Apparently there's a "new" trend in romance. I say "new" because it almost seems like people took something that already existed, with nuanced, complicated characters who ended up redeemed through their growth arc, and decided to scrap that growth arc. It used to be called "dark romance." Now, apparently, we have "bully romance."
These are romances where one MC bullies the other (or another for stories with more than two people in the central relationship; for clarity, I'll stick with a duo going forward). Many are YA, and apparently the bully growing & being redeemed is not a requirement for the couple (bully and victim) to reach a "HEA/HFN" ending.
On the face of it, this sounds like a hard no, especially the lack of growth. Unhealthy dynamics do not make for a Happy Ending. While I know many in the industry disagree, my personal opinion is that the 50 Shades trilogy is about abuse, not romance, and that noncon (stories featuring non-consensual sexual acts between the main characters) is not romance. I also think incest isn't romance. (Seriously, this shouldn't be controversial, but somehow is?) Some things may make for compelling dark stories, and they may involve unhealthy sexual relationships, and the couple may even end up together in the end, but that doesn't make it romance.
But many readers, and clearly many authors, disagree. Noncon romance is a thriving sub-genre (as is dubcon—"dubious consent"—romance, which is exactly what it sounds like). And as I've learned just recently, bully romance is currently a big trend.
I want to say I'd never read a bully romance. And I'd certainly never write one. But have I? Am I?
What's the line between antiheroes and enemies-to-lovers tropes and complicated power dynamics—and bully romance? Because I love antiheroes, and sometimes they aren't so nice to their love interest, at first. Enemies-to-lovers is a bit easier to distinguish, because ideally both characters have agency and there's a more balanced power dynamic at play. One character doesn't have to be the victim of the other. But also, sometimes they are, and the premise is about the relationship that develops as a result of fighting back (and therefore learning more about one another).
For me, a hard line is that the bully or mean character has to end up believably redeemed. The bullying absolutely must stop, ideally some kind of reparations (including a sincere apology) must be made, and both characters have to grow into a balanced power dynamic with a compelling emotional connection that doesn't feel like Stockholm syndrome.
Like I said, that is supposedly not a requirement in "bully romance." The fact that many of these are YA (characters in high school, stories targeting young readers, though also often read by adults) makes this trend seem way over the line. Romance novels should model healthy, empowering romantic relationships!
Then we get to the antihero, the romances with darker themes and complex, even tortured, characters ending up in equally complex relationships. The stories I loved (yes, even when in high school) that...might be bully romances? Or, because the "bully" does go through a growth arc and end up redeemed, are they just complicated, flawed characters finding love?
One example that comes to mind is Because You're Mine by Lisa Kleypas. A tortured hero, a young heroine, and a romance that doesn't quite stand the test of time, because of one dubcon scene that is fairly uncomfortable to read nowadays. But with that caveat, it's otherwise a great book with compelling, complex characters. Still, the hero bullies the heroine, and for most of the story he has all the power, except for her own sense of self and a couple kind women who help her out.
The thing is, that's just the premise. Their dynamic changes before they fall in love. And before they can reach their HEA, Kleypas forces them to confront all of that and change—the hero has to make amends and be forgiven by the heroine; and she has to learn her own worth and take back some of the power in their relationship.
Why am I taking the time to detail all this, you might wonder. Why can't I just say "bullying is bad" (it is!) "and it has no place in romance"? Well...
Because I'm writing a romance, with a main character who for much of the book bullies the heroine.
Okay, this is where you stop reading if you don't want spoilers about my books.
I don't want to romanticize bullying, and I certainly will never romanticize abuse or non-consensual sex. But remember Shoshana and Luc? She works for him, and he 100% bullies her. Think Miranda from The Devil Wears Prada—but if Andie eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with her. They do not get together until their power dynamic changes, and there is an important redemption arc for Luc, and the story doesn't have a perfect HEA ending (it's very much a HFN with hope for the future). Also, Shoshana is resilient and never emotionally destroyed by the bullying, which seems important when discussing this dynamic.
No more spoilers from here.
So is it a "bully romance"? Or is this a "dark romance"? There's a market for both, but you know that's not why I write. If I oppose the unhealthy dynamics in stories like 50 Shades being labeled "romance," should this story go in the drawer and be forgotten? (Or be reworked & labeled as something else?)
Or is the redemption arc still the line? Do dark, tortured characters and exploring the impact of their demons on a relationship—and of a healthy relationship on facing those demons—have a place in romance, if the characters grow?
I'm really asking. The concept of "bully romance" has thrown me, and I'm wondering if I'm propagating unhealthy dynamics I absorbed without noticing. Does it all come down to the writing, or in other words, "it depends"? What do you think??