Thank you so much to freelancer and writer with Reedsy, Desiree Villena, for dropping by today! This issuch an interesting post that absolutely made me take a look at my own books and what I do and don’t enjoy in this subgenre. I hope you’ll drop by again!
Tropes can be tricky territory to navigate as an author. This is especially true for those writing paranormal romance, as both romance and paranormal fantasy have well-established elements that can easily morph into clichés! But that doesn’t mean you should strive to avoid all tropes — on the contrary, with the right spin, even the most familiar PNR trope can become fresh and interesting to readers.
That said, some tropes are so unfortunate that even the smoothest spin doctor in the world couldn’t save them. On that note, while every author is entitled to their own methods, here are five paranormal romance tropes I’d personally recommend avoiding.
1. Inescapable soulmates
This trope is, without a doubt, one of my biggest pet peeves in paranormal romance. For those concerned what I might mean by “inescapable,” don’t worry; I’m not talking about love interests who are thrown together under tough circumstances and forced to cooperate despite their differences. I actually love a good grudging-at-first, enemies-to-lovers romance!
What I take issue with is the idea of predestined love, such that the participants are unable to resist or escape it no matter how hard they try. Indeed, if you think about it for more than five seconds (and out of the rose-tinted context of fictional romance), it’s incredibly creepy: though framed as the ultimate HEA, this trope erases consent and autonomy, forcing characters together because they’re simply “meant to be.”
Unfortunately, inescapable soulmates are all too common in paranormal romance — magic, prophecies, and centuries-old spiritual connections all conspire to make this kind of relationship seem more acceptable. I’m sure many of us can think of fictional couples who have been brought together this way, whether through age-old magic of their kind or a curse-turned-blessing that made it impossible for them to love anyone else.
Needless to say, if you’re writing PNR, please try to avoid this trope! It’s not only creepy, but also kind of lazy (some authors seem to think that inescapable soulmates don’t need any other reason to be together, which leads to shallow characterization). And speaking of poor characterization, this next trope is probably a familiar one as well…
2. Not like other girls
Oh, not-like-other-girls. Though we as a society seem to have largely quashed this mentality — that some girls are simply more special and better than others — it lives on in romance novels. And it’s very popular in PNR, with the caveat that the girl usually is special or different in some way… but the reason behind her singularity is never sufficiently explained, and that’s why this trope continues to bother me.
I can think of several PNR books in which a main female character possesses unique powers that change the course of her life, even frequently serving as the catalyst for the plot. Yet the true origins of these powers never come to light (even with ample opportunities over the course of multiple books!). Sometimes the author will drop vague hints and leave readers to draw their own conclusions; other times they’ll make a tenuous reference to the character’s family history and presume that’s explanation enough. The result is that this character’s powers are basically attributed to her being — you guessed it — not like other girls.
This always seems like a wasted opportunity for worldbuilding, and sometimes even like the author doesn’t care about the integrity of their own series. So if you’re giving a female character (or indeed any character) powers to make them seem “special” and set them apart, know that you’re going to need to back it up with some lore; otherwise, you’ll lose readers’ respect.
3. Control = love
Once again, I’m sure we’ve all seen this one before. Whether through paranoid overprotection, possessiveness, or something even worse, some paranormal romance heroes can’t stop trying to control the ones they love. And much of the time, their female counterparts not only justify it (which, to be fair, is a standard reaction for people accustomed to controlling relationships), but are attracted to it (which, to me at least, seems totally bonkers).
Garden-variety controlling behavior is bad enough, but an even worse iteration of this trope is when the heroine is literally taken prisoner by the hero, who goes on to torment her physically, psychologically, or most likely both. He exerts complete control over her, resulting in a horrific power imbalance and deeply unhealthy relationship, not even taking into account the romantic context. And then the heroine… turns the tables and goes all Lisbeth Salander on his ass?
Alas, no. Almost without fail, she falls in love with him — and call it Stockholm Syndrome or pure unmitigated delusion, but all her memories of past abuse seem to evaporate into thin air! This is both unrealistic in terms of character development and, worse yet, a dangerous message to send impressionable young readers. Honestly, I get forbidden attraction and antihero love interests, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
4. Sibling triangle
On a lighter note, this PNR trope is much more ideologically tolerable, but I still find it a bit cringey — the two-sibling love triangle, or “sibling triangle.” Though this trope is certainly nothing new (see also: the Bible), there’s just something icky about it in modern PNR… perhaps because the incestuous overtones of centuries-old stories were more so products of their time.
In paranormal romance, siblings triangles typically consist of two brothers fighting over a girl. This often serves to emphasize the not-like-other-girls effect — this heroine is so alluring that even her own boyfriend’s brother can’t resist her! But as with the inescapable soulmates trope, once you start to think about it, it veers off into creepiness. Besides the vaguely incestuous vibes, just about every woman I know (myself included) would be pretty uncomfortable if their partner’s sibling were suddenly super-into them, and would never actually reciprocate.
Even if the heroine does feel disillusioned with her current partner, it still seems like a narrative stretch for her next romantic pursuit to be his brother. This makes the storytelling itself seem rather contrived, and causes me as a reader to dislike the heroine (why can’t she look literally anywhere else?). To paraphrase a Goodreads review of one book with this trope, just don’t mess around with brothers — it’s tacky.
5. Bisexual erasure
This one is another trope that’s more of a personal quibble than a story-ruining problem. But seriously, in these fantastical worlds of angels, demons, vampires, and fae, why are there no bisexual characters — and the few who could be are inevitably painted as “basically straight” or “basically gay”? If you’re thinking of Willow’s arc on Buffy, I’m right there with you, but sadly that was only the beginning of a 20-year spell of bisexual erasure in paranormal stories.
Each offending character arc follows more-or-less the same pattern: character has a series of straight relationships, character gets involved in a queer relationship, character no longer thinks of themselves as straight. But all too often, this revelation leaps right over “bisexual” and lands solidly in “gay” territory. From then on — despite past straight relationships that were clearly genuine and involved — the character and their friends will refer to them as Kinsey-6 gay (as Olive Penderghast would say in Easy A).
No mention of bisexuality, no consideration that someone could be attracted to multiple genders, no validation for actual bisexual people; hence, bisexual erasure. Paranormal romance writers, you can do better! And I personally would devour a PNR love triangle with a bisexual character at its apex (as long as the other two points aren’t siblings).
In any case, whether you’re a devoted reader or an author of PNR, I hope these ruminations will help you identify more of these tragic tropes in the genre — and to draw your own conclusions about which should be laid to rest forever! If I missed any PNR tropes that you particularly despise, let me know in the comments and we can rant about it together.
Desiree Villena is a freelancer and writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing and marketing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading paranormal romance, writing contemporary fiction, and analyzing literature into the ground.