This article first appeared in RWA-NYC's September Keynotes newsletter as part of the tropes issue. I love a good historical marriage of convenience romance. I just do. I know some people find the trope tired—like an old friend you’ve seen one too many times—but my love for the “we have to get married because we just do” storyline will never die.
Historical settings are removed enough from my every day life that I can easily accept that there might be social and economic reasons for a hero and heroine to marry even if they don’t love each other. Take the Regency period. Between securing a woman’s financial future and ensuring a man’s lineage through heirs, you’ve got plenty of reasons why a man might ask a woman to marry him whom he hardly knows—let alone loves.
As an author, getting the wedding over and done with achieves a few things. The marriage immediately creates conflict because these two relative strangers must now figure out how to live together as a couple. At some point, the barriers between them start to fall. Even though they might resist, affection grows between them. And the best side effect of the marriage of convenience? Our hero and heroine no longer have to worry about those pesky societal rules saying they can’t kiss or, you know, have sex. Often it is that physical intimacy that shows the hero or heroine that they’re falling in love even as they try to resist.
Now, you might notice that I’ve only talked about historicals so far. I generally have a tough time enjoying marriages of convenience in contemporary settings because I’m always left asking why?
Why would a modern hero and heroine who are intelligent, attractive, independent people have to get married if they don’t want to? If a man said, “My inheritance is dependent on us getting hitched,” to me I’d probably run in the opposite direction the moment I realized he was being serious. Likewise, when I read about a man who must get married because his corporate environment only trusts so called “family men,” my first thought is always, “It’s time for a new job.”
The problem with using the trope in contemporaries is that it becomes a lot harder to justify forcing the hero and heroine to wed. Let’s take a look at some of the common external conflicts forcing historical couples together. Pre-martial sex has become the norm in this country. With entails a thing of the past, how many families are really desperate for a male heir these days? And even better, most women now have the means to hold a career, own property, and manage their lives as they see fit.
So what is a contemporary author who wants to play with the marriage of convenience trope to do? Get creative.
The key to using a marriage of convenience across genres of romance seems to be finding new, interesting ways to twist and update the trope. If you set off to write a marriage of convenience romance, ask yourself what you can do to avoid sending the hero and heroine down the normal path to love. Breathing new life into the old trope can help keep readers racing to the end to see how your hero and heroine will finally fall in love.