Saturday, May 10, 2014

The soulmate trope

There are a lot of romance tropes that I can take or leave, but for some reason, this one gets under my skin. Maybe because it has the potential to be fascinating, but so often it leads to romances with glaring power imbalances, or where there’s no real conflict once the hero and heroine meet each other. Because, after all, they’re soulmates so that means they’re perfect for each other.

For the purposes of my mini-rant, I’m going to define “soulmate” as someone who’s been destined for the main character, rather than someone who’s right for them but who hasn’t been preordained as their only choice by some higher power. So here are the problems I have with the trope, and a few ways to fix them.

1. Everyone else is automatically inferior.

No matter how much they care about the protagonist or how much he/she loves them, every other person they might be involved with is shown to be inferior or is forced to step aside when the soulmate shows up. In one case, the author flat-out made it clear that only a designated soulmate could actually love the protagonist.

Of course, that raised the question of whether the protagonist was naturally unlovable, such that someone had to be preprogrammed to care for him. Solution: don’t denigrate freely chosen love to make soulmates a more attractive choice (or the only choice). I’d love to read a romance where the hero found his soulmate, except she was happily married to another man and wanted to stay that way, even if she was with the hero too. Hey, menages are popular these days.

2. Obsessiveness or unhealthy controlling behavior on the part of either person is excused.

In two different stories I’ve read, the hero is a powerful immortal being while the heroine is an ordinary mortal. Fine, I’d prefer them to be on a more equal footing but I’ll go with this. But then I find out that, knowing they were soulmates, he watched her from the time she was a baby until it would no longer be statutory rape (under US law, of course, never mind the time and place of the story) for him to make a move.

This might have been presented in an "I'm watching over you like a sexy guardian angel" way, but I don't find it romantic. It's a violation of privacy. I mean, did these men even look away when the little girls took a bath?

Still, this works for some readers, because not everyone thinks it was creepy of Edward to watch Bella while she was sleeping.

3. “The universe will put a gun to my head if you don’t love me.”

In other words, unless the MC finds his preordained love interest, he will go insane, turn evil, be stuck in wolf form forever, etc.

For me, this puts far too much pressure on the love interest. I wouldn’t date a man who said he would die unless I did so—I’d think he was desperate or mentally unbalanced. Even if I had proof that yes, he would die without my affection, I’d admire him much more for trying to find the root cause of his problem, rather than sticking me as the Band-Aid over it.

This is my biggest problem with all soulmate stories where the failure to find a soulmate means insanity or death. Why has no one ever attempted to investigate this phenomenon, much less change it? These days, scientists are even studying the causes of aging, to see if lives can be extended, so you'd think that if everyone knows they have death or worse hanging over their heads, they'd try to investigate it or look for a third option.

If they don’t, either the author has created the most fatalistic, incurious population ever. Or they've all read the script and know they’ll be provided with a love interest.

I'd love to see a soulmate story where someone didn't accept that the rules were carved in stone. It would be awesome if the hero and heroine, without the usual insta-love between them initially, worked together to find a solution and fell for each other along the way.

4. No real exploration of what it means to be a soulmate.

If there’s some higher power handing out soulmates, what’s the reasoning behind the choices this higher power makes on behalf of the protagonists? It’s easy to say “a soulmate is someone who will love you and make you happy”. But that just raises the question of how this is different from someone you meet on your own, someone who doesn’t have a star on their forehead that lights up when you meet them, but who admires you and cares about you anyway.

For instance, is a soulmate someone whose personality matches yours or complements it? Does a soulmate think the same way you do, so if you’ve decided not to have children, the soulmate doesn’t want to have children either? But say you change your mind later. If the soulmate obediently goes along with the new decision, then they’re not a different person—they’re your reflection in a mirror.

On the other hand, if the soulmate has their own goals and needs, some of which conflict with the protagonist’s in a way that’s not easily resolved, that could be interesting. This would be a great example of the trope being used the right way—to bring the hero and heroine together, but as the start of the conflict rather than the end of it.


Evelyn Arvey said...

Great post, Marian. A lot to think about. I have to take a good look at my WIP to make sure I'm not falling into any of the traps you mention. Thanks!

Evelyn Arvey / Gail Bridges

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Evelyn! I wouldn't worry too much about making a story original - for every reader who thinks something is a tired cliche, there's another reader who sees their favorite trope.

Most of all, I wanted to toss out ideas for tweaking the typical soulmate story. Because I always have more ideas than I have time to write. :)

Randall said...

I've never been a fan of the soulmate trope, and for a lot of the reasons you mention here. I won't use it myself, though I have used Love At First Sight, which is almost as bad, but at least there you can make it that the characters have to work on their relationship.

And you have the option of only one character being in love. What happens if one character is soulmated to the other and the second character isn't?

Marian Perera said...

I've sold a manuscript which uses Lust At First Sight, but I'd find Love to be a bit trickier. Unless there's some kind of paranormal forces or magic involved. Otherwise... how do you even know who the other person is? What are you falling in love with?

Randall said...

I'm pretty sure that in real life it's nothing more than infatuation. But you play with the tropes the genre gives you, right?