd words and phrases most of us have heard or read at some time or another.
Today, though, I want to address the kinds of clichés that crop up repeatedly in romance novels. By the way, there’s a fine line between a clichéd plot and a trope. In Tina’s recent post on Classic Romance Tropes, she did an excellent job of explaining a trope as a recurring literary plot device. She also went on to say that without a fresh spin, “a classic romance trope becomes overused and simply a cliché.”
And, to repeat what I wrote in my post mentioned above: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with clichés. They’re just . . . tired. Stale. Overused.”
But romance deserves better, don’t you think? Staleness and lack of creativity lead to boredom—just ask anyone who’s been married for more than 10 or 20 years. Keeping the romantic spark alive requires thought, imagination, and intentionality.
As writers, we need to be just as intentional about bringing freshness and creativity to our story scenes and characters. As we look at this random list of romance novel clichés, be thinking about ways you could give them a new twist.
Romance Cliché #1
Variations on the “Mary Sue” character
(With a nod to Tina for pointing me to this info). Wikipedia defines a “Mary Sue” as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” In other words, a character who seems too good to be true. They don’t make mistakes, they are instantly likable, and never have to deal with unpleasant consequences to their actions.
For another take on the Mary Sue concept, check out this website. And, if you really want to find out whether you’re writing a Mary Sue–type character, there’s even a lengthy test you can take: The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test.
Have you encountered any too-good-to-be-true romance heroes or heroines? One that comes to mind for me is Cassie Nightingale on Hallmark’s The Good Witch movies and TV series. I enjoy the shows, but sometimes Cassie comes across as a teensy too goody-goody know-it-all. Everybody loves her, she’s the town’s go-to girl for advice on just about anything, and honestly, how often has she been wrong or had to deal with unpleasant consequences for things she’s said or done?
Romance Cliché #2
Contrivances to get your hero and heroine alone together
(Thanks to Mary for this one). As Mary (no relation to Mary Sue) points out, it can be morally problematic, especially in Christian fiction, to depict an unchaperoned unmarried couple. Mary says she’s always in search of fresh ways to believably strand her hero and heroine together besides runaway horses and hiding from outlaws. Then there are all the variations on deserted islands, freak snowstorms, and cars breaking down in a teensy little town near an inn with only one room available.
Romance Cliché #3
Naive Christian girl and worldly nonChristian boy
You know the scenario. The sweet, innocent heroine can’t help but be attracted to the amazingly handsome but really, really bad boy who promises all the wild fun and excitement her sheltered life lacks. He steals her innocence, which possibly leads to the “secret baby” cliché or else turns her into a bad girl who must eventually find her way back to redemption.
Or maybe she (another Mary Sue?) resists temptation. Instead, she thinks she can change the bad boy and turn him to the Lord, after which they will marry and live happily ever after.
Romance Cliché #4
Man-haters and/or woman-haters
Another nod to Tina for mentioning those novels where either the hero or the heroine, for whatever reason, just can’t stand the opposite sex and so have sworn off romance forever. Without believable motivation for such out-and-out hatred, there isn’t much basis for story conflict here. And even if the character does have a good reason, it’s probably because of such an awful experience that the character should be in long-term therapy, not bouncing across the pages of a romance novel while complaining endlessly about the opposite sex.
Romance Cliché #5
Then you have the character who has suffered mightily in life and is angry at God. Okay, anyone here never, ever been mad at God about something, however inconsequential? The Psalms are full of laments about pain, suffering, and God’s seeming abandonment. But again, if the situation is that serious, this is a character who needs professional counseling, preferably not from . . .
Romance Cliché #6
The bad pastor
Sadly, there have been plenty of real-life examples of fallen clergy. But in fiction, the “bad pastor” character who falls from grace, intentionally harms another character, or just gives crummy advice ranks right up there with the clichéd cops who bungle investigations in those amateur-sleuth mystery novels. Christian characters, especially clergy, already have a hard enough time being depicted fairly in secular movies and novels. Do we really need contribute to those stereotypes and biased mindsets in our Christian fiction?
Romance Cliché #7
Character achieves riches & fame, then returns to humble roots
Maybe the character started out as a preacher’s kid or was raised in a loving Christian family. But “life beyond” beckoned, and the character left home to follow dreams of fame and fortune. The character hits the big time and in the process loses his/her moral compass. Then a devastating change of circumstances turns the character’s heart toward home . . . and the sweetheart left behind who’s been patiently waiting all this time (yet another Mary Sue?).
Romance Cliché #8
The ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse who shows up causing trouble
So your hero and heroine are starting to grow closer, and in comes the ex-whatever, green with jealousy, plotting to break them up, and generally wreaking havoc on the romance. Whole books and movies have been developed around this premise (think Fatal Attraction), but if you’re using it as just one more way to ramp up sagging story conflict, make sure the ex’s entry onto the scene doesn’t come across as contrived.
Romance Cliché #9
Enemies fall in love
When the hero and heroine are at each other’s throats from the very first page, half the fun of reading the book is to find out how they’ll get past their differences and fall in love. However, sometimes the dispute that’s keeping them at odds is so trivial as to be ridiculous. I mean, can’t they just talk it out and get over themselves? Or else they’re separated by such divisive issues that any kind of resolution just isn’t believable. Another problem with this cliché is that one or both characters can come across as so stubborn or narrow-minded that they’re impossible to like.
Romance Cliché #10
Overused phrases for showing emotion and/or describing a romantic moment
Mary also mentioned how hard it is to come up with a fresh way to show a simple thing like determination. How many times can a character square his shoulders or lift her chin? Then there are those clenched jaws and knotted throats (from Janet), not to mention all the sighing going on in a romance novel. A reference I’ve found helpful, mentioned here in Seekerville before, is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression.
Okay, I will surely step on a few toes here (cliché alert!), but I’m going out on a limb to reveal one particular romance cliché that just gets my goat. It’s gotten to where every time I read a romance novel, my internal radar is just waiting for the moment the author uses the line, “He deepened the kiss.” Other romantic descriptions that risk becoming clichéd if we use them too often: warming her (or his) heart (Cara’s suggestion), running fingers through hair, reaching for her (or his) hand, and a bizarre fascination with accurately describing unique eye color.
What other romance clichés would you add to the list? Let’s be kind and avoid naming specific authors or novels, but feel free to share a general description of any clichéd characters, settings, plot devices, or descriptions you’ve encountered in your reading (or your own writing, if you’re really brave!).
And remember, as I said before, clichés are not inherently bad. We all use them, all the time! As Missy so aptly put it, "We can't de-cliché the voice out of our writing." But each time you catch yourself taking the easy route with a descriptive phrase, character type, or plot device, let this be a reminder to think beyond clichés and keep your writing delightfully fresh and engaging.
To celebrate Myra’s soon-to-be-released Castles in the Clouds, book 2 in her Flowers of Eden series (coming in August), Myra is giving away a copy of book 1, The Sweetest Rain—or, if you’ve already read it, any other of Myra’s published novels. Be sure to mention in your comment if you’d like to be entered in the drawing.
About The Sweetest Rain. As the drought of 1930 burns crops to a crisp, Bryony Linwood dreams of cooling winter snows and the life she would have had if Daddy hadn’t been killed in the Great War and Mama hadn’t moved Bryony and her sisters to their grandfather’s struggling tenant farm in tiny Eden, Arkansas. Now Mama’s gone, too, and as times grow tougher, Bryony will do whatever it takes to ensure her family’s survival.
Michael Heath barely survived the war, and twelve years later all he wants to do is forget. A virtual recluse, his one passion is botanical illustration. Lost in the diversity of nature’s beauty, he finds escape from a troubled past and from his wealthy father’s continual pressure to take an interest in the family plantation.
When Bryony accepts employment at the Heath mansion, it’s just a job at first, a means to ward off destitution until the drought ends and Grandpa’s farm is prosperous again. But Bryony’s forced optimism and dogged determination disguise a heart as dry and despairing as the scorched earth . . . until she discovers Michael Heath and his beautiful botanical illustrations. As their relationship deepens, friendship soon blossoms into healing for wounded souls and a love that can’t be denied.
About Castles in the Clouds. Young and impressionable Larkspur Linwood, aspiring to become a teacher, mistakes a college professor’s interest for romantic love. When he offers her the chance to join his efforts serving at a mission a school in Kenya, she pictures herself bringing the light of knowledge to hundreds of African children eager to learn. But the menial tasks she’s assigned at the school aren’t so different from life on the farm where she grew up. Worse, her fragile heart is broken when she realizes her feelings for the charismatic professor are not returned. Miserable and deflated, she gives up and returns home.
Enter Professor Anson Schafer, whom she met briefly in Kenya. Partially blinded from an eye infection he contracted there, Professor Schafer cannot return to Africa. He has come to Lark’s college to recruit teachers for a more modest venture—the founding of schools here in the U.S. for those struggling through the Depression.
Still stinging from her experience in Kenya, Lark is reluctant to risk more disappointment, but she knows how great the need has become, and—although this isn’t yet the teaching career she’d envisioned—she finally agrees. As they work side by side, Lark begins to realize that the deepest satisfaction comes not so much from what you do, or where you do it, but from the attitude of your heart. She also slowly realizes that the gentle, determined Anson is the true love of her life.
Award-winning author Myra Johnson writes emotionally gripping stories about love, life, and faith. Myra is a two-time finalist for the prestigious ACFW Carol Awards, and her Heartsong Presents romance Autumn Rains (November 2009) won RWA’s 2005 Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance Manuscript. Myra and her husband are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters who, along with their godly husbands, have huge hearts for ministry. Seven grandchildren take up another big chunk of Myra’s heart. Originally from Texas, the Johnsons moved to the Carolinas in 2011. They love the climate and scenery, but they may never get used to the pulled pork Carolinians call “barbecue”! The Johnsons share their home with two very pampered doggies who don’t always understand the meaning of “Mom’s trying to write.”
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