The Mate’s Trope
I’d been meaning to write an article concerning this topic for a while now. Actually, I’d been meaning to write an article to post on this blog period! But as they say, life comes atcha fast, and here I am sitting in the middle of a whirlwind wondering when I’ll ever have time to actually write something that’s not related to my books between work and everything else grabbing at my attention.
Including games of solitaire. Like … ?
But okay, let’s get going while the going’s good, and today’s subject, boys and girls, is the Mate’s Trope in PNR (I know it’s featured in a few other genres, but I’m going to focus on PNR since that’s largely what I write for). To best understand this trope, one needs a little insight into what romance is overall, so allow me to offer a brief explanation.
Romance novels are stories of how two people meet, fall in love, and make a lasting commitment to each other. Whether contemporary, historical, or fantastical in setting, someone is finding true love! Thankfully, imagination has given us writers a vast number of tools to both create our stories and pair these couples off as an item. The couple meets, and may not like each other at first, but something about this person eventually draws them in, and romantic shenanigans ensue! A look, a touch, a few words spoken, all of it feeds an emotional development that will eventually lead to the discovery that hey! This person is the one I want to be with, for better or worse!
Bottom line: Romances are stories of true love with a happy ending.
With that said, let’s really talk about these tools authors use to get their couples off the ground. Whether the two meet and know from the start that there’s an attraction, or they don’t really discover/acknowledge their true feelings until the last few chapters, there are hundreds of ways to develop the relationship. But where most romances do this via use of human psychology to evoke romantic responses, there’s another means of getting these people together without all of the emotional hoopla getting in the way, and it’s a means the paranormal genre has taken huge advantage of:
The mate’s trope!
This trope is honestly unique among romance. Instead of having a couple meet and remain friendly (or enemy-ly) for several chapters of the story with no hint of romantic affiliation, an instinctive response instantly manifests, and something tells this character they’ve found the person they’re meant to be with without any of that pesky soul searching and emotional baggage gumming up the works.
The reason this trope operates in such a fashion is that one or both of the characters aren’t actually human. They’re werewolves or vampires or elves with supernatural traits and/or abilities, and they just know they’ve found the one!
Here’s an excerpt from one of my books that might better explain what I’m talking about:
“Dalris, you’re squeezing me!”
Somehow, Robi’s complaint broke through his stupor, and as he loosened his grip enough to allow her to hop down to the floor, he also heard her gasping.
“Whoa! Are you okay?”
“Oh shit,” Jada cussed, sounding strangely surprised, and he couldn’t figure out what was wrong at first.
But then he heard a possessive growl, and soon realized it was his own.
Dalris was in Wrath at the sight of his eternal mate.
This is a very popular trope in the romance community, specifically because it allows for some interesting twists and turns that won’t be found in other books. Yet, like all tools, it has both pros and cons to consider when using it, though before I get into any of that, let me back up a few steps and tell a quick story (don’t worry, I’m a writer, this is what I’m paid to do! :P)
I hadn’t thought too much about the difference between the mate’s trope and your “average” (for lack of a better word) romance much, even when I started writing The Crucible Series (which is PNR and features the mate’s trope). What I’d really considered was how the trope had been used, what I liked/didn’t like about it, and how to proceed with using it in my first book, Blue Moon. I’ll get into this a little more later, but for now, I’ll just say that it wasn’t until Fangirl-Musings did a video review of Strange Brew that I really started considering it.
Strange Brew was the first book I wrote where at least one of the characters (Troy) knew who their mate was without even knowing their name. My first two books, Blue Moon and Light of Dawn, differed in this regard (the couples in those books didn’t just look at their partner and declare yep! You’re the one!). With that said, in the video review, Fangirl-Musings critiques the story by stating that it seemed as if Troy and Aislinn hook up without a real bridge between the meeting, the sex, and the I love you’s. The rest of the book seems to have pleased this badass book reviewer, but like any good writer, I’m going to consider the negative as well as the positive, and try my best to apply what I’ve learned to future works.
So I really started breaking down possibilities of why it seemed as if there wasn’t a strong connection between my couple’s first meeting and the final outcome, and came to a pretty solid conclusion: The mate’s trope eliminates a great deal of the emotional development most romances exhibit.
Instead of having a period where the two main characters are realizing they might actually want to try for something more, or that their feelings are going beyond the friendly variety, we jump right into “let’s-go-for-a-relationship-ville”. There’s still a period of courtship, and still tension, but it’s a different kind. For example, in some paranormal romances, imprinting on a mate has a drawback in that one can’t live without the other, meaning that if these characters don’t hook up, someone’s life is on the line!
Sadly, this type of dire circumstance can (and has been) used to justify some really problematic situations. I won’t name books or authors, but I’ve read plenty of stories where one partner will get uncomfortably close to this literal stranger just because they’ve found a mate, even when that mate is human and not only lacks the same connection, but also has no idea such things exist. To add an element of “creepy”, the set up is usually (though not always) “supernatural male meets human female”, and I don’t think I have to explain why this can take the situation to an uncomfortable level if the writer isn’t careful.
But to clarify, this kind of situation is all too reminiscent of the “Boys will be boys” mentality, a phrase uttered numerous times as a means of justifying the way men disrespect (or just flat out assault) women by insinuating they have no or less control than women, and shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions due to that lack of control. With the mate’s trope, the only difference is “supernatural will be supernatural”, meaning we shouldn’t hold this character’s misbehavior against them because “they’ve found their eternal mate and want them so badly they can’t help themselves!”
I don’t buy it, and I think we can all do much better as writers when/if we decide to employ the mate’s trope in our books.
This is why it’s important to really make this trope our own. I’d mentioned before that I was considering it when writing my first book, and I certainly ended up creating my own “rules”. In fact, I’m not entirely sure if you could say the mate’s trope applies to Blue Moon, and it might be better called “the bonding trope” instead. Cade and Ashley (lupines or “wolf shifters”) don’t just see each other and declare themselves mates. Instead, they start bonding which, eventually, leads to a permanent “matehood”.
This bonding doesn’t work the same way with all “species” in my stories, however, because it’s much more interesting (and arguably realistic) if different beings have different “biological processes”. For example, the draconian, Dalris (as seen in the excerpt above) knew Jada was his the moment he laid eyes on her. Jada, however, is an elf, and they don’t exactly know their mates just by taking a single look. But again, no matter what processes characters undergo in this fashion, the point to this type of parsing is that it’s important for us, as writers, to not only figure out what works best for our stories and develop the trope to suit its needs, but also to employ the trope in a fashion that’s not, well, creepy.
So while I wouldn’t say this trope has more potential pitfalls than your “average” romance trope, they definitely exist. The relationship could come off as unhealthy (just imagine being eternally mated to some asshole who mistreats you!), specifically in cases where the character never decides, for themselves, to embrace their fated connection and recognize their partner as the one they truly want to be with instead of simply saying, “Well, I’ve got no choice, it is what it is, so I might as well settle”.
In those cases, the relationship loses both legitimacy and likeability as the pages turn. You could have the greatest plot the world has ever seen going on in the background, but if our couple isn’t making strides in the foreground and/or has no chemistry, the end product will come off as hokey, forced, and potentially boring.
So in conclusion, the mate’s trope is best used as a catalyst, and not the focus of the relationship. Sure, it’s going to be a large part of a protagonist’s life and possibly even their reason for checking this person out in the beginning, but what is it that keeps them coming back? How are they dealing with what’s changed as a result of finding their mate? What do they intend to do about it? How do they feel about this person they’re supposed to be paired with and what makes them ultimately decide it’s actually a fortunate turn of events?
In other words, how do they fall in love and why is that so amazing? This is why the reader has picked up the book. They already know someone’s going to find their mate, and want to learn why they should love the couple as much as the couple has come to love each other!
Thoughts? Opinions? Is the mate’s trope something you adore, or avoid at all costs? Let me know in the comments! :D