Hit & Myth
the legendary underpinnings of genre tropes.
by Damon Suede (originally posted as a lecture for Romance University)
Why do romance readers and writers find tropes so compelling?
Merriam-Webster defines a trope as "a common or overused theme or device: cliché," but in the romance genre the term has evolved to cover the constellation of formulaic themes that "tag" a story...thematic patterns, archetypes, and story hooks which draw audiences inexorably to certain types of narrative. These can range from a plot device as convoluted as a secret baby to the open-ended friends-to-lovers chestnut. Tropes spring from our most primitive storytelling impulses, and those ancient roots are the key to their appeal, their power, and their potential.
Romance fiction requires only two carved-in-granite essentials to merit the name: a central relationship that drives the story and a positive outcome.. Real life may be frustrating and uncertain, but genre fiction tells everyone what they can expect before they step inside. At its core, escapism guarantees an entertaining trip and a satisfying destination.
Familiar, well-loved tropes recur with metronomic frequency in romance: mistaken identities, reformed rakes, star-crossed virgins, doctors and nurses, not to mention billionaires, Spaniards, and sheiks. Harlequin built a billion-dollar empire out of its savvy marketing of recycled plot germs as branded category lines (beginning in 1973 with the launch of Harlequin Presents) because they had identified readers' insatiable appetite for pleasurable certainty.
I’m struck by the similarity of popular romance to Greek tragedy, not in tone, but their relentless foregone conclusions and their insistent retelling of the same stories. Greek tragedians had to use an established set of well-known stories with little room for modification. When ancient audiences lined up to see Medea or Agamemnon, they already knew the entire plot. No one expected Medea to bake cookies or Agamemnon to splash around with his rubber ducky. The appeal of Greek theatre was in seeing how the heroic characters faced their dilemmas: the granular variation of details specific to an author and a voice.
Unlike much of life, legends and folklore are above all fair. Myth and folktales share certain comforting, recycled patterns that reassure its audiences that "something good" will happen and the outcome will be satisfactory and suitably just. Dragons get slain, virgins get rescued, and giant wooden horses are tragedy piñatas. Their scrupulous (even ruthless) sense of justice provides moral parameters for the cultures that revere and repeat them. Mythology tells stories worth retelling.
Humans love stories…we're wired to absorb and process them; they affect our lives in primitive and startling ways, even today. Much of what we think of as identity or culture arises from shared narratives ingrained in us so deeply that they feel genetic. This oral tradition unites communities by reinforcing values and lessons that help individuals get on with the business of living and loving.
By definition, legends must be popular culture because they are penned and edited by millions of voices. In essence those mythical stories provided a limited pool of tropes in which the playwrights could grapple with themes and relationships that interested them and their communities. If you wanted to look at crime and punishment you did an Oedipus or a Eumenides, or if you had an idea for a debate about family honor you'd opt for a Phaedra or Antigone. The title alone gave the attendees an instant thematic preview. Like an iron-age TV Guide, the selected mythology broadcast what to expect from the show, just as much as it pointed its writer in topical direction. Ergo, remakes as the roots of popular entertainment and all that.
Anyhoo…what does all that have to do with the Amnesiac Rancher's Secret Billionaire Baby?
Myth is destiny. When we choose a book based on a trope, our knowledge of that mythic pattern drags us towards motifs and archetypes that speak to us as individual protagonists of our own personal myths. We're no different than Athenians lining up for a drama based on a recycled legend, knowing the outcome but fascinated by the dramatic possibilities and variations. Stories that bear retelling impart more than a simple plot or a moral lesson. They challenge our assumptions and facilitate our internal transformations.
Now, for our purposes today I'm going to stick with the Greek and Roman mythology only because it’s the most familiar to modern readers. The argument that follows also holds true in any mythology, be it Vedic, Inuit, or Aztec. All ancient sagas trace and retrace patterns which we are hardwired to anticipate and enjoy, because revisiting them over millennia reveals deeper truths about the human condition in language a child can understand.
In category romance, the Secret Baby
trope remains a perennial favorite despite the bizarre convolutions
required to keep the kid hidden and the father in the dark. All
evidence to the contrary, Harlequin didn't invent all these
deceptive mothers out of whole cloth. Mythology is rife with mothers
peril-ized by pregnancy who hid (or ditched) their offspring after
being ravished by gods and royalty to protect them from jealousy and
worse: Perseus, Dionysos, Theseus, Jason,
Those legendary pregnancies might be concealed from spouses, parents, or royalty…but the gods managed to guide and protect the unexpected spawn. In heroic births like Perseus or Theseus, the gods guided their steps to a future of glory, for the more tragic characters like Oedipus and Paris, Fate intervened repeatedly protecting them from wild beasts and worse so that they might wreak ruin and infamy on their communities. In mythology, these babies act as the agents of ineluctable Fate…Ananke (literally "necessity" in Greek).
In Romance, the inescapable Fate in every story is invariably a shimmering Happily-Ever-After; so unexpected infants become a positive agent of a benevolent Fate guiding the couple together for good (and for Good). All those endless secret babies act as seeds of destiny; their hidden power to unsettle alliances and challenge assumptions works toward the happy ending that readers demand because it is a necessity of the genre: Ananke.
Along the same lines we find romances of forced or sham marriage which echo the arranged marriages of Clytemnestra, Persephone, Cadmus, and Dido. Many of these matches end badly in the original myths, because their Fates punish their past misdeeds. But in romance that ineluctable Fate conspires with the entire universe to drive them into each other's arms. The external pressure (of parents, culture, circumstance) act as the hand of Destiny forcing them to mingle until they stop being single.
Mythology reveals the transformation of protagonists and their community through extraordinary circumstances. But rather than telling a single story, they trace variations and themes that change the status quo. In romance, these metamorphoses afford readers a comfortable imaginative space to indulge their love of certain kinds of hero, complication, and world.
Long before Patty Hearst hit Stockholm,
the abductees of classical tradition (Helen, Odysseus, Europa,
Ganymede, Persephone, Adonis… to name a very few) fell hard for
their sexy captors. Violating the laws of
Modern romance tracks similar patterns… with innamorati thrown together by chance and desire slowly transforming each other by their very proximity. The interplay of dominance and submission, authority and depravity, violence and restraint, makes for a rowdy relationship. By definition abduction violates the safe boundaries of power, privilege, and personhood, initially reducing humans to objects and then reminding the audience that objects can become fascinating subjects. Xenia in the modern world has become more subtle and complicated; abduction from one life can be an invitation to penetrate another world.
In the same vein, most scary pairings echo myths that marry villains to innocents (Persephone, Jason, Pasiphae), girls chained to rocks like an un-Happy Meal, (Andromeda, Hesione) and juveniles fleeing horny immortals (Io, Daphne, Hyacinth). Beauty and the Beast is a folktale retelling of Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche" for popular consumption in Enlightenment Europe. The Aarne-Thompson tale-type index identifies all these narratives as versions of the "Search for a Lost Husband" story, and not for nothing have their unfit husbands been thoroughly redeemed in modern love stories that don't judge scary, hairy books by their covers.
These "I married a monster" sagas are also the basis of every reformed rake, broody ex-villain, wedded undead, rapist-makes-good story in popular romance: how to save a life without ruining your own. Answer: carefully and at great cost. Any novel about a dashing dastardly duke or werewolf-human intermarriage that hinges on shaky trust, hidden agendas, and jealous in-laws is walking in some very old pawprints.
But I digress. :)
Obviously what I'm suggesting touches on a massive subject beyond the scope of a single blog lecture for Romance University, but… the next time you tackle a trope consider its mythic ancestry and the resonant themes evoked thereby. Every trope operating in genre fiction has mutated from these basic patterns of human storytelling…which says a lot about the importance of romance in offering narratives of transformation and an evolving mythology accessible to a modern audience.
I've chosen the above tropes at random, but I'd make a case for all popular tropes reflecting legendary lessons and transformations entombed in folklore, and ignored by most of our modern culture. Mythology is more than a single story recycled endlessly. The Heroic Journey™ monomyth purists are right about the impact and import of mythic structure in constructing popular literature, but I think they've oversimplified their case to the point of nonsense. The variations are what keep audiences coming back over and over, reading and rereading, even though they know how everything turns out.
In mass-market fiction, tropes have become a kind of mythology capsule in which we bury ancient narratives to preserve them for future generations. They remain popular because they are, literally, what makes any art form popular: they speak to atavistic story patterns rooted in our origins as a social animal.If you love mythology, consider going back to the primary texts and investigating the tales that got retold, instead of reading books about books about books written to boil those narratives into bite-sized platitudes. If you know the tropes that compel your reading and writing habits, think about the mythic underpinnings preserved in them. And if you want to write stories worth retelling and rereading, dig deep in the rich soil of tropes and you'll create books that will transform the world.
Copyright 2013. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved
If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.
Originally posted as a lecture for Romance University on 4 September 2013 and subsequently went viral; the unexpected attention inspired a follow-up interview at Publisher's Weekly a few days later with Barbara Vey.