Writing Tips

Unpopular Opinion: Healthy Relationships Shouldn’t be Required in Fiction

I was recently on Twitter when someone asked for unpopular opinions, and one that’s been grating on me came out in the form of this tweet:

Full disclosure: I actually wrote a blog post about this that was supposed to go up earlier this year, but I chickened out. Why? Well, because I know it’s an unpopular opinion. But after sharing it on Twitter, I dug it out of my saved drafts and decided to talk about it today. So, let’s dive in:

Healthy relationships have become an expectation in fiction as of late, and while I see the benefits, I also don’t think it should be expected. 

Don’t get me wrong. If you want your romances to only feature healthy, communicative couples, I support that 1000%. What I am pushing back on is the idea that every reader out there wants that. In fact, I know quite a few readers who prefer the darker side of fiction. I, myself, have a handful of toxic tropes I am a sucker for. And nothing drives me crazier than when I log into social media and see someone has posted an excerpt of a book out of context, slamming the content. 

In fact, this is a common social media quirk in the publishing world. A screenshot of an excerpt in a romance novel where the characters are acting…well, questionable at best. I really dislike this trend. Not only are excerpts usually taken wildly out of context, but it also assumes that every book should have modern, healthy relationship standards throughout the entire story in order for the book to be considered “good” writing or worth recommending. 

In reading reality, we shouldn’t have to put modern, healthy relationship standards on couples in adult fiction. (I have different opinions on romance in kidlit, so for the sake of this post, I am focusing on adult fiction only. I put my quick opinion on kidlit at the very bottom.) In reading reality, toxic tropes can be fun. Sometimes it makes for a more compelling story. 

I, for one, love love love an overbearing, overprotective partner and a feisty heroine who pushes back. It’s a common trope I eat up every time. And, honestly, that trope is on the lighter end when it comes to the darker side of the romance genre. That said, just because I enjoy these tropes does not mean I don’t see red flags written all over someone who follows you around town. That’s messed up in real life. But in a story? It can build a lot of tension and set up a lot of conflict. It’s the “rising action” part of the plot.

Personally, I think this pushback of darker themes stems from a romanticisation of the behavior in real life, which isn’t okay. I get that. I do. That is dangerous, and media absolutely influences folks. One way an author can combat this in their darker-themed story is by having side characters point out problematic behavior. Including content warnings and domestic violence resources at the back or beginning can also be helpful. But I stand by my opinion that not all books are here to teach lessons. Sometimes, it’s just a story. 

Let’s look at science fiction and fantasy, for instance, where world building could theoretically change what is considered “healthy.” I think of the common “mate” trope. Meaning, there is one fated partner the protagonist absolutely is meant to be with, even if they don’t want to be. Often, another suitor is thrown into the mix to challenge this bond, and obviously, a lot of territory-type behavior comes out of this. Sometimes, a character’s mind is thinking one thing, while their body is doing another. Would any of this be healthy in real life? Nope. Of course not. People have freewill and can leave a partner anytime. You can’t force two people to be together, and others shouldn’t butt into someone else’s relationship. Not to mention that the mind thinking one thing, body doing another trope is certainly an uncomfortable consent conversation waiting to happen. But does it make for a compelling story? Absolutely.  

You see, fiction has always been a place where readers can explore the human condition in a safe place. That often means creating darker scenarios that test a person’s abilities. For instance, pushing a character’s morals to see what they’re willing to do to save the person they love, whether or not that person loves them back. 

It’s damn interesting. 

It’s a story

So, what would I recommend, considering there are wildly different expectations out in the readerscape?

First, it starts with how the book is marketed. Using accurate descriptions and compelling cover art that sets the right tone will help shape the readers’ expectations. A book with dark themes and toxic tropes probably shouldn’t have a cover with rainbows and butterflies. 

I also believe in setting the tone early on in a story. That goes for any book in any genre, but it’s vitally important to do so in a romance if you’re exploring twistier ideas. Why? Because those tropes can often be triggering for readers, and by showing what’s to come in some way, you’re avoiding not only a disappointed reader but a very upset reader. (Providing content warnings in your book is important, too! I’m a fan. I recommend saying something along the lines of “content warnings can be found in the back of the book” and placing them there, so that a reader can find them if they need them, without having them front and center at the beginning for those who feel like they’re a little spoilery.) 

That said, of course you can critique toxic tropes in books. I’m not saying you can’t. But purposely picking up a darker novel to critique that content specifically is a lot like adults rating teen books low because they were written with a younger audience in mind. That book isn’t for you. You knew it wasn’t for you. Find something that is, and move on. (But that’s just my opinion…even if it is unpopular.)


My opinion about kidlit? Honestly, I could write a whole new blog post about this, but I’m going to keep this as short as I can: In kidlit, healthy relationships should be the goal. That means while toxicity can definitely happen–especially amongst young people who are inexperienced about managing their own emotional well-being, let alone getting to know someone else–I also expect red flag behavior to be called out and defined as red flag behavior, especially in a romantic setting. If it’s not called out by the protagonists, then side characters can do the trick. But again, I want to emphasize that this is MY opinion. That doesn’t mean I expect every author everywhere to adhere to that. I will also stand by my opinion that books are not always meant to teach, let alone provide role models. They are meant to tell a great story. And sometimes, that means controversial things will happen in a book. As a librarian, I always recommend parents visit Common Sense Media for more information about the content in books if they plan on reviewing what their kids are reading.

4 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion: Healthy Relationships Shouldn’t be Required in Fiction

  1. When I published The Irrepairable Past, a couple of friends read the blurb and said “that sounds depressing, why would I want to read that?” Others have complained that somebody always dies in my stories, or that they are depressing. My response is usually either “there is no drama in happy” or “you can’t get to happy without going through something.”

    Your post here is yet another examle of somebody claiming there is a “rule” to writing that all must follow. I can’t imagine anything more boring than every story having healthy, happy relationships. And I’ll never understand why people insist that their expectations, and their wants, are the only ones that are valid.

    1. Right?? I love a healthy relationship in real life stories, but novels and movies? I want the drama. I want the mess. I want to cringe and cry and laugh and cheer characters on when they beat the odds. I understand wanting a feel-good story, where there isn’t much bad, but that doesn’t mean every story needs to be that way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I think critics and even some writers take the content too seriously at times. For the reader, aren’t confused about the repercussions if it was in the real world. They totally know it’s a story. And it’s a story they chose to read. If it gets too icky, they can just put the book down. (Although many, like me, might not put it down because they want to know the ending. )

    1. I agree! It seems, for the most part, the average reader isn’t as worried about these conversations as the critics/writers/publishers. But I can only speak to my experience doing readers’ advisory at the library. Excellent points! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, Deby!

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