Friday, 25 September 2020

Exploring Romance Tropes: The Virgin Protagonist

Wow, it's been a while since I've done any blogging... In my defence it's mostly because I've been busy writing my ass off... 

Anyway, enough about me. What I'm hoping to do over the next few months is try to deconstruct some of my favourite romance tropes from a writer's perspective – to help aspiring romance writers get a clear perspective on how these tropes work, why I love them and also hopefully to dispel some of the myths about them and to address some of the criticisms levelled at them from non-romance readers. 

But really, this is first and foremost a way to start a conversation among writers, so you might want to skip this post if you are a romance reader who has no interest in writing a romance, because I'm going to get boringly technical.

So before we get to discussing that most maligned of romance tropes – The Virgin – let's start with a few essential truths about writing romance.

Tropes Matter, But Not as Much as Character

Romance is a genre in which story structure is built on a vast array of established tropes – enemies-to-lovers, accidental pregnancy, secret baby, marriage of convenience, blind date, fake engagement, etc. Why? Because each one of those tropes create an instant external and internal conflict to challenge your characters and on which to build your story and hopefully hook your readers... The prevalence of tropes in romance storytelling, though, is also one of the main reasons the genre is often derided, or dismissed as formulaic, regressive, clichéd, etc. But I would argue, that's because people who don't read romance, don't understand how tropes work – and why particular tropes appeal to particular readers. They also don't understand the vicarious pleasure a romance reader gets from finding out how specific characters react to a specific trope... Which is partly because a lot of non-romance readers don't have any idea exactly how sophisticated romance readers actually are. 

A romance novel after all seems remarkably simple on the surface, it's just a story of a relationship with a positive outcome. But that simple structure hides a wealth of complexity, especially when it comes to characterisation... Because more than any other genre, the story in a romance novel is driven by how your characters interact with each other rather than the external plot. That's not to say the external plot – ie: the things that happen in the story outside your protagonists' control – aren't important. Depending on what kind of book you're writing and in which of romance's many many subgenres, that external plot can also be crucial. But, ultimately, it's the internal story of how your protagonists' relationship develops, how they grow and change as characters as a result of their relationship and their interaction with that external story that your readers want to read about most of all. In other words, without complex, multi-layered, believable characters with weaknesses as well as strengths who your readers can relate to, no one is going to want to read your romance, no matter which tropes – or how many – you employ to tell your story.

So finally, on to one of my favourite tropes...

Introducing The Virgin Protagonist:

I'm not gonna lie, the Virgin Trope is often viewed as an old school romance trope. Not least because, while there are some amazing stories featuring virgin male protagonists - see Anna Campbell's brilliant Untouched for starters - the virgin in the story, particularly if it's a heterosexual romance, is usually the female protagonist.

The virgin heroine trope is derided because it is perceived as suggesting a double standard - why should the woman in a heterosexual relationship, especially in a contemporary romance, be less experienced than the man? Are readers making value judgments about the morality of female characters as opposed to male characters? Well, maybe some of them are, after all romance readers, like every type of reader, come with their own unique set of values and perspectives... 

But here's the thing, for me, the reason I love writing the Virgin trope - whether it be the male or female protagonist, and I've written both - has nothing whatsoever to do with moral judgements. For me it's all about how brilliantly it can throw a spanner into the works of a relationship by defying or confounding expectations in that relationship. Because what a character perceives about another character can be turned on its head by that revelation – that one or other of them is not as experienced as they seem – when it comes to the first fully consummated scene of sexual intimacy. Obviously there is the question about how the inexperienced character reacts during that first sexual encounter – did they enjoy it, did it meet, or exceed expectations? Was it more intimate than they expected? Less so? But for me, perhaps more importantly, it's also about how the more experienced character reacts to that revelation too. Are they surprised? Shocked? Or even threatened by the other protagonist's lack of experience? Does it make them feel a bigger commitment than they want to? Does it fundamentally alter their perception of who that character is or how they will now react to what's just happened between them or what they are expecting from this relationship? Can you see how making one or other of the characters sexually inexperienced - they don't actually have to be a literal virgin btw for this trope to work (see below) - can create tension and subtext and internal conflict within that relationship? And subtext and tension and internal conflict is something that all romances thrive on, because it's the creation of that, the build up of it throughout the story and how it is eventually confronted, challenged and resolved that is the REAL vicarious pleasure romance readers seek – whatever their views are on female, or indeed male, sexual experience in relationships, and whether those relationships are heterosexual or feature LGBTQIA+ protagonists. Of course the degree to which you can ramp up the tension and the internal conflict between your characters with this revelation will also depend on a number of other variables, all of which are determined by your individual characters and their back stories. eg: how wide is the gap between their experience? Perhaps they're both virgins for example! How do each of them feel about the experience they already have sexually if and when they discover the other character has a lot less or a lot more? Is their lack or not of physical intimacy or sexual experience an inconvenience, a problem, a choice, a result of trauma, etc. 

And then in your story... How does that first sexual encounter develop on the page? And what happens after that initial encounter – whether the sex was good, fabulous, or absolutely horrendous? The answer is, hopefully lots more delicious internal conflict develops!

So I hope I've demonstrated how a writer can use the Virgin trope to develop conflict in their story... But here's the interesting thing about the Virgin trope, like a lot of other romance tropes, sometimes the trope itself, and the readers' familiarity with it, can be explored by the writer without actually adhering to it... 

Exploring the Virgin Trope: Or How I Used It in The Royal Pregnancy Test, Without Actually Having a Virgin in the Story!

So far I've talked about the Virgin trope in general and all the delicious What If questions it can create. But one of the things that got me thinking about writing this blog was when I saw that a reader had posted a warning for other readers on my next Presents/Mills and Boon release The Royal Pregnancy Test on Goodreads pointing out that they weren't going to read the book because they had discovered the heroine wasn't a virgin. That's absolutely fine, like most readers, this reader has particular tropes she loves to read and it's totally her prerogative to decide not to read a book that doesn't contain them... And to let other readers who may also love the trope know too. Goodreads is after all a forum for readers to discuss books with each other... But that warning got me thinking about the Virgin trope, in connection with this story and thinking about how integral it is to the story - did I say it was one of my favourite tropes?! - even though neither of the main protagonists is actually a virgin. And then it occurred to me, that is one of the beauties of romance tropes. Readers (and writers) are so familiar with them, that they can be used in all sorts of different ways to develop internal conflict and add complexity to characters and their backstories... 

Confused? Let me explain. (Warning: there be spoilers ahead!!)

So The Royal Pregnancy Test is the first book in a duo I've written with the wonderful Natalie Anderson. Our heroines are identical twin princesses Juno and Jade Monroyale - who were separated as children after their parents' divorce. The reckless rebellious twin Juno was sent to NYC to live a fairly normal life with her mother – a former actress with addiction issues who died when Juno was 18 – while Jade, who was the older by two minutes and therefore heir to the throne, stayed in the Alpine kingdom of Monrova with her father the king to be trained for monarchy. At the start of the story, King Andreas has been dead for a year, Jade is now the Queen and she's seriously considering an arranged marriage to neighbouring playboy king Leonardo of Severene. But then her sister Juno, who Jade hasn't seen in person since she was 16, although they've stayed in touch, turns up incognito at the Palace just before a Winter Ball. After discovering Jade's plans to marry Leo, who Juno thinks is a massive jerk (more on why later), Juno suggests they swap places for Christmas. It's basically a Prince and the Pauper/Frozen mash-up with added sexy times! 

So Jade heads off to New York to pretend to be Juno, little realising Juno has just had a massive screw-up at work and her impossible boss is NOT HAPPY with her (more on all that in Natalie Anderson fabulous second book in the duo The Queen's Impossible Boss). While Juno stays in Monrova planning to annoy Leo enough at the coming Winter Ball to totally put him off the idea of an arranged marriage. 

Now, Queen Jade is a virgin. She's been sheltered by her father her whole life, and Leo knows it - because King Andreas boasted about his daughter's virgin state while trying to set up the marriage before he died. In fact, Leo, being sexually experienced himself, isn't too keen on this. Why would he want his bride to lack experience? It could make their marriage even more awkward, especially as there's not much of a spark between them. But at the same time he's very pragmatic, to the point of being quite arrogant, and he figures it'll be okay. After all he knows how to please a woman, because he doesn't lack experience himself. 

But then the spark that Leo thinks doesn't exist between them ignites at the Ball, when he meets Jade again... Because well,  it's not Jade it's Juno! 

Juno, is not a virgin, although she doesn't have a great deal of sexual experience, and here's why... During her last disastrous summer visit to Monrova when she was 16 she threw herself at the 22-year-old Leo, who she had a massive crush on, and Leo rejected her, because she was just a kid and an annoying one at that. Then her father kicked her out of the kingdom for good, when he found out about her 'hoydenish behaviour'. As a reaction to that rejection, she went 'all the way' with a boy in high school on her return to NYC. Afterwards she discovered this boy had only slept with her on a bet, and the encounter was totally meh – as it often is with first times tbf... And she's not been that fussed about sex ever since, she thinks because of the meh encounter, but also actually because Leo's rejection and the shitty behaviour of that boy hurt her in a way she's never really acknowledged. Juno thinks of herself as being tough, resilient, but underneath that she's actually quite wounded and vulnerable... 

But back to the story, instead of the backstory... 

When Juno meets Leo at that Ball, he's as hot as she remembers him, and while she still wants to think he's an arrogant jerk, she also hits it off with him. They flirt, the chemistry's off the charts and they end up sharing a REALLY EPIC KISS... Suddenly Juno is questioning all those assumptions she made about sex after that one rubbish encounter – but also having to confront a few home truths about why that encounter was so rubbish and why she has shied away from sex ever since. Has Leo and his rejection had more of an impact on her life than she realised? Is she not as tough as she thinks?

Meanwhile Leo is questioning how the hell he ever thought this woman was not hot. And why he's actually quite pleased now she's a virgin, which makes him question his own integrity. Where has this neanderthal attitude come from? Doesn't it make him a sexist jerk? And if this marriage of convenience becomes something more than convenient will that drawn him into an emotional connection he doesn't particularly want... Because one of the things that attracts Leo to the prospect of an arranged marriage is not just the diplomatic and economic benefits, but also the fact that emotional intimacy does not appeal to him, for reasons that become clear later in the story...

After the REALLY EPIC KISS, another problem soon transpires for Juno. Having convinced himself he can totally handle the sexual intimacy and separate it from any emotional intimacy - did I say Leo is quite arrogant - Leo is even more dead set on getting the marriage with Queen Jade arranged, or the woman he thinks is the Queen Jade... 

So Leo 'persuades' Juno to go on an official state visit to Severene with the intention of seducing her. Juno can't get out of it without revealing who she really is. But when they get to Severene and Leo shows her the kind of approval in her role as the fake Queen that her father always denied her, she starts to feel more for him than just sexual attraction. Eventually they agree to sleep together. Juno knows she must tell him who she really is, but she prevaricates, because she wants Leo so much and she's scared if he finds out who she really is he will reject her again... And that would hurt, because she's already half way in love with him, something she would never admit to herself.... Then the big night happens. Leo is careful with her, he wants her to enjoy it, he's a little surprised she turns out not to be a virgin as he expected, but it's not a big deal because the sex is so good and he's become really captivated by her. She blurts out the truth about the high school encounter when she lost her virginity and Leo is surprisingly touched that he's the first guy to give her an orgasm during sex. But then that reaction disturbs him too, because if this attraction is mostly about their sexual chemistry, why should that matter to him... Now ofc the truth is Leo is falling in love with Juno too – she's smart, funny, much more vibrant and engaging and unconventional than the woman he thought he knew (ie: the real Queen)... But Juno – realising that she's falling for Leo and he might even be falling for her - totally freaks out at this point, because she knows this whole encounter is based on a lie. She's not Jade, she's not the Queen and how does she tell him the truth now? How will he react? Concerned at first by Juno's freak out, Leo - who is an observant and intelligent guy - begins to question all the things about Juno that don't fit, all those unexpected things that have captivated him - including her lack of virginity - but are now making him more and more suspicious.... Then he figures out the truth... And all hell breaks loose!!

So after that very long and involved deconstruction of the internal - as well as the external - conflicts at play in this story, I hope you can see, that the Virgin Trope is very much present in the text, disrupting expectations, even though neither of these characters is actually a virgin! And how delicious it can be to have both characters defy expectations, but also how much fun it can be to defy reader expectations too by playing with that trope... 

So there you have it, why I love the Virgin Protagonist Trope in romance... 

Feel free to put what you think of the trope in the comments. Do you love it too? Hate it? Think it's too old school? Too problematic? Has this EXTREMELY LONG blog given you a new appreciation for it or made you despise it more? Are there any books where it's used - or subverted - that particularly impressed you?

Let's start a conversation.

Shameless plug: BTW if you are an aspiring romance writer, a writer who wants to beef up their understanding of developing romantic relationships or simply someone who's interested in learning the secrets of one of publishing's biggest selling genres, I tutor an 7-week online Writing Romance Course for the Professional Writing Academy. The next course kicks off on Monday 26th October, if you want to join us. 


Anonymous said...

***So after that very long and involved deconstruction of the internal - as well as the external - conflicts at play in this story, I hope you can see, that the Virgin Trope is very much present in the text, disrupting expectations, even though neither of these characters is actually a virgin!***

I'm sorry but I think it's quite a huge stretch to expect the average reader to buy into this interpretation - especially hardcore, loyal fans who tend to fetishize the virgin heroine trope. I doubt a reader will actually stop and think that the virgin heroine trope is being portrayed in this somewhat subverted manner; to them, she's either a virgin or she's not. The fact that her first lover failed to give her orgasm, isn't something that would make much difference to these readers. It might even infuriate some of them, because it's an overused ploy that always contrasts with the fact that the hero's previous sexual experiences always tend to be enjoyable. Almost every non virgin heroine, in a Harlequin P book, has never enjoyed sex with her previous lover(s) and the reader is left to roll her eyes when the hero turns up with his magical penis and gets the job done.

Feminist readers might even find it a turn off, because they would prefer that the heroine enjoy her first sexual experience. This middle road, with the inexperienced heroine who's never had an orgasm, seems like a tepid attempt to please both groups of readers ( the fans of Virgin heroines vs fans of non virgin heroines ). In reality, it might actually end up displeasing both, because nobody gets what she's looking for. Nonetheless, there are those who will appreciate the realistic portrayal of a heroine who chose to experiment as a teen and lived to regret it - especially if it's something that they themselves have experienced personally.

I also think your virgin heroine deconstruction narrative, as presented in this blog, is one that's more suitable for a different forum; maybe a university course on Category Romantic Fiction, that focuses specifically on these little nuances that you've been good enough to highlight. However, readers who love certain tropes, tend to expect that they're executed in a somewhat predictable manner. That's the joy of reading category romance. We know what we want and even though it's the "same old thing", it's like that comfy old blanket that never fails to warm and coddle us. It's why many readers are choosing to opt out of buying these new Harlequin Presents and to re-read old favorites instead. Or, they are turning to some new KindleUnlimited authors who are willing to feed their fixation with the tropes they love. The writing might be inferior, at times, but it costs less and they get exactly what they want. In many instances, these KU authors don't have to bother about political correctness, so their heroes are uber alpha with tons of aggressive masculine excess and there's not an ounce of that much despised "wokeness" in their stories.

Of course, it's understandable that writing predictable versions of the same old tropes might be mindlessly boring for Harlequin P authors who want to experiment. But in this pandemic era, where there's a looming global recession, readers who prefer the virgin heroine trope, will not buy books that fail to give them the temporary immediate escapist fantasy that they subscribe to - especially when a book blogger has revealed that info even before the book's been released. Lol. It's unfortunate but true.

However, I'm sure there are many readers who will enjoy the story that you have to tell and will appreciate the nuances as well.

Well, that's just my take, but good luck with the release of this novel!

Heidi Rice said...

Hi thanks for your thoughts, absolutely agree that readers have every right to reject stories that don't meet their expectations. This was merely my take on how as a writer the virgin trope can still have a powerful influence on a story that doesn't have a virgin in it. I was really just trying to examine the conflicts at play in the trope and explain its appeal from a writer's perspective (or rather from my perspective, because obviously every writer is different, as is every reader). I wasn't trying to suggest readers who want a virgin heroine in their story should want to buy this story, sorry if I didn't make that clear.

I think it's interesting though, that you talk about readers choosing to opt out of buying 'these new Harlequin Presents'. I think the thing is that as an author I'm not trying to write something that's 'politically correct' or 'woke' or whatever, neither have I been directed to do so. But that said, the stories I write and the characters I create using the tropes I love are basically the stories and characters I want to write about and I also want to read. eg: Heroes I find hot, heroines I can relate to, emotionally intense situations that get my heart racing, etc. Do the stories I create fulfil the Presents promise? Gosh, I hope so. But not every story is going to please every reader every time, simply because as a writer I also bring my own sensibilities, my own likes and dislikes to the table when creating characters and developing their stories. I simply couldn't write about them if I couldn't get invested in them - if you see what I mean.

Clearly some Presents readers who are big fans of the virgin heroine trope are not going to enjoy Juno and Leo's story, because it doesn't provide the specific kick they're looking for in a Presents story and that's perfectly fine with me. But I'm hoping there are others that will enjoy it for different reasons. Fingers crossed. LOL.