Thursday, December 2, 2010

Enough Trope to Hang Myself

by Cara McKenna

It occurred to me the other day while my alter ego was finishing a new romance submission that I've written quite a few stories in the past couple of years. I ticked them off in the shower and discovered that I have in fact finished fourteen novellas and novels, ten of which sold, one that I'm polishing up to sub, one that's on one of my benevolent editors' desks, and two single title romances that I shall deal with whenever it is I get off my ass and go to work tricking some pitiable agent into representing me.

Now that I've completed fourteen stories, I've begun noticing patterns in my own writing. I'm a long way from having my oeuvre analyzed by genre bloggers ("Haven't you noticed, her heroines are always orphans!"), but I am rather self-analytical (all the best narcissists are) so I'll do the job myself.

What exactly are my tropes? Though a freshman writer I may be, I can already pick out the themes and elements that crop up again and again in my stories. I'm not talking the super-standard ones—naturally, my men are tall and hung, with few exceptions. We are residents of Romancelandia, after all. But allow me to pinpoint my less universal tendencies. And of course I invite all my fellow writers to share their own favorite tropes, and readers to share those of their favorite authors. For all their bad press, tropes are fun. (And I use the term "trope" in a more narrow, personal sense here; devices and elements repeated by an author, if not necessarily across the genre.) And contrarily enough, I believe pet story elements are part of what makes authors and their stories unique. Whorls in our indiviudal fingerprints, repeating themselves but also making us identifiable.

Anyhow, I'll own mine:

1. My characters drink. Alcohol use appears in every single one of the manuscripts I have completed. Not only that, but only two of those books don't contain a bar scene. In fact two of my books take place in the wilderness, yet they both manage to feature bar scenes. And three of my books are set in bars! Granted two of those are in the same series, but still. Thirsty much, Cara?

2. I like men with accents. Don't we all, I hear you asking? Allow me enumerate said accents: New Zealand (3), Southern/Cajun (3), British, specifically Northern (2), French (1), Australian (1), Scottish (1), Bostonian (1). That leaves a handful of outnumbered, generically accented American men.

3. I'm weak on the ethnicity front. Writing stories with main characters of non-Caucasian flavors makes me nervous enough that I haven't tackled it. Yet. I passionately maintain that people of all colors are equally foxy, but something in me fears I'll "get it wrong" if I try to create an authentically African- or Latino- or Asian-American, etc. Funny how I never worried I'd get it wrong when I wrote books about straight men being corrupted by other not-quite-so-straight men…like I know anything about that! Like I know what it's like to work in any of the professions I give my characters. Still, I've got a little block on the racial front. So I tend to write my share of mixed-race characters instead. Half-Korean, half-Tongan, and the Cajun-Cuban-Choctaw ethnic variety pack that is the infamous Gabriel.

4. My female erotica characters don't take it up the back passage. But quite a few of my guys do! Ah, double-standards. My heroines also get to keep their pubic hair and practical, non-thong underwear. They also tend to have small breasts. I'm like the anti-Maxim, I suppose. See that flash? That's just the light glinting off my artistic license.

5. Hats. I give a lot of my male characters old-timey hats—fedoras and pork pies and Castros and Stetsons. Sorry. I just love a man in a hat.

6. My men sweat for a living. I've covered this topic before—my great lust for the working-class man. I can proudly boast a rainbow of them now: bartender, survivalist, logger, construction worker, professional fighter, army medic, bike messenger, bouncer, large animal vet, mechanic, rig worker, psych nurse (dude, that's totally a physical job). The few men I've written who aren't laborers are artists: musician, sculptor, film professor. Nary a banker or businessman to be seen. And only two lonely guys who work in front of computers all day—Evan and Jay. Any coincidence they both got out-manned in their respective books? It wasn't intentional, I promise. Hell, I sit in front of a computer all day! It's what I'm doing right now! For an author who puts a lot of her personal identity in writing so-called realistic stories, I sure miss the mark on accurate desk-jockey population proportions. On the other hand, I've always said that I need to give my heroes jobs that explain their unnaturally manful physiques. A gym membership just does not get my motor running.

7. My characters suffer a lot of dry spells. This would be more evident to readers if my romances were already released, but it's true: I tend to thrust my characters (of both genders) into long (sometimes very long) periods of abstinence, be they willful or incidental. I've also saddled a couple of heroines with the never-been-orgasmed trope. What can I say—it's a fun cliché to explore. As for the dry spells…I love to make my characters suffer and/or surrender.

How about you all? Authors, do you catch yourself repeating ideas, character archetypes, situations? And readers, do you notice patterns in your favorite authors' backlists'? Are there some tropes we enjoy, perhaps others we roll our eyes at? Any we toss our books and Nooks across the room over? Lay 'em on me.


Michelle Polaris said...

Well mine are kind of depressing. My character always have mommy and daddy issues and frequently there's death of mommy and daddy. Plus I like to inlude the imminent end of the world. On the lighter side my heroines usually have straight hair. And I like to make them curse a lot, but I'm working on my, I mean their mouths. Like the topic Cara.

Cara McKenna said...

Oh, I'm with you, Michelle—so are many authors in the greater romanceverse. Characters with living, [or indeed well-adjusted] parents are an endangered species around here! I think I've written about five characters out of twenty-five who have still-living parents who didn't neglect or traumatize them.

We writers are sadistic gods, are we not?

Wynter Daniels said...

I share of few of those tropes in my writing with you and Michelle. Many of my characters have lost one or both parents and their love life has been in a dry spell for a while. And many of my guys sweat for a living or else they are obscenely rich!
Also, my heroines often go from little confidence to lots of it.
Good post!

Ashlyn Chase said...

Terrific topic, Cara.

I recognized one pattern early on. I write about characters who reinvent themselves. All characters need to grow over the span of a story, but I put them through major life changes, sometimes even changing their names and professions. Yes, I've had "escape fantasies" for years. I've been married 3 times, and I've lived in 17 different places in 17 years. My mother used to say, "I'll know when you're happy. You'll stop running away from home."

Back to writing: I enjoy the "fish out of water" stories so much that I brave the wrath of the reader who spots a boo boo. Hey, I learn that way. Unlike you though, I do mix ethnicities. I write comedy and culture shock makes for some good comedy.

Currently I'm writing a story in which the heroine travels to India and meets her hero--a shapshifting Bengal Tiger. Fortunately I've been to India and have seen those magestic animals in their native habitat.

Yes, it's daunting since I have loads of Indian "friends" on facebook and my hubby works with a lot of them, both in this country and theirs. I expect I might blunder a time or two, but doing the research is fascinating.

But culture clashes can also involve a Vermont lumberjack and a big city transplant. (grin)

I'm blogging today too...over at Delilah Devlin's. I expound upon writing fearlessly.

Dalton Diaz said...

#5. What, no chicken hats?
Will never forget sitting next to you at Romanticon listening to you explain to your friend on the phone that you are sitting at a Bingo table with a chicken on your head, listening to shirtless male models call out "Buttcheek 15!"

But I digress. My trope? (LMAO at your title, btw!) Hero always seems to lose control 1st time in the sack with the heroine. (Don't worry, he gets it back again and again.)

Cara McKenna said...

Ooh, Dalton—I love that one! The wonderful he's-so-into-her-he-loses-all-self-control trope. Good one.

Ella Drake said...

I was just thinking of this myself. Apparently, I like to write heroines who don't have control of their bodies for one reason or another, usually through issues of fertility. Of my 5 published works, I have 3 heroines who can't control their sexual arousal due to: one "curse", one forced slavery, and one partial demon possession. The other two? Reluctant attraction. said...

My heroine has experienced a traumatic event and is finally ready for love again by the time story begins. I like the men dark haired, and the women with raven/brown hair. I love settings in other cities, countries, and using foreign phrases. I will usually have a song in my story, even if it's mentioned only in passing. I also insert letters, e-mails and poetry and find it helpful in revealing the characters.

Cat Grant said...

My heroes have the parental-issue thing going on too, which probably explains why most of them are so difficult. I guess all those Linda Howard category romances I used to read back in the day left a mark! ;)

Cara Bristol said...

I don't write BDSM, but I do write about dominance and submission. I find that the surrendering of control also surrenders responsibility so it's very sexually liberating for the heroine.

I'd noticed a while ago that whenever I'd mention a pet in a story, it always turned out to be a cat. This time, I decided to go with the flow and I created an actual minor feline character in my WIP.

(Says DH, "A cat? I thought you were writing an erotic romance.")

All of my characters are childless. The men are professional, generally corporate businessmen or entrepreneurs.

Penny said...

For some weird reason, all of my heroes have beards. :) hee hee

Jina Bacarr said...

Several of my heroines are Irish...I suppose you can put a writer somewhere else, but you can never take the Irish out of her!

Cara McKenna said...

Oh yes, Penny—color me shocked!

Naima Simone said...

I love the post, Cara!
My trope is my hero, who is always a melting pot of some variety. Latin/Caucasian, Asian/Caucasian, Italian/Irish descent...I love mixing and dabbing in different heritages to see what I can borrow from each to make him as sexy as possible. Oh! And long least jaw length. Every last one of 'em! I can't help it. It's a fetish...for my heroines, that is...ahem...

And another one? Somebody has a trust issue in one way or another. Like you, I guess I can't include that all my heroes have large packages--I was talking about Christmas gifts. what were YOU thinking?? LOL!!

Cara McKenna said...

Heroes with long hair and a mix of exotic ethnicities? You sure that's a trope and not just an attempt to snag Angelo for all your covers, Naima?

Brenda Williamson said...

I loss count of the books I've had published once the number reached over 25. While I know there are things I do repeatedly, the biggest is making heroines repressed virgins, eager to have sex and the men never noticing that detail until it's too late. And oh yes, there's always a family member's death for one or both characters.

Cat Marsters/Kate Johnson said...

I've lost count of mine too, somewhere around the thirty mark for my erotic romances, so let's see. I write very strong heroines. That's probably my number one trope. They don't sit around screaming, they make other people do that.

My heroes have a sense of humour. I could never be attracted to a man who didn't make me laugh, so that comes out in my books too.

I beat my characters up a lot. I mean, a LOT. I've killed several of them (but it's okay, they generally come back). You can do this with paranormals, but I do it in contemporaries too. They're walking scar tissue by the end of the book. A psychiatrist would have a field day with this!