Trope Spins #4: The Arranged Marriage

Everyone buckled in? I hope so.

Annaliese!”

Yes, Mother?” I said stiffly.

Your betrothal matters are being discussed.”

I seethed rebelliously. I didn’t want an arranged marriage. I wanted to marry for love.

Sound familiar?

The arranged marriage trope is an insanely popular one. Formula: girl + boy + parents + love interest = foolproof plot. Plug in some names and you’ll be good to go.

I know you’ve seen them. I definitely have. These stories end up being some of the most formulaic around. When they appear in historical fiction, they’re usually the entire focus of the book. In fantasy, sometimes graciously sharing the limelight with an epic war plot. Pouting, tantrum-throwing girl… snooty betrothed… rigid, authoritarian mother… (Me: *rolls over, snoring*)

But not only is this trope one of the most trite and most popular… it’s also one of the least logical.

Has it ever struck you what a strange quantity of these brash, headstrong teenage girls seem to exist in the mists of story? Yes, in the country where most of us live, it’s practically anathema. But there are other places that practice it to this day, and places that did practice it for generations.

Anyone raised in a particular culture is unlikely to question the norms of that culture.

You have to remember that your character is in this groove. To her, it is the ordinary course of life. She expects it. And if you want her to fight back, you need a reason for her to be outside the groove.

Of course, some people are born to be great thinkers, with minds that question and search out the reasoning behind everything. But for goodness’ sake, don’t just slap a giant intellect on her and assume you’ve done your part. Great minds come with consequences: often awkwardness, moodiness, and sometimes pure stupidity in certain areas. Do your research.

Other catalysts that can create a new way of looking at one’s social construct:

  • A prior love interest. In my experience, the love interest tends to show up after the girl has stated her abhorrence of her lot in life. However, using the love interest as reason for her to change her thought processes is considerably more plausible.

  • Having lived in a different place. This one can be ripe for fascinating study, as cultures clash.

  • Having received unusual education. The reason behind this education ought to be made clear, but it’s a good way to get your character thinking outside the box.

Now, we’ve discussed the peculiar population of rebellious girls. What about the equally strange quantity of moronic, autocratic parents? Does maternal love exist only in our own time?

Not all arranged marriages in the past centuries were for politics and greed.

In fact, many of them were never that. Parents, anxious to secure their children’s well-being and happiness, would seek to find genuinely compatible partners for them, often a friend that the child had known all his/her life. The child’s opinion might be asked, especially if he or she was of a more mature age. Mistakes could happen, yes. Just as they happen in unions of completely free choice. But arranged marriage was not always the inferno of torment that is generally assumed.

So try some of those ideas out. The parents might believe the situation is a suitable match, but does the girl know something they don’t? Or perhaps the parents don’t believe it’s a suitable match — but are they forced into it by extenuating circumstances?

Still more ways to rehash this old trope into a new skin:

  • Incorporate an arranged marriage into your book that ends up working out. I did this with my novella/legend Flare in the Darkness, and I can say that it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing on that account alone. It will add a surprising richness to the story.

  • Invert the usual triangle. Suppose the betrothed couple actually want to get together, and the extra young man is an unwanted pursuer?

  • Write the story that I’ve always wanted to read: The boy runs away from the arranged marriage instead of the girl.

I could talk about this trope for a couple more pages, but I’d better stop while I can. I hope this article has caused you to rethink your own cultural norms a little bit… at least the norm of anathemizing arranged marriages. ;) Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you again with our fifth installment of the Trope Breaker series… the Love Interest itself!

This article was first published in The Fae Folk ‘s monthly magazine “Trope Breakers”. Read the original