Oh, old fling, how you serve us romance writers. Might you be the experience from which our hero learned invaluable lessons in love? The romantic foil, who steps in during the blossoming stage of the new romance to offer some romantic tension? Or might you be the story’s hero, emerging fully developed from the shero’s past, ready to admit your historic idiocy and woo her back into your manly arms?
No doubt about it: the old fling is a powerful stock character for us romance authors. And like most stock characters, The Ex™ should be used sparingly.
Although all of the incarnations of the ex deserve extensive discussion, it’s the last trope I wish to address. To put us in the mood, imagine this: We’re introduced to our shero (it could be our hero, but the male ex is more common), whose life is all right but, you know, inevitably bereft in a few ways. She tries not to think of the ex, whose long-ago betrayal sent her spinning out of his arms and into the cold embrace of a him-less future. And then… He re-enters her world. She hates him, spurns him, closes the door in his handsome, repentant face. But no, he shan’t be thwarted in his pursuit of redemption. The beat of their unresolved romantic tension pounds throughout the story until the very last chapter, in which the hero reveals the true circumstances behind that long-ago betrayal. His past victimization laid bare, his heroic sacrifice of their love for selfless purposes exposed, the couple rejoices in their transcendent love. They zip to the closest major department store to start a wedding registry.
I have deep respect for literary archetypes. They form the basic outline of our craft, much like notions of closed bottoms and open tops help potters shape their wares. But, well, is it just me, or is this one just the slightest bit overused?
I get the purpose of it. This trope packages up a whole host of literary conventions in one small character. Thanks to the ex, the romance comes largely developed (we need to just clear away that little misunderstanding from twelve years ago) and the plot’s source of tension arrives ready-made. The rest of the book practically writes itself!
As a reader, though, I have to admit to usually feeling a little cheated when the book uses the straight-out-of-the-box Tragic Betrayal incarnation of The Ex™. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I honestly wonder what romantic could find it satisfying to read through a romance that appears before us fully formed. I don’t know about anyone else, but I like seeing the romance blossom. I dig the internal dialogues as characters wrestle with what love means to them. I cherish the awkwardness of the first kiss.
In short, I want to see them fall in love, and introducing a prepackaged romantic couple only separated by misunderstood and tragic circumstances robs me of that.
As a writer, I find myself frequently exasperated with this trope because it requires little creativity. I think of it as one of those tubes of chocolate chip cookie dough; just because you’re the one that scoops the goop onto the baking sheet and slides it into the oven doesn’t necessarily equal homemade chocolate chip cookies. Plus, the story often lacks, since the major source of tension, that unresolved act of betrayal, is one small, rather transparent curtain separating the pair; we readers wait with (if you’re me) impatience while the characters remember how to unblock a window. One little conversation, and the entire book’s dance of evasion and impassioned anger (probably, but not requisitely, including heaving bosoms) becomes pointless. The day is won.
I can understand authors of novellas, those travel-sized novels, strategically employing this trope in hopes of saving some space. And perhaps some talented authors can breathe fresh life into the archetype. But the rest of us might benefit from veering away from these ready-made, boxed, and sealed characters. If not for our own creative sakes, out of respect for our readers.
And hey, maybe a little for our characters, too, who just might like a little more room to grow and breathe.