We all have our favorite book and often, a large contributing factor is the relationship tropes within its pages. Whether our hero stumbles upon their first love in chapter one or our protagonist is stuck with their worst enemy, only to fall in love at the end of the book, tropes provide a framework by which to look at relationships.
Many of our favorite authors use relationship tropes as a scaffolding to begin building their characters. The trick is learning how to use relationship tropes well and not in a cliché, that’s-been-done-so-many-times way.
In this article, I explain what relationship tropes are, well-loved relationship tropes, and the clincher, how to write them in such a way that they enhance your writing rather than place it in the pile of what's been done.
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What Is A Relationship Trope?
The word trope is simply a literary term that, in one word, explains that this type of character has been used time and again throughout stories.
Examples of tropes could be the mentor figure (think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings), the supportive best friend (Ron Weasley in Harry Potter), and the cold love interest (Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice).
Tropes have been used so many times because they work well and reflect society.
Many of us have experienced these tropes in our daily lives: The mentor figure is the school teacher, the best friend is…well, our best friend, and the cold love interest is the sixth grade, shy boy we fell in love with as a fifth grader.
Tropes work because they are familiar, but how do we use them in our writing in a new, fresh way?
Well-Loved Relationship Tropes
Below is a list of six relationship tropes that have been used over and over throughout literature. You can likely find these in your favorite movies, TV shows, musicals, and theater productions as well.
As you go through the list, notice the characteristics that make up these tropes, but also take note of ways you can add a new spin on these well-loved characters.
#1 – First Love
Ah, the first love. Whether it happens in grade school or as a teenager, these tropes are so relatable. But how do you write first love relationship tropes with a fresh perspective?
The answer to most writing questions is simple to explain but much harder to execute: Read what’s been done, then come up with your own way to do it differently.
We've all read books of the boy who lived in the same neighborhood for years, desperately crushing on the girl next door. Paper Towns does this well. Quentin’s long-time crush, Margo, finally needs his help in some high-adventure pranks. This story takes a new spin on teenage crushes.
#2 – Enemies To Lovers
Whether it’s the classic Pride and Prejudice or the beloved Katniss and Peeta, enemies to lovers is a long-standing trope.
To find ideas for how to make these relationship tropes more unique, you may want to start by simply reading the above two examples. Set in completely different eras and written in different centuries, these books are prime examples of how to use this trope. Each employs completely different perspectives and cultural norms.
#3 – Unequal Social Status
The trope of unequal social status has been around for ages. This particular trope is a fun one to play around with because there is so much freedom in it. Think of Éponine falling in love with Marius, but the tragic ending. Take a look at the bestselling novel, Redeeming Love.
Both of these novels use the trope of unequal social status. In Les Mis, the trope (for Éponine) ends in tragedy. For the characters in Redeeming Love, the story ends with a happily ever after.
So much can be learned from these two stories: How the trope can be used for happy endings, in tragedy, and even in addition to the love triangle trope (Marius, Éponine, and Cosette).
#4 – Forbidden Love
Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet is a standout example of forbidden love between two young lovers. Again, when considering how to use relationship tropes in a way that is new and exciting, look at what has been done and consider how you can create a new angle.
For Shakespeare, he takes the trope of forbidden love and adds a deeper twist. Love isn’t forbidden because of social constructs such as social class, but neither is it off limits due to a love triangle. For Romeo and Juliet, their love is forbidden because of the overarching theme of their feuding families.
When creating your relationships tropes, ask yourself how your overall plot can play a role in the love lives of your characters.
#5 – Stuck Together
Have you ever had the irrational fear of entering an elevator with a stranger, staring at the ceiling as you make your ascent, and then realizing the elevator is stuck in place? While this may be a fear for some, it is a great jumping off point for romance writers.
No, you don't need to put your characters in a situation as cliché as a broken elevator, but this situation can act as inspiration for your trope.
Try mixing a couple clichés together to create an entirely new circumstance. Start with what’s been done:
- Stranded on an island
- Struggling to survive in a crashed airplane
- Not physically trapped, but circumstantially stuck together
Then add your own twist and see what new perspective you can bring to an age-old trope.
#6 – Love Triangle
Whether you've been in the chaos of a love triangle or simply love writing them, love triangles are a great way to keep tension going throughout the entirety of a book. Love triangles can be one of the most difficult relationship tropes to write because readers often separate themselves into two groups.
Remember “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” back when Twilight first came out? And then of course there’s Peeta and Gale, and David Grantland and Neil MacNeill from the TV adaptation of the 1967 novel, Christy.
When creating your love triangle, make sure to keep your readers guessing. Refuse the urge to overly hint at who will end up with who. Instead, layer in a subtle pros and cons list for each potential to keep reader’s turning pages.
Relationship Tropes: Combine Them
Now that you have a general overview of six relationship tropes, it's time to get writing. Feel free to mix and match various tropes, just as successful authors have done before.
Pride and Prejudice combines enemy to lover and unequal social class. The Hunger Games mixes the love triangle with enemy to lover.
If you still hesitate to know how to get started without being cliché, you may want to consider matching two tropes that do not usually go together. For example, you could mix forbidden love with the trope of enemies to lovers.
What if two individuals were forbidden from pursuing a romantic relationship, but they didn't even like each other to begin with? What would be their character motivations for even speaking to each other? This would add a twist to the story and reveal the character arc of each a bit more deeply.
Ready to take your next step? Give yourself some time to brainstorm today and let us know what you come up with!