Trigger warning: This mentions of dark content in books and films such as abuse and toxic relationships.
Ranting warning: It’s a long one because I have too many thoughts on this. Skip to the bullet points for the main gist of what I mean.
This is an extension of Pushing Boundaries part 1 and part 2 where I talked about digging deep to make your writing more meaningful or venturing into graphic content while avoiding offending or triggering readers. If you’ve done this right, then readers will love your books.
Before I start, the idea of “it’s only fiction” works when the reader understands this. This is usually through a character who scolds inappropriate behaviour or a character who feels guilty for it. That being said, there are so many inappropriate things in books that many readers love. However, many get slated for it and it annoys me, especially when it’s my favourite fantasies that aren’t meant to be real anyway.
These are mostly in relation to fantasy romance, and I’m sick of people picking apart these books just because they don’t like them. By all means, give an honest and polite review on Amazon or Goodreads, then shut up about it. Stop ruining the fun!
Tropes I’m talking about…
- Touch her and die.
- I hurt her to spare her or it was the lesser of two evils.
- Morally grey characters because of some past trauma..
- Redeemable bullies, again because of past trauma.
- Alphahole dominant males because it’s “their way”
- Random violence being totally acceptable, ot sexy.
- Being a prisoner because it’s what someone else thinks is best.
I love all the books or TV/movie adaptations listed below and I’m simply pointing out the issues that go too far by real-world standards. But before I get to the fantasy books that prompted this post, let’s look at some other popular stories with the tropes mentioned.
Retellings of popular stories. And these are for kids…
- Beauty and the Beast – This is basically a Hades and Persephone retelling with emotional abuse that borders on bully romance where Belle is a prisoner for no obvious reason other than the beast is a jerk.
- Tangled – Parental abuse with the “mother” brainwashing her stolen daughter and keeping her as a prisoner because “mother knows best”. Then sends shady characters after her.
- Maleficent – Maleficent is tricked by the king, then made to look like the villain. And he gets away with it for years. Ugh.
Now let’s look some classics…
- The Picture of Dorian Gray – Suicide, abuse, morally grey characters.
- Pride and Prejudice – The original bully romance if you ask me. Mr Darcy is grade A asshole until he realises he needs to change his ways.
- Dracula (Bram Stoker’s) – Is he a true villain if he’s fighting for love? Or is he morally grey and blinded by the belief his love has returned?
And now for some real-world stories…
- Fifty Shades of Gray – Dominant male in position of power, borderlines on abuse at times (matter of opinion) and toxic relationship.
- Bridgeton – Daphne and the Duke… Toxic, much? Yes, this is a historical novel, but it’s written for modern readers who still lap up the Mr. Darcy character.
- After series – Every book, Hardin is an asshole and makes Tessa feel like it’s her fault even though he’s supposedly doing what’s best for her and “protecting” her.
Lots of book all over the scope push boundaries in their tropes. So why do people focus so much on my favourites?
- A Court of Thorns and Roses – Morally grey characters, abuse, touch her and die, lesser of two evils. The love interest does some questionable things to keep his people and Feyre safe against far worse fates.
- Zodiac Academy – The Heirs use the Vega twins’ deepest fears against them using violence and emotional attacks. And the vampire among them bites Tory whenever he wants. .
- The Cruel Prince – Cardan is a bully to Jude for no obvious reason, but when she stands up to him, it just makes it worse.
- The Bargainer – Des abandons Callie for… reasons (no spoilers) and it really hurt her. Now he’s back and expects her to fall into his arms again. Also, they’re both a little morally grey.
- The Plated Prisoner series – It’s in the title ffs. Auren was saved by her “captor” but wasn’t an instant prisoner, so the realisation snuck up on her. Also, she’s the only one of her kind and he helps her keep that secret.
- To Kill and Kingdom – This amazing retelling of The Little Mermaid but the MC is “Ursula’s” daughter and just as cruel. That is until she’s exposed to the human world and begins to question her mother’s ways.
Now for some fantasy books that I didn’t love but I still think get too much hate…
- Game of Thrones – All the dark abusive and triggering content. But it comes with that warning so I think it gets slated too much considering it’s a dark fantasy.
- From Blood and Ash .- The MC’s love interest gets off on her being violent. Sure, it’s overdone for my liking, but whatever. He’s a warrior who thrives on violence, so it’s part of his normal life.
All the books mentioned have reasons for these outrageous things that don’t fly in the real world. So why do so many readers love these tropes?
I can only answer for myself.
They often have a character who is human or grew up like a human for whatever reason. They recognise the assholes with unfair and unreasonably extreme behaviour. Acknowledging these differences establishes the separation from what’s acceptable and what isn’t for us as humans, while justifying the other species and their rules and instincts.
The “touch her and die” trope is possibly a little overdone sometimes, but in a general threatening sense, I quite like it. In one book, the FMC’s ex leaves her to die in a car in a lake. Later, the MMC forces the ex to apologise on video while using magic to inflict terror into the ex. He’s physically unharmed after, but it was super funny and satisfying.
There’s also the “lesser of two evils” trope where a character makes others suffer in order to protect them from a worse fate, usually things the other character is unaware of. The fantasy worlds I read have cruel leaders or warriors who grow up with one thing on their minds. Power. Then someone comes along to threaten that power and all hell breaks loose. So one secretly good-ish character plays both sides while doing all they can to protect as many people as they can but have to sacrifice their soul to do so.
The bully romances I read usually involve some abuse towards the bully from a parent or person in authority. That doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but it explains it and gives their current victim some sense of sympathy towards them. This makes way for understanding, which leads to a truce, friendship, and often lovers because the MC saved the bully from their own abuse or trauma from it.
Then there’s random violence against others. Biting people is okay if you’re a vampire. Growling is perfectly normal for animal shifters. And setting people on fire is accepted if there’s healing magic to fix it. Also, these people are NOT meant to represent realistic humans. They’re fantasy and mythical creatures who have animal instincts and very different ideas of everyday decency and morals. Also, it’s a different world where political power has a whole different meaning when kings and lords can obliterate people with a single thought, so beating up a few people is considered low-level violence.
The prisoners I read tend to accept their situation as the lesser of two evils by protecting someone or something. Belle is protecting her father. Feyre (from ACOTAR) is protecting her family. Auren is protecting her secret of who she really is.
For me (emphasis on me) fantasy can get away with so much more because it disconnects many readers from reality even when it covers real issues. Somehow, they become more acceptable in a world where the rules and people are different. But at the same time, representing these issues in real-world stories appeals to a lot of readers. They might be relatable or inspiring that people can overcome traumatic situations and that everyone is redeemable in the right circumstances. .
And just as I was working on this post, I saw these from fantasy writers and readers on TikTok.