Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Grumpy Sunshine

Hello and welcome to Scrooge week. Ingrid wanted to talk about the Grumpy/Sunshine trope this year, and what better time to do it than during the week between Christmas and New Year when everything just seems to lapse into torpor until January 2nd?

Sad puppy with grumpy/sunshine.

Book covers of:
Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin
Promising Love by Sara Ohlin
At Attention by Annabeth Albert
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: What’s not to like?

Ingrid: It’s my favorite.

Holly: It can be fun, but I don’t go out of my way to look for them. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: When I think grumpy/sunshine, I think of the sunshine character as being really sunny and optimistic, and I feel like often that’s more limited than others use the tag. Grumps are pretty easy to find, but a really sunny protagonist is not so common. More often it seems like grumpy/well adjusted. 

Ingrid: Someone is grumpy and finds themselves being inconveniently drawn to a **GASP** sunny person!!!! Fight it! Fight the urge!! (I melt! I swoon!) (Hello, Sound of Music)

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s such a gentle way to do opposites attract. The grumpy one gets to be themself but can also be soft for the sunshine one, and the sunshine one, who is probably more socially likable in general, can see the beauty in the probably less socially likable grump. HOW DOES THAT NOT INSPIRE HEART EYES?

Ingrid: There are SO many ways to do this. My favorite is romantic comedy, but you can cross all moods and tones, really. It’s flexible, it’s fun, and I adore that it showcases different people falling for each other the way they are. (Hello, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Holly: Oh hey, Ingrid’s example makes me realize that Pride and Prejudice is the original grumpy-sunshine book, and I do love me some Pride and Prejudice retellings, so maybe I have to readjust my thoughts about this trope. The P&P connection just highlights how flexible the trope really is—it works in any romance subgenre, and combines well with other tropes.

What do you find problematic about the trope?


Ingrid: That there are not more of them?

Erin: I suppose… There is an argument to be made, depending on the characterization, that the grumpy character doesn’t treat the sunshine character well and the sunshine character just puts up with it. Or maybe sometimes the sunshine character doesn’t respect the grumpy character’s boundaries. But generally this doesn’t seem to be a trope fraught with a baseline that should cause concern.

Holly: Ok guys, I’m gonna say it. The gender dynamics of this trope kind of rub me the wrong way.

Before I get started, obviously, #NotAllGrumpySunshineBooks. But the vast majority of grumpy-sunshine pairings are grumpy hero, sunshine heroine. And I just wonder what this says about our collective socialization that we (readers) love to see women who are just perky and happy and bring joy to everyone around them. 

Maybe I’m irked because the only book I’ve read that was specifically marketed as a grumpy heroine / sunshine hero didn’t actually have a sunshine hero who was a ball of optimism and joy, but rather a sad, lonely hero who put on a socially acceptable front.

Erin: This is a good point. Grumpy heroines seem to be very popular right now, though. Readers who are Very Much Online certainly get excited about them.

That said, what Holly’s saying about the sunshine hero’s characterization also speaks to my earlier point that often grumpy/sunshine isn’t really always grumpy/sunshine but is maybe wounded/sunshine or grumpy/sociable or grumpy/well adjusted or anti-social/social and grumpy/sunshine has simply become a catch-all for a certain kind of opposites attract dynamic. For example, people often cite Managed as a great Grumpy/Sunshine book and while I could see Scottie as maybe being grumpy (more uptight than grumpy though, tbh), I didn’t find Sophie to be particularly sunshiney. 

Also I’ve been reading a ton of M/M romance, so the gender dynamics of this trope haven’t been so apparent to me. Highly recommend.

Let’s talk more about the gender dynamics and how characterizations impact the trope. 

Erin: I was very much struck by Holly’s point re: heroines being the vast majority of sunshiney protagonists. I am fully in the camp of “give me emotionally constipated (and preferably also pining) hero,” so it’s not a characterization I’m bothered by when reading for fun, but I can see that it does tap into the Unlikeable Heroine problem. We’re more likely to be critical of a heroine’s reason for being grumpy or prickly or otherwise Unlikeable. I’m totally prepared to argue that it’s probably better for there not to be an underlying reason for a character to be grumpy because then the reader can’t be critical of that, it’s simply the way that character is. 

Now, I am also thinking of gender in the cis M/M romance I’ve been reading voraciously. As I recall, the sunshine characters are not more femme (or at least less…burly?) than the grumpy characters, but I can acknowledge that a lumberjack-type character is more likely to be the grump in the relationship. At least, I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a M/M g/s with the lumberjack type as the sunshine. I recently listened to an Esther Perel podcast where she discussed how people perceive the world – I’m alone vs. I will always find people – so I’ve been thinking of this dynamic more in those terms. One protagonist feels completely alone while the other feels that there is a community that can be relied on, and without the other social input re differing gender of the characters, it doesn’t get so complicated. 

Holly: Building on my grump about the gendered dynamic, I feel like sometimes it can go as far as infantilizing the female/sunshine character. Like “This heroine is so naive” or “Look at this silly heroine who loves sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” The best grumpy-sunshine books play with this dynamic in interesting ways, but there are plenty of books that…don’t.

Ingrid: I think I can grudgingly admit to this premise. It kind of goes hand in hand with my romance theory that we often like to see the scenarios that don’t often work out in real life play out on the page. In some of these books we have a truly grumpy stick-in-the-mud who is miraculously transformed by his love for the sunshine–and I think some of us do like the idea that we can love someone so perfectly they’ll be transformed by that. Which is just…so unlikely in real life. 

What happens when the grumps aren’t really grumpy and the sunshines aren’t really sunshiney?

Holly: I think that Erin’s earlier point that grumpy-sunshine has kind of become a catch-all for a certain type of opposites-attract dynamic is right. With that said, however, I am not such a stickler for the rules that I don’t think of all these books as grumpy-sunshine books. When grumps are only sort of grumpy and sunshines are only sort of sunshiney, for me it just means that the extremes between their characterization is less pronounced, but you still see the same basic beats. 

(My irritation about the grumpy heroine I mentioned before was more that I wanted some himbo action and didn’t get it, rather than that the dynamic between the characters wasn’t enough of an opposites-attract situation. The book is His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau.)

Erin: If I’m really hungry for a grumpy/sunshine read, what I want in that read is for the grump to be my very most favoritest emotionally inaccessible grumpy sort of hero who needs a metric ton of sunshine fiber to get over that emotional constipation. And I want that grump to be inexplicably and reluctantly gooey cinnamon roll soft for the sunshine character that is ruthlessly upending their life. And I also want the sunshiney character to not be fully moored in emotional trauma and angst and simply using an outwardly sunny personality to mask their true feelings. 

So, for me, when I see an advert for grumpy/sunshine and that dynamic is less pronounced, as Holly described, I might not disagree that it still can qualify as grumpy/sunshine; however, my enjoyment of that particular trope in that particular narrative will probably not be what I wanted it to be. At the end of the day it’s an expectations issue. Just because something might technically be categorized in this trope doesn’t mean it’s going to be a satisfying version thereof. 

Ingrid: Well, I think having this trope be a slight spectrum is fine–what is grumpy to one may be perfectly pleasant to someone else. In some of these, we almost border on enemies-to-lovers–if the first interaction is really awful and antagonistic, the reader is going to need to see some work being done by the grump in order to buy in to that romance. And honestly, I’m ok with that, too. So I just feel like I have enough love in my heart for all KINDS of grumpy sunshine books.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Well crap. Okay. Role Model by Rachel Reid. Troy is miserable and unpleasant because his whole life has been unraveled. Harris is a walking ball of sunshine. Troy feels safe with and admires Harris, and Harris sees underneath all the noise to realize that Troy is struggling. So many warm fuzzies.

But also, like, if you haven’t read Managed by Kristen Callihan, you really should. Scottie!!!

Holly: Glitterland by Alexis Hall. I fully identified with misanthropic Ash, who went from disdaining Darian’s beautiful sunshine energy to discovering that he actually loved it. Plus the writing is just phenomenal. 

And since I am, by Smut Report Law, required to include a histrom in these let’s talk tropes recommendations lists, Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid grumpy-sunshine bodyguard romance. Phoebe is one of those rare true sunshine heroines who just radiates kindness and joy to everyone—except her extremely grouchy bodyguard, who she resents (until she doesn’t). The plot is totally bonkers, but James and Phoebe are perfect in their longing for each other.

Ingrid: I realize I’m like a broken record about this book, but By a Thread by Lucy Score is a beautifully done, very steamy example of Grumpy/Sunshine. It opens with the Grumpy hero getting the heroine fired from her job, only to discover that his mother has hired the heroine to work at the publisher they own together. He’s so grumpy and it’s just so steamy and good. 

Media we mentioned in this discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Secret Baby

Bottom line: Do you like the secret baby trope?

Erin: I usually get mad or wonder why these protagonists are even getting back together. It works better for me if the mom was unable to contact the dad (the concealment wasn’t intentional).

Holly: Secret baby romances are really just second chance romances with extra special sauce, right? Erin and I have already argued extensively about second chance romances, so I’m not surprised that she doesn’t like secret babies either. Even though I like second chance romances, I don’t love secret baby stories, mainly because I frequently struggle with the portrayal of the children. They are either tiny grownups or extremely twee, and the babies ALWAYS sleep through the night. Plus there’s usually some overwrought stuff about parenthood that the main characters are going through. (I have trouble with Single Parent romances for similar reasons.)

Ingrid: I really don’t, if I’m honest. I think—and it’s not always the case, of course—they tend to feature some of my least favorite relationship issues as plot devices and I just don’t dig it.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a secret baby trope?

Erin: I do not lump secret baby and accidental/surprise pregnancy together, so I am a bit of a purist with the expectation that the secret baby has already been born and (bare minimum) the pregnancy and birth has been kept from the father. More than that, I’d expect that the baby wouldn’t even be a baby anymore. More like a toddler or even older. I think the concealment of the child is essential to the trope. That said, I recently read Up In Smoke by Annabeth Albert which I would categorize as secret baby (I guess?) but the relationship occurs between the baby’s uncle (upon whom the baby has been dumped by his sister) and the baby’s father who is surprised by the arrival of both the uncle and the existence of the baby. So I’m not totally inflexible. Bottom line: I do not count surprise pregnancy as secret baby.

Holly: The name is in the trope: the baby has to be a secret. A secret baby story hinges on the concealment of the child from the biological father. (I guess it’s possible to have a secret baby story where the father steals the newborn and tells the mom it dies and then they get back together years later, but I have yet to read it.) There is frequent overlap with the accidental pregnancy trope, because if you’re in a committed relationship and trying for children something really drastic must have happened for there to also be a secret baby. 

Ingrid: Secret baby is where a baby is hidden from the father. I’m sure there are a smattering of books with fresh takes or twists on this trope, but I think that’s the basic summary.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It has a pretty solid built in conflict. “Hi, you’re a parent and you didn’t know it” is a pretty epic jumping off point for the start of a relationship that somehow already was over.

Ingrid: I think it forces the characters into a permanent and immediately serious relationship—by and large, the people in question are forever changed by the child existing, and they have to slog through a lot of really serious vulnerabilities and difficult decisions and conversations in order to do the right thing by the child. So I think they can be really deliciously messy and deep when done right.

Holly: I think Erin and Ingrid have pretty much covered it. 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: As a uterus-having person, I am not going to be the one blindsided by a surprise child, but I always think about how angry/confused/otherwise emotional I would be if I had a child sprung on me. I’m not sure I’d go from that emotional stew to forgiveness to love in the length of a romance novel. On the other hand, if I am a uterus-having person who has withheld the existence of my child from the child’s other bio parent, then what on earth is a good enough reason for me to get over that and allow this other parent person in my life again? 

Holly: Look at Erin, using logic and reason against this trope! 

Ingrid: Sounds about right.

Holly: I will push back a little and say that what Erin is saying—that the problems she points out are issues people with secret-baby relationships would have that I think we all have problems with on a personal level, but are not inherently *problematic*.

Erin: All of this is making me realize that this is a very cis M/F romance dominated trope. It is relying entirely on someone who is able to be pregnant being impregnated by someone who is able to impregnate. So it’s not impossible that a queer romance could include a secret baby trope, but I bet interested readers would have to do some serious digging to find one.

Oh, and also, in historical romance the secret baby is overwhelmingly a girl, and this seems to be primarily the case so nobody has to feel bad about a little boy not being entitled to his inheritance because his parents weren’t married when he was born. Which is a whole thing.

Holly: Building on Erin’s point about the cis-hetero aspects of this trope, I would add that parenthood is frequently portrayed as an innately biological function. In other words, the logic of secret baby romances often states that the bio-dad is inherently the correct and natural father-figure for the child, that love for the child comes naturally due to genetic ties, and that alternate parenting structures are inferior to the Mother-Father-Child trifecta. 

If this is a trope that we’d struggle with in a real life context, what do you think makes it a pleasurable reading choice?

Ingrid: Well, it’s a real emotional collision. Most of the time, historically, romance novels tended to be a sweeping love story followed by marriage and babies. Turning that on its head is interesting and weaves a really tangled web for these characters to land in. Just because I’d hate it in real life doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating on the page.

Erin: I never thought about it as turning the romance timeline on its head, but I like it. 

I wonder if it’s a little bit of wishful idealism combined with some relatively predictable (not necessarily in a bad way) inborn angst? If I accept Holly’s Second Chance Romance argument that people can come back together after years and be in a better place to be in a relationship with each other, then the idea that two people who once saw something in each other can come back together and not only repair their own relationship but also create a stable and happy family relationship is really hopeful. They have the tension of working through the prior misunderstanding or one night stand that separated them, and they also have the discomfort of trying to figure out how their new family situation is going to work, but the reader knows that it’s a romance, so it’s safer to be a fly on the wall during those tense periods because, unlike with other storytelling or real life where the HEA is not guaranteed, you know that it’ll be okay in the end and everyone will go home happy.

Holly: I have nothing to add to Erin and Ingrid’s very thoughtful responses.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: You know what? I’m going to say The Best Thing by Mariana Zapata. Lenny did try to contact Jonah, he was unreachable because he was having some personal problems, BUT he came back to find Lenny after he got himself sorted and before he knew they had a kid together. When he did find out, they worked at being great co-parents because he wanted to be a present dad, not because they needed to make themselves into a family in order to, like, do the right thing or whatever.

Holly: As the person who always recommends a bonkers historical romance when we talk tropes, Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series includes a series-long subplot regarding an illegitimate child being raised by his father. It’s kind of a twist on the secret baby trope because the child’s parentage is a secret to the readers, not the parents, but its revelation to other characters drives the plot, especially in A Duke of Her Own.

Not Quite Over You by Susan Mallery also does interesting things with the trope. In this case, Drew knew that Silver got pregnant; they had broken up by this point, so Silver said she’d “take care of it,” and that was the end of the conversation. Silver did give their daughter up for adoption, but what Drew doesn’t know is that Silver remained in contact with the adoptive family and therefore has a relationship with their daughter. Is this child a secret? Not exactly, but Drew is still blindsided by her continued existence in Silver’s life. 

Ingrid: So, I really didn’t think it at the time, but A Cowboy for Keeps by Laura Drake just stuck in my mind. It’s a secret baby—but the baby was kept a secret from their families. So the father’s brother and the sister’s sister end up having to figure out custody and parenting, there’s a HUGE wealth power dynamic going on…it’s a really interesting take on this trope.

Books we mentioned in this discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Bedding the Boss

Books with the Bedding the Boss trope:
The Blundering Billionaire by Chace Verity
Calhoun by Diana Palmer
Seducing the Billionaire by Allie Winters
Luna and the Lie by Mariana Zapata
Pink Slip by Katrina Jackson
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the bedding the boss trope?

Holly: Don’t tell HR, but I kind of do. 

Erin: I used to really like it, but I think I read too many similarly toned billionaire boss romances last year and now I’m kind of “meh.” But I don’t not like it! I mean, the first book I ever finished writing has this trope.

Holly: And maybe someday, if I bug you enough, you’ll actually publish it! 

(Note to readers: I have to live my romance author dreams vicariously through Erin because the act of writing fiction does not actually bring me joy. Criticism on the other hand…)

Ingrid: I love it. It’s a real weakness.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as bedding the boss trope?

Holly: The protagonists have to work together, and one has to be in a position of power over the other. This frequently plays out in an executive/secretary dynamic, but I would argue that the Governess Trope in historical romance is a subcategory of bedding the boss romance. 

I would further argue that this trope generally comes with some element of explicit power play between the characters as well as a side-helping of angst.

Erin: All of that. In particular I think there needs to be a workplace setting, even if they’re working away from the office, otherwise the tension of the boss/employee power dynamic doesn’t really pull through. 

Oh, also it’s not just the governess trope in histrom. The nanny/parent dynamic in contemporary does this, too!

Ingrid: I agree. Power dynamics, paychecks, and pleasure. HELLO.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It relies on a natural forced proximity that’s really easy to buy. Even if someone hasn’t had an office crush, a platonic work spouse isn’t uncommon because people tend to be social creatures. It also plays with a little taboo, which is scintillating. Sneaking around because we really shouldn’t, but we just can’t stop?! Pining because it’ll never happen and then it does?! Yum, yum, yum.

Holly: When done well, the tension is just delicious. I think I prefer historical romance because there is often a built-in societal pressure keeping the characters apart, and often, in contemporary romance, there isn’t really a reason for the characters not to be together, so the characters fabricate one. But office romances don’t have that problem! They are just chock full of real social reasons that characters can’t be together and I am all about it. 

Ingrid: I feel like all of the above is true. You’re stuck with this person and you’re dependent on your work for whatever reason…the stakes are high and so is the tension.

What do you find problematic about the trope? 

Holly: So here’s the thing. All of these secretaries are ingenues who learn so much about the *real world* from their hot older executive bosses, but in my experience, if you want shit done, you talk to the secretary. Secretaries are the ones that actually keep everything running smoothly. Probably more hot executives should learn about the *real world* from their middle-aged secretaries who manage everything with an iron fist. Where’s my romance about that dynamic?

NOTE: I don’t actually want to read that romance, not because I’m not into older-woman romance, or competent female characters, but these bad-ass women deserve better than the man babies they take care of at work all day. (See for example: Two Weeks Notice.) 

Erin: I used to be a manager at a law firm, so I get super hung up on some HR nightmare scenarios. I don’t know why people think lawsuits waiting to happen are sexy. Not all authors thumb their noses at the power dynamics issues central to this trope, but when they do, I start to sweat. 

Also, how often would an admin be like, “Oh, yes, my unreasonable and possibly abusive boss with no boundaries is very good looking so instead of rage quitting I will have sex with them”?

Ingrid: I’m going to throw down and say that this trope has perhaps the most potential to be both the best and worst in show. When it’s done well, it’s just delicious…but when it’s done poorly, it can really get your skin crawling.

Given that this trope frequently features one protagonist in a position of power over the other, do you think that books with this trope do a good job of discussing power dynamics?

Erin: This seems to go three ways. 

1. The power dynamic is largely ignored. In this case it might technically fall under the bedding the boss trope umbrella, but it isn’t true to the tension that the trope is meant to evoke. 

2. The power dynamic is part of what revs the protagonists’ up. I mean this in the context of those CEOs who get off on their assistants being extremely competent and also basically insubordinate. This method ignores real conversations about the power dynamic because it simply uses the dynamic as foreplay while the characters can’t be together.

3. The characters actually process the challenges of the power dynamics in play beyond simply an “HR would be so mad if they found out!” way and negotiate ways to be together that do not compromise their integrity. 

The books that fall in the #3 category are probably the most interesting and thoughtful, but I would argue that the majority of books in this trope fall more in the #2 category.

Holly: Books in category #2 are still really fun to read!

Ingrid: I’m not sure it’s that easy to simplify. Some do, and a lot don’t. I think we’re going to have to watch the genre for a while too, because as a society we have reached this new level of awareness and clarity where I think we can really start to pinpoint where these dynamics aren’t fun to read. I think the genre will come up with sexy ways to rise to the occasion.

Holly: Ingrid makes a good point—I too am curious to see how this trope morphs as the labor force continues to change and evolve. 

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: I take it back, I freaking LOVE this trope. I started going through my read books list to find one for this question and I found so many that delighted and entertained me.

So the most recent read that just totally made me have all the little feels was Thorned Heart by Eden Finley. Band manager has been secretly in love with lead guitarist for two years. Novella. Totally worked for me.

BUT while I have plenty of books tagged as “Bedding the Boss” on my list, I would argue that the ones that really work the best with this trope include the prospect of bedding the boss being a point of conflict or secrecy in the romance. Bypassing that makes the trope fall a bit flat. So if you’re looking for that bossy tension, Karina Halle nailed it in A Nordic King. If that’s not the driving desire for you, then I can’t recommend Nalini Singh enough, and I’ll suggest Cherish Hard because Sailor and Isa 4ever! 

See me not choosing one book again? Sorry Holly and Ingrid. 

Ingrid: All I can say is By a Thread by Lucy Score. This book is like the winner of the whole dang trope. 

Holly: If you want an excellent histrom example, Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt is excellent. This one is definitely a case of power dynamic #2, where Val, the Sinful Duke, is absolutely revved up by his hyper competent and also insubordinate housekeeper. He’s also a toxic boss, but this book is so fun to read. 

If you’re looking for a bedding the boss romance where the characters thoughtfully navigate the power dynamic inherent in their relationship, Swing Batter Swing by Zaida Polanco is very sexy and very deliberate in how it interrogates power imbalances. 

Books we mentioned in this discussion

Love workplace romances? Absolutely despise them? Have a favorite you think we should read? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Morality Chain

Morality Chain books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the morality chain trope?


Ingrid: I have found that I really did like a lot of books that follow this trope, yes.

Holly: We are having this whole week focusing on morality chain romances because every time Erin is like, “REC ME SOME MORALITY CHAIN!” I’m like “What’s that again? Remind me.” I’ll get back to you after I do my research reading. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as morality chain trope?

Erin: Okay, so because these are my jam, I will go first. The basic definition is that protagonist one is the reason that protagonist two is good. It might be like the most extreme version of grumpy/sunshine you can imagine, but I typically think of it more like one is ruthlessly pragmatic and jaded while the other refuses to bend any principles, even when it might be, like, life-saving to do so. 

In a lot of speculative romance (read: sci-fi and fantasy) it’s often waaaaaaay obvious, with a dystopian world and a protagonist who is essentially an emotionless husk, and then the other protagonist who is sensitive and nurturing. Typically these even go so far as to require no emotional change in the amoral character except that the amoral protagonist will not take certain actions because they know it would upset the love interest (please see: Kaleb Krychek). But if we step away from the very clear-cut characterization that we often get in those stories, there’s still room for this trope in other sub-genres. In that case, the trope might not be quite so glaringly obvious, but the basics are the same: ruthless protagonist refuses to see the humanity in themselves or the world around them while the love interest forces the issue. 

I do not consider a book to be morality chain when the amoral protagonist isn’t actually amoral but instead is simply really grumpy or selfish but has a good heart deep down. If the good heart is readily apparent to the reader at the outset, the trope is not morality chain. Also, protagonists who are just jerks (please see: alpha-holes) also do not usually count for morality chain because they usually…stay jerks. 

Ingrid: Yes, so what Erin said. It’s like a darkness and light situation.

Holly: A small addendum: there might be some gender essentialism going on with this trope. The amoral character is almost always male, and the empathetic / humanizing character is almost always female. 

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: If I really dig deep and consider this, the draw for me probably stems from the fact that the amoral protagonist doesn’t actually have to change as such. They simply change their behavior because they have learned that their actions have more impact than just the bottom line. Nalini Singh has some great morality chain stories in which the amoral protagonists don’t change their personalities or understanding of the world much at all, but learn to check themselves. (I already mentioned Kaleb Krychek, who’s in Heart of Obsidian, but also there’s Raphael in Angel’s Blood and Zaira in Shards of Hope.) But also sometimes it’s a charming growth opportunity for the emotionless husk. I’m an equal opportunity morality chain reader. 

Ingrid: I mean, let’s be real here—this is essentially the foil to “you can’t change him!” Right? And we all want to be the exception, so it’s a very satisfying vicarious situation.

Holly: Sometimes the villain is sexier than the hero. Just sayin’. 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: I mean. I guess it makes assholes sexy. Like, “Ooo, look! The partner had the magic something that finally made that person not terrible! #RelationshipGoals!” Which in real life is not a great mentality, but I do enjoy it in my fiction. 

Ingrid: Well, being the person who is responsible for pulling someone else up out of darkness seems like a pretty dangerous job, and a relationship that’s built on one person being the moral foundation is…likely imbalanced and unhealthy. To say the least. But that doesn’t mean it’s not some good, good reading.

Holly: What Ingrid said. Taming the monster might be fun and sexy, but being someone’s moral compass for years and years and years? Let’s not think about what happens after the story ends. 

Erin: (I usually think of it in terms of the Kaleb Krycheck/Sahara dynamic where at the end of the day she’s like, “You’re so cute, you think you’re bad. I’m not going to play that game because it’s a crock,” which is slightly less bad than “I will keep the darkness at bay for you.” Slightly.)

Let’s talk about this gender essentialism.

Holly: So, Erin sent me a list of morality chain books because I like it when other people do my research for me, and the only one on the list with a female “dark” character was Shards of Hope, which is book eleventy-million in the Psy-Changeling series, so I haven’t read it. So it seems like pretty much all of the people in need of moral guidance are the male main characters. 

And of course, there are lots of tropes that apply to members of one gender more frequently than another, but let’s unpack this a little bit. What it really boils down to are these are stories about women doing outsized levels of emotional labor because the men in their lives are *incapable* of doing so (and in the paranormal romances, they are *genetically* incapable of doing so). 

Erin: This seems to tie in to the question of “what are we reading for?” because y’all make a good point above that in real life the prospect of being a moral anchor for another person is not a healthy relationship dynamic and likely would be exhausting. 

Anyway, Holly sent me this absolutely hilarious review of Shards of Hope, and TL;DR the reviewer hated Zaira. I went back and checked to see if the same reviewer had rated Heart of Obsidian, and – Hello! – she loved Kaleb. Both books are by Nalini Singh, who has a really consistent writing style, both are morality chain with Psy protagonists who have no moral anchor except their one emotional connection. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think the only big differences from a characterization standpoint are that Kaleb is more broody/angsty and a man, while Zaira is angry/angsty and a woman. (And Kaleb did get built up for 10 books first, which does matter, but let’s just say for the sake of argument…) 

Having a woman protagonist as the amoral character in this trope seems to run into the “unlikeable heroine” problem, and if readers are trying to tap into a pleasure center with a story about a woman who can tame a man, it makes sense that the opposite dynamic wouldn’t be quite as popular or as saleable. Personally, I enjoyed Zaira’s characterization, and I’d like to see more stories that play with this trope (like some queer rep would be fun, yes?), but I also wonder if the writers who would play with it also maybe don’t care for the trope because it involves the emotional and power dynamics issues discussed above.

Ingrid: I agree with Erin, in that I feel like from a societal standpoint we tend to accommodate or even celebrate masculine characters lacking a moral anchor but when it’s a feminine one they become more unlikeable. Which, is like the literary equivalent of “you should smile more” and we should cut that crap right on out of here.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Ugh this one book thing again. A lot of morality chain books are part of a series (I cannot wait to read Lothaire, but I am being very good and I have to read nine other books first!), which I think makes it challenging to simply throw one out there. For a gentle classic, I’d suggest Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. Evie is initially so unassuming but refuses to bend on what’s important to her, and St. Vincent is a selfish man-child who only cares about what’s important to him, and there’s a sex deal, and St. Vincent gets the shit kicked out of him by love (to borrow the immortal words of that little kid from Love, Actually)

If we’re cool with possibly committing to a series without committing to 12-20 books, I would totally recommend the Nevada Baylor trilogy from Ilona Andrews’s Hidden Legacy series. In the first book, Burn for Me, Nevada is not totally sure if Connor is, in fact, a sociopath. As the series continues, we get more three-dimensional views of Connor, but in the first book he is totally willing to use his magic however he can to get the most efficient desired outcome. This includes, at one point, dropping a building on a person. The world building is magnificent, and the action is *chef’s kiss.*

Holly: Movies are allowed now, so I’m going with Lady and the Tramp

Erin: I’ve opened a can of worms. 

Ingrid: Well, if we’re going to do that look no further than Dexter. Romance wise…

Holly: No, but seriously, Lady and the Tramp is just a stepping stone for the story that the right woman can tame the bad boy—and that he won’t necessarily stop being bad (so he’s still sexy), but will control his urges to chase chickens or flirt with the other lady dogs because they hurt his partner. 

Addendum: Now that I’ve done my research reading, I also would like to recommend Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt because Valentine Napier is so delightfully villainous and has literally no concept of absolute morality. (I’ll squee some more about this one in a review later this week.) 

Books we mention in our discussion:

Have a favorite morality chain book? Know of any morality chain books featuring queer couples or female main characters in need of redemption? Want to talk about how villains are sexy? Leave us a note in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Men of God

This week, we’re reading books featuring Men of God, coinciding with the release of Andie J. Christopher’s Hot Under His Collar, which we buddy-read and had a LOT of thoughts about. (Review coming tomorrow!) To get us started, we had a chat about the Man of God archetype in romance, and the kind of work is does.

Book covers for:
Hot Under His Collar by Andie J. Christopher
The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham
The Wicked Lady by Mary Lancaster
Hot Rabbi by Aviva Blakeman
The books we’ll be reading this week.

Bottom line: Do you like the Man of God archetype?

Holly: I don’t not like it. 

Erin: You know, I really don’t. Which is not something I expected to say, actually. 

Ingrid: I do not, generally. No.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Man of God archetype?

Holly: One of the main characters is a professional religious person. Usually, it’s a male main character. (I can think of one single book where the Man of God was a female nun.)

That’s it.

But that’s actually a huge category of people with really different types of relationships to the divine—and different views on and rules about interpersonal relationships. So should we really count Catholic Priest/Nun books, where the archetype is about the taboo and stealing the person away from God, as within the same archetype as Protestant Minister / Jewish Rabbi books, where the main character has a job that’s also a calling, but where relationships are not a big deal? I’m not sure. 

Erin: Holly makes a good point that there’s a slight difference between what’s going on with a protagonist who’s celibate and supposed to be married to God, as it were, and the protagonist who is expected to be more pure than mere mortals but not full blown forbidden fruit. However, for me, it all boils down to the protagonist is fully committed to a religion and there are morality expectations that come into play as part of the conflict. 

I also argue that these characters are usually portrayed as gentle shepherds, not fire and brimstone preachers, with the job being “Man of God” but not really completely tied to the hierarchy and tenets of the religion or denomination in question. 

Ingrid: It’s definitely an Eve with the apple situation…usually.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: If you like angst, there is a lot of space for angst in these books. Even in non-Catholic ones, there is usually some dynamic of “I have to behave a certain way because my career is really intrinsically tied to my identity as a good person”—and when the relationship happens, it often pushes against the man of god’s preconceived notion of what his good life would look like. If that’s not angst-inducing, I don’t know what is. 

Erin: I like it when authors push against the commonly held perceptions of who these characters are and what they represent in their greater social circles. (But if I’m being totally honest, they don’t usually go far enough for me to really get excited about them.)

Ingrid: There have absolutely been books where the developing relationship really pushes the characters to examine who they are and strip all the nonsense bare, and that is always more satisfying for me, personally.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: I don’t love the dynamic of “I will steal him away from God.” I get it, that makes the love interest extra special, but, like, if you really believe that God is omnipresent, then maybe there’s space in the Man of God’s life for both of you? 

Erin: So… the entirety of this archetype seems to be centered on shame. It’s a good (boy) falling rather than a bad (boy) rising. The archetype is based on the notion that there is something intrinsically morally upright about the MoG character, and the conflict is that what is happening to the MoG character is directly oppositional to the expectation of what should be happening. Maybe it’s straight up sex shaming: “I should not be having these sex feelings because I am a MoG and it is wrong.” Or maybe we’re talking about some super progressive, cool, sunglasses wearing, motorcycle riding MoG man of the people who is still expected to be a pillar of the community leading by example who is thrown off course by a love interest. 

I recently read a book where the MoG had feelings for the owner of the sex shop, and part of the conflict was that she felt like he couldn’t be seen with her because what would the parishoners think. Props to the author for making him be true to himself the whole time, but also 1. this book was absolutely playing to the idea that a pastor could never be into absolutely filthy premarital sex (gasp!) and 2. it ignored the fact that MoG are called to serve and if the leadership of the parish or whatever don’t agree with how the MoG is presenting himself, they can oust him. Bottom line, the archetype is very much centered on external social expectations and the protagonist’s ability or lack thereof to meet them.

Ingrid: I mean, all of the above, really–but I bring it back to the pervasive and constant refrain that women who don’t conform will tempt men away from righteousness, and no matter how you spin it, that seems to be the bubble these books live in. 

Regarding priest and/or nun books specifically, would you say the appeal is centered on the taboo or on the thoughtful transformation of the protagonist’s changing relationship to God / religion? Does it matter if the book is thoughtfully constructed if the desire to read it is centered on the taboo?

Ingrid: Well, it’s impossible to lump all of them into one or the other category I think. And I can say what I prefer here, but ultimately the romance genre is meant to be inclusive and so while I prefer the books to thoughtfully examine the transformation of a protagonist’s relationship with God and faith, I certainly think there’s a readership for people who are really into pushing that taboo or kink, and in that case it really only matters what that reader thinks. We don’t yuck other people’s yums, man.

Erin: This question primarily came up because we buddy read Hot Under His Collar for this week, but I think it might actually be really reader dependent. A few months ago, we three were discussing how our understanding of the genre shifted when we all started reading more romance because when we read so much romance, it’s possible to see what ideas authors are trying to play with more readily than when one only sometimes reads romance. So I feel like an occasional reader might feel it’s super taboo and OMG!!!, and books like Priest tap into that, but also for someone who is more immersed in the content and thinking about it from a more literary standpoint, the taboo might be entirely secondary. 

Would you say that all Men of God protagonists are inhabiting some level of taboo space, or is the taboo aspect limited to priests/nuns or others who have taken a vow of celibacy as part of a religious calling?

Holly: This is an interesting question. I think, given Erin’s point about moral expectations that the MoG shoulders, that I’m going to go with yes, all MoG inhabit some level of taboo space. 

Ingrid: They certainly dribble their toes in water of taboo, I think. At a minimum.

Erin: Maybe it depends on angst level. I can think of some kind of historical (or maybe Amish or something? Heartwarming Harlequin line?, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never actually read one of those) in which the gentle preacher has tender and tame interactions with the shy village maiden, and it’s all very sweet until (WHOOPS!) they’re naked in the field or whatever, and that wouldn’t have the same level of taboo as, like, Fleabag (which is very fun, BTW). Unless you just think sex is taboo in general. Which some people do, I guess.

Is this archetype always paired with a foil? Is one protagonist the Man of God and the other is some level of non-believer?

Holly: Not always! That is absolutely a dynamic that plays out frequently—but in every Catholic priest book I’ve read, the love interest has also been a devout Catholic. That way there’s double the guilt! A non-believer wouldn’t care about pulling the priest away from his vocation. 

Ingrid: Nope, not always. And I will say that I’m waiting to see what rolls out post Priest  because I bet there are some romance authors who read Priest and immediately thought, “hold my beer”, and these authors will be putting out some fresh and interesting takes on this trope in the near future.

Erin: I guess this is also a little bit context dependent. I think the temporal and geographic setting would impact the read. Not that we can’t have historical atheists, but definitely the mental framing caused by the setting changes the expectations for the protagonists’ cultures. But I do feel that, while Holly makes a good point that Catholic/Catholic pairings are double the angst, I have read a few books recently in which the more religious protagonist is somewhat challenged by a love interest who does not hold the same beliefs. I guess it adds to the drama.

What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Holly: I know Ingrid is expecting me to recommend Priest (again), just to tweak her, but I’m going to go with A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. It was the first romance I remember reading that starred a minister (in this case, a proper English vicar), and his moral uprightness was such a breath of fresh air after years of reading nothing but degenerate rakes, as I did from approximately 2000–2012. But also, this is a book about kindness and acceptance and finding the moral high ground not through moralism but through actual morality. 

Erin: I think the best I can do is The Jezebel Files series by Deborah Wilde, which begins with Blood and Ash. Levi isn’t really a Man of God as such, but he’s the leader of the magical community, and that’s directly tied Judiasm, so religion is a focus of the narrative, though Levi’s position is more political than overtly religious. Wilde’s largely secular society was extremely grounded in religious roots, and shifting from a Christian-centric worldview to a Jewish-centric worldview makes religion’s influences on secular life more obvious.

Slash I like The Sound of Music

Holly: Then you should read It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian! It’s just like The Sound of Music, but queer.

Ingrid: I love a good Mary Lancaster and she has a very classic historical take on it with The Wicked Lady. 

Books we mentioned in this discussion: