In recent years there has been growing awareness of the troubling trends in fictional romances, especially, but not limited to, YA romances. It seems to have come to the surface along with the acknowledgment of rape and abuse in society, which is telling. The issues in fiction largely centre on male love interests, particularly the “bad boy” archetype, wherein the edgy, dark male character exhibits behaviours toward the female love interest that are red flags of mental and even physical abuse, and are never properly addressed or rectified but instead played off as part of his “dangerous allure” or some such bosh. But these issues are getting much more airtime, as I said, and so I would like to rather focus on a slightly more nuanced treatment of the same trend. One way romance authors have found to finesse their jerk of a love interest into a more favourable position with the heroine and reader is by introducing another guy who is blatantly criminal as a point of comparison: I call it The Wrong Man.
Now, I understand the need to have a guy (or any character, really) with an interesting character, back-story, and different, not always admirable, ways to express and cope with these things. But I grow tired of the inconsiderate jerkface who ticks the main character off without fail and doesn’t ever really change anything about his terrible behaviour but just warms the MC up to it so that she takes him, immaturity and volatility and all. Even worse is when this jerk, who has had little to no character growth, is set up as a paragon of virtue at the end of the story by default. Instead of writing some quality character growth and, heaven forbid, some actual acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the aforesaid is simply awarded the “not-as-much-of-a-jerk-as-you-could-have-been” medal. Often this is done by throwing in a second love interest, often a friend, boyfriend, or fiancé of the main character, who is a stand-up guy who treats her decently without transferring all his hang-ups onto her, but copes with problems and disagreements in a mature way. However, lest this decent human being start to make our chosen love interest look like the poorly developed caricature that he is, it turns out in the end that the decent guy—surprise!—is a vicious, money-grubbing bastard who is trying to cozen, kill, and collect on the main character. Who ya gonna call? Jerkfacer! In sweeps Mr. Surly to save the day, his long-buried righteous anger stoked, his heretofore nonexistent sense of decency awoken, and saves our damsel from distress.
I cannot even begin to recount how many romances I have read with variations on this trope. One that stands out in my mind as being the first that really caught my attention in a bad way as to how prevalent the plot is, is a Christian fiction book called Taming Rafe by Susan May Warren. In it, the main character is engaged to a nice man and is in the process of throwing a charity ball when the to-be-tamed Rafe drunkenly crashes his truck through the front lobby of the hotel where it’s all taking place. The charity ball is a disaster and the damages are an exorbitant amount, so our heroine decides to track down Rafe after he’s been released from the hospital and ask him to put up the money for the payments and the charity—after all, he’s the one who caused all the damage. She gets nicely (meaning: not-so-nicely) told to bug off by a Rafe in crutches on the porch of his family’s ranch house. Of course, Rafe has some understandable problems which led him to this place and, although drinking and driving is a serious issue especially considering the property damage and injury to himself and others, it’s not a deal-breaker fictionally if it’s followed up properly. The issue comes in when he does all this, even with his “understandable reasons,” runs away to his family home to sulk, and, not only takes no initiative to atone for his actions, but refuses to take responsibility for them when the opportunity presents itself. Even when he and the main character were supposedly falling in love, I honestly can’t remember him ever really changing significantly, instead the onus seemed to be on the heroine to “understand” (read: “excuse”) him. At least, his character never changed enough that it could stand on its own merits without the clincher at the end that the heroine’s fiancé turned out to be slowly poisoning her…as he had done to two women previously! Dun-dun-dun! In swoops cowboy Rafe to save the day in an epic rooftop fistfight with the slimeball in a suit, and carry off his love in triumph. Instant preference engaged for himself, in comparison with the murderous, money-hungry Prince Charming.
Another book with the identical trope is Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray, which I couldn’t even finish. It was even more obvious: by chapter three, right after some less-than-savoury business practices and unscrupulous dealings are shown to be headed up by the alternate love interest, the heroine’s thoroughly respectable current fiancé turns out to be an abusive bastard. “Oh, some rich young man from a good family, probably titled, is going around and beating up prostitutes when he loses at cards? I wonder who that could be…” Cut to the scene of the heroine meeting her rich young fiancé from a good family, probably titled, for lunch. Yeah, I wonder. So, in comparison to the completely depraved fiancé, the alternate love interest looks little more than morally grey with his questionable carryings-on. What’s really happened is relativity—in comparison with fellow B, fellow A looks quite good. We’re supposed to forget that the standard is actually much higher than that presented to us in this lesser-of-two evils scenario.
A milder form of disqualifying one love-interest to make the remaining one look better happens in The Hunger Games books. I admit, I was team Gale. He was a good guy…until Mockingjay, when suddenly he is found to be lacking a moral compass, out of freaking nowhere. Suddenly, Katniss knows she can never be with him, and Peeta, attempted murder notwithstanding, is obviously the better choice. I’m not saying Peeta was really villainous–he was brainwashed, I get it. But I just wish it had been more clearly Katniss’ choice to be with Peeta instead of him being like some sort of consolation prize because she can’t countenance being with cold-hearted, collateral-damage Gale. I would still have been upset, because I supported Katniss and Gale’s relationship over the one with Peeta, but I would have respected the author’s choice in making a tough call and standing by the consequences instead of trying to edge out the sidelines with last minute justification as to why Gale is actually no good and therefore Peeta is automatically better.
If you must have a love triangle, by all means, have a love triangle. But let’s try and make it a true choice. Please. Because what The Wrong Man does is present an impossible option opposite the favoured hero, thereby robbing the heroine of any real opportunity to choose. And, to me, the entire point of a love triangle is the choice.