The Trouble With Tropes

As a reader of romance, both contemporary and historical, I am completely okay with the use of tropes. What’s a trope? It’s a commonly used literary theme or motif like ‘city girl moves to the country and falls for its native son.’ As Ecclesiastes says “There is no new thing under the sun.” You could even say Shakespeare used tropes. There’s nothing wrong with using a familiar plot to tell a new story. And, I like knowing what I’m getting into before I buy a book. If the author is skilled, the story reads like something entirely new and enthralling, not a rehash of other books.

There are themes and tropes in mass-market fiction that have risen to the level of a sub-genre: mail order bride and cowboy fiction to name two. In the Christian romance market, these tropes and sub-genres are represented as well. And that’s where we get into the trouble. There are tropes we Christian authors should use with caution. Not everything is suitable. Our purpose is not just to sell books, we’re here to spread the Gospel, we’re here to point the lost towards salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to be sure our choices aren’t tripping up baby Christians or leading anyone off the path.

I’m not an example of the perfect writer or reader. I fail…often. I write devotionals that sound great, very wise and thoughtful. And when I read them over I wonder at how God gave me advice to give that I could use myself. Sometimes I need to go back and read them as the audience and not the author. We are all making our way together to the same goal and I hope I can lift others up as I am also carried along. I am not calling out anyone with this, more asking us all to consider that some themes might be best left in mainstream fiction.

One of those is deception, the hero/heroine hiding their true identity for personal gain. Often it’s justified by some fairly noble reason, but it’s still iffy. Infidelity is another, a hero is dating or engaged to someone else before he meets the heroine and breaks up with the first girl to be with the second. Again, it’s usually written as if it was okay because they were only dating, or it was clear the fiancée was flawed in some way. Even if the author has the hero work through his decision it’s often not enough to justify the betrayal of trust.

The billionaire/millionaire trope seems to be appearing more frequently just as it has become popular in mainstream fiction. Being financially secure is one thing, possessing massive wealth is another. We need to be careful that we aren’t writing a depiction of wealth that is not consistent with Biblical teaching. It’s the need for security that money seems to provide that makes this trope so attractive. Wouldn’t it be great to be with a guy who could make all your problems disappear with his wealth/power? I know I’m susceptible to that. I read a lot of Regency romance and in the impoverished governess falling for a duke there’s that appeal of wealth as provision. It’s a a concern because God’s providence is the only real security we should cling to. It’s the only real security that exists and it doesn’t guarantee us a life free from trouble or want. It guarantees us we’re in His hands.

I know some may read this and call me a big ol’ killjoy. Or they may say Christian Romance used to be sicky-sweet stories of perfect characters and a lot of moralizing and now it’s more like the real world. If you read my books you know that I write about flawed characters and real-world challenges. I am definitely not suggesting we all stick to depicting perfect Christians in sanitized situations. Rather, I want to challenge us to think seriously about the tropes and themes we use when writing. We can’t help being influenced by the culture we live in, but we need to recognize what in that culture is objectionable and reject it, not let it mold our opinions and choices. We have to be discerning in the media we consume and in what we create. God uses us, imperfect as we are, to reach those in need of salvation. We can’t let anything get in the way of that.

In writing this, I’m challenging myself too, both as a reader and as a writer. When I’m stressed, which is all the time lately, I tend to read anything that offers an escape. I know I’d do better to read what would enrich my soul, rather than distract my brain. Something I need to work on is finding a balance in the chaos of life. The book I’m in the middle of writing has been giving me fits because due to the stress mentioned above, there’s a whole lot of escapism that isn’t serving the plot. I think it’s me self-soothing which makes for bad fiction. It’s hard to write when life is throwing a lot at you and I need to spend more time praying before hitting the keyboard.

Are you in the midst of a challenge too? Let me know in the comments what you’re struggling with and how that impacts what you read or write. What could you use prayer for? You can also let me know what tropes you love and would like to see more of. What’s underrepresented in Christian Romance? Thanks for reading! Blessings to all.

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