They come in two moulds, these troubled tragedites: they're prickly and defensive, or they're all-out for the no-strings sex. Often, they're a nicely phallic-shaped pendulum, swinging between the two. Yummy emotional conflict, right? Kind of depressing half the time, actually. And often just damn offensive.
Is anybody else tired of the abused heroine? The heartbroken hero? We've all had bad experiences in our lives, and they do shape our personalities -- but to this over-saturation of mistreated Marys, I object. I object! And here's why:
1) It's true that bad experiences can make people reluctant to start new relationships. However, that's only one side of the coin. What about the huge number of hurt people who go to great effort to throw themselves into relationships, often one after the other? We all know that person, right? We don't tend to read about them (unless they are secondary characts, in which case, we mock them) because the idea of having a high number of partners is somehow distasteful to the reader (though the heroine doesn't have to have slept with them all). Yet the idea of a heroine coming to love herself in the midst of all this sounds like a pretty juicy story to me. She gets to sift through the fish pond for her special lobster. That fish pond would be all kinds of fun to write. I can see the concern: the reader might think she's pathetic. There's a challenge if I ever saw one, then: make sure she's not. (I've seen a couple of these characters in chick-lit, and it speaks volumes that we see it more in a humourous genre than we do in romance).
2) Bad past experiences are so often used as an excuse for a woman to have casual sex. Why, why, why does she need this excuse? Why does she need to disengage from the male species to burn up the bed sheets? Isn't this kind of misogynist? If I see one more novel tied up when the hero saves the heroine from her abusive ex's attacks, I might have to write a haiku about it. You've been warned...
3) You don't need to have been abused to be interesting. You do not have to be damaged to be beautiful. That's not to say I don't enjoy a brooding hero or a twisted heroine, but the point is, "normal" people have all sorts of fascinating, evocative intricacies and faults that could just as easily build a story. A tiny experience -- just a moment, something insignificant to all others -- can shape a person. They don't always need a fatal accident, a hospital visit courtesy of the ex or a dead relative. Romance plays on drama, and so it's easy to fall into these tropes -- but a reader can relate to that tiny moment just easily, if not more easily.
4) Previous abuse is not a Get Out Of Jail Free card for being an ass. It does not excuse the hero being mean to the heroine because "all women will hurt him in the end." (I say this as somebody who did once have a bad time of things, and was subsequently an ass). It takes more than the revelation of abuse to redeem this guy for the misogynistic crap he normally pulls.
It it is not realistic, contemporary reasoning for the heroine to hide away from all men because isolation -- especially literary isolation -- is not in the moments when the character is alone. It's when they are out there, trying to live, pretending...and they realise what a great hash they're making of things. How none of it matters. That is when she is most lonely: when she can't escape the fleshy reminders of everything she doesn't have. If she never does much and then suddenly meets the hero, she never has that moment, and we never get to empathise.
I'm not advocating a lack of conflict. On the contrary; I love spotting the line of conflict in a story. It's the tributary, my personal connection point.
We're all a little bit damaged, and it's a good writer who can spot this. But anyone can find a matted scar. Maybe it's time to start looking for that near-invisible needle prick, or the surgical cut made by the cold knife that has since healed so beautifully...on the outside. More and more, I find myself drawn to to the stories that don't go back to "he/she was hurt in the past" as a default. Yes, these things make for interesting plots, done right. I'm even fond of a few of them (Jacqueline Carey's Imriel springs to mind). I'm just starting to find it strikingly unoriginal to base all of the conflict on this point.
Looky, no haiku! You lucky, lucky people...