(This post was originally featured on Ever After Romance.)
I'm a fussy reader. I choose my M/M romances, both to review and read, carefully. If I venture outside my comfort zone (where comfort stands, trendily, for D&G—Dark and Gritty), it's usually because I allow myself to be seduced by a specific author, subgenre or trope.
There are some tropes that I don’t particularly care for. It is tricky to define why, precisely. Generally, I’m not attracted to tropes that portray simplistic characters who lack depth and complexity or don’t incite rich emotions. For example, the Insta Love theme, with no romantic build-up or decent back-story, rubs me the wrong way. The Rescue Me (because I’m a highly incompetent fuckwit) makes me roll my eyes. The Age Gap and Forbidden Love themes can be a bit hit-and-miss with me, as can the Help Me Heal (because I’m broken and damaged) trope. But I perceive the Fake Boyfriends trope to be a guilty pleasure, that, when written right, can be a riot.
The tropes I enjoy most play on strong emotions and utilise angst. I crave pure and undiluted anguish in my books. Nesting in me there is this—somewhat masochistic—desire to have my heart mercilessly torn out and ground into pathetic little pieces. Shred me, dammit, and make it hurt. Only then, put me back together by the time I hit the last page, and leave me sighing contentedly with slightly dampened lashes.
Here goes. My five favourite M/M romance tropes.
5. Friends to Lovers… or I’m Coming at Ya, Bro!
Who doesn’t like a bromance? It is often said that the best relationships are the ones built on friendship. The foundations are already laid: trust, fondness, and effortless camaraderie. This trope offers a great deal of potential for humour through friendly banter and familiarity.
Typically, one character is a bit slow on the uptake. Oblivious, he doesn’t realise the other has developed feelings beyond friendship, although the torch his friend has been carrying is three times the size of the one carried during the Olympics. Initially, the oblivious character doesn’t realise that his friend reciprocates his feelings. The unrequited love-related suffering, often coupled with miscommunication, is great enough to make both the character and the reader gravely miserable and anxious, before the air starts sizzling and the attraction demands mutual acknowledgment. The characters’ hesitation to act on their feelings stems from the fear of wrecking the friendship to the point of no return. Eventually, the resistance is futile. The coffee is smelt, the risks are taken and the pants are dropped.
Once the relationship becomes sexually charged and intimacy is involved, the characters enter uncharted territory. Comfortable ease becomes strained awkwardness, and things are no longer simple. Shit gets complicated and that’s the interesting part for me.
It’s not easy to write a compelling, heart-wrenching and endearing bromance with some depth to it. What grabs my attention is the shift in the dynamics between the characters—I want to see how their relationship changes, when it ceases being merely platonic, and how that affects their interactions. Ultimately, this trope is about realising that sometimes happiness might be right in front of us, but we’re too engrossed in the very process of searching for it, to notice.
Nunzio & Michael (Sutphin Boulevard by S. Hassell)
Griff & Dante (Hot Head by D. Suede)
Nick & Kelly (The Sidewinder Series by A. Roux)
Taylor & Will (Dangerous Ground by J. Lanyon)
Hobbs & Calvin (The THIRDS Series by C. Cochet)
4. Clash of Backgrounds… or Mix-and-Match.
I strongly subscribe to the Strength lies in differences philosophy. My own relationship could be classified as a bi-national, bi-cultural and bi-lingual hybrid, and I can say with a vague air of authority that it definitely keeps things from becoming dull. One of the reasons why this trope appeals to me is because—please excuse the lingo resembling an Equality Is Us leaflet—it promotes and embraces diversity.
I refer to the word background here in the broadest possible sense, meaning differences of status, ethnicity, race and culture. The tropes that play on these differences frequently incorporate the topics of discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance. They may also explore the strain of facing animosity or disdain from the partner’s friends or family, and the struggle with a feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. While I’m not a massive fan of the Wealthy Man vs. Poor Man dichotomy, because it’s rather trite, clichéd and often one-dimensional, I’m quite fond of the City Boy vs. Country Boy theme. I especially enjoy the Love over the Class Divide (doesn’t it sound like a rather hazardous sex position?) theme, as the capacity it carries for humour is equal to its capacity for drama.
The way the characters deal with their differences defines the most compelling part of this theme for me. Does it tear them apart or make them stronger as a couple? Is it enriching or detrimental to their relationship? Essentially, this trope is about discovering if people can be different yet compatible at the same time. It poses an interesting question: are love and acceptance strong enough to overcome dissimilarities and bias?
Seb & Dex (Heart by G. Leigh)
Ray & David (Sunset Park by S. Hassell)
James & Cal; Spencer & Nick (The Market Garden Series by L.A. Witt & A. Voinov)
Josiah, Mateo & Tristan (The Broken Pieces Series by R. Hart)
Nichol & Cam (Scrap Metal by H. Fox)
3. Out For You… or Leaving Narnia.
This is an interesting trope, which works a treat especially within the law enforcement environment, with its added pressures and prejudices. Typically, we’ve got this tough, cool dude, who “acts and looks” straight. His outlook on life is of a traditional variety and due to family or work-related issues, he’s deeply closeted. Initially, he’s doesn’t fully embrace his same-sex inclinations, although he is fully aware of his desires and usually has acted on them in the past.
Next thing he knows, he meets someone who challenges him, and after his failed attempts to downplay the significance of this casual (at first) arrangement, he falls in love. The sexy times are always incredibly hot, and the passion is undeniable. After a while, his partner gets sick and tired of the constant sneaking about and being kept a dirty secret on the side. This situation generates multiple conflicts and trust issues, as well as a lot of hurt and resentment. Often the tension is so great that it breaks the couple up. At this stage, the angst and drama are practically dripping from the pages at an alarming rate, just like raspberry coulis from a decent panna cotta, both phenomena equally delicious.
What I find most intriguing about this trope are the reasons behind the character’s eventual decision to come out, the circumstances leading directly to the big ta-dah and how it affects his partner and their relationship. Moreover, this theme is sometimes accompanied by a fascinating insight into how the characters discover their sexuality, how they perceive it and how they come to terms with it.
Jake & Adrien (The Adrien English Series by J. Lanyon)
Ash & Cael (The THIRDS Series by C. Cochet)
Jory & Sam (The Matter of Time Series by M. Calmes)
Mac & Tony (The Life Lessons Series by K. Harper)
Evan & Matt (The Faith, Love & Devotion Series by T. Michaels)
2. Enemies to Lovers… or I Hate Your Guts. Now Drop Your Pants.
Fierce emotions, like instantaneous mutual animosity or strong dislike, are fuel for romance. As far as this trope goes, I don’t require the guys to be arch-enemies per se. It’s more about them being on the opposite sides of a conflict or experiencing a major personality clash. All is laced – needless to say - with an intense physical attraction. The sparkling chemistry is too powerful to be denied or resisted. However, it doesn’t mean the poor bastards won’t attempt to hold back—gah! The initial antipathy, hostility or rivalry between the characters makes them, and consequently the reader, stiff (in more ways than one) with unresolved sexual tension and antici…pation.
Eventually, the friction is defused through a bout or ten of hot, angry and raw hate-sex, bringing about all kinds of fireworks. This arrangement usually continues for a while, kept on the down low and perceived by both characters, rather naively, as a casual thing of no emotional importance. A lot of fronting accompanies some downright dismissive attitudes. It particularly appeals to me when this trope occurs in a military or law enforcement setting because, due to the nature of the circumstances, secrecy and skulking around are necessary. This creates, additional suspense. Inevitably, the characters are often forced by external circumstances to man up and face reality by admitting that the sex has led to more, and that the dreaded feelings are now involved. Hallelujah! Phew.
What I find particularly touching is the development of the characters’ emotional bond and trust over time. I love the transformation from just indulging in meaningless sex, however great, to being in a tender, committed, loving and supportive relationship.
Zane & Ty (The Cut and Run Series by A. Roux & M. Urban)
Dan & Vadim (The Special Forces Series by A. Voinov)
Jack & D (Zero at the Bone by J. Seville)
Prophet & Tommy (The Hell or High Water Series by S.E. Jakes)
Sloane & Dex (The THIRDS Series by C. Cochet)
1. Second Chance at Love… or Putting Humpty Dumpty together again.
Love is often complicated and difficult. However, it’s even more of a complex minefield the second time round, when ex-lovers meet again after ending (preferably in dramatic fashion) a relationship riddled with obstacles.
Seemingly, the past is all water under the bridge. The wounds have closed and the scars have formed; both men have moved on. But in truth the affection, attraction and longing still remain dormant. Even though the trust had been pulverised and under the surface, a powerful concoction of hurt, anger, regret and doubts is bubbling away, the romance prevails. The lovers are finally reunited (aaand cue the applause!)
The way I see it, this trope is a romance reader’s paradise. The strong connection, combined with the emotional build up—anxieties, blame, guilt, past mistakes, and misunderstandings—become a top-notch catalyst for angst.
Moreover, there’s something undeniably moving and incredibly romantic about seizing the chance one thought long gone and irretrievable. The decision of making yourself vulnerable again to the very person who was supposed to catch you, but ultimately failed and broke your heart in the process, is a courageous one. People only tend to invest their efforts into restoring something they perceive as valuable and extraordinary (unless, naturally, they are emotional idiots, saints, masochists or all of the above.) A HEA delivered after such a heart-wrenching bittersweet journey leaves me drained, yet satisfied. Puffy eyelids, smudged mascara, and a glass of wine are obligatory. An easy winner.
Elliot & Tucker (The All’s Fair Series by J. Lanyon)
Hsin & Boyd (ICoS by S. Hassell & A. Lin)
Christopher & J. X. (Somebody Killed His Editor by J. Lanyon)
Chris & Justin (Ex Equals by L.A. Witt)
Tim & Vincent (The Trouble with Hexes by A. Amara)
Tropes are significant in romances, methinks, possibly to a greater degree than in other genres. In the grand scheme of things, a good trope or a combination of tropes is not guaranteed to make a book a success. It’s not a magic bullet, but rather only one tool amongst an array of ingredients. If the other components of this recipe are not up to par—the plot weak, the characters flat, the dialogue fake and the writing mediocre—even the most elaborate trope won’t save the cake.