I am struggling with handling reader expectations in my novel. I have clearly telegraphed the genre to the reader so that they know that it's speculative fiction.

However, I have a situation where a POV character (let's call them Alice) has a crush on the future villain who we initially think is good. I want use Alice's heartbreak to illustrate the badness of said villain. But I don't want to promise a romance where there isn't one.

My only thought was hanging a lampshade on it like: "If this was a story, thought Alice, maybe they had a chance of getting together. But this is real life so she wasn't getting her hopes up."

But I sort feel that that is quite conspicuous and might even be what a romance would do.

I'd like to add: Alice is friends with the main POV character and the perceived love triangle is also needed for a major complication where Alice betrays the main character out of jealousy. Main POV can't know about Alice's feelings but the villain could.

1 Answer 1


My only thought was hanging a lampshade on it like: "If this was a story, thought Alice, maybe they had a chance of getting together. But this is real life so she wasn't getting her hopes up."

But I sort feel that that is quite conspicuous and might even be what a romance would do.

I agree, the lampshade is so conspicuous that drawing attention to the failed relationship is 'promising' the opposite. I think a better idea is to signal the truth to the reader while the character remains in denial.

In a traditional romantic plot, the characters resist until the relationship feels inevitable. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth is so vocally opposed to Darcy – not just as a husband but as a human being – the final joke of the novel is when they finally get engaged her family feels sorry for her.

Reversing on that logic, a character convinced of her relationship while the story signals 'no', should promise the reader a disillusionment or backlash when her fantasy comes crashing down.

I offer a list of 'red flags' that signal a doomed relationship. Some are contradictory, some impose on characterization. Some are tropes, and some are based on rl.

Alice is unworthy

(assuming a sympathetic, deluded Alice):

  • Alice is inexperienced and naive about men.
  • Her relationship ideal is inconsistent, or based on dysfunctional role models.
  • She changes herself to win his approval.
  • She increasingly excuses Villain's flaws to preserve a fantasy.
  • She chooses Villain over her friends, sabotaging her own support network.
  • She sees others as a threat to her status with Villain.
  • She steals/lies/frames someone for murder to help Villain.
  • She has self-serving motives for the relationship (money, power, family name)
  • She wasn't interested in him, until her friend starting dating him.
  • She can't be happy seeing him with someone else.
  • She is already insecure, and the relationship makes it worse.
  • She is entitled, and assumes the relationship is requited.
  • She lies to imply there is more relationship than there is.
  • She does too much.

Readers should be thinking "Oh. that poor dumb girl."

Villain is unworthy

(foreshadowing his villainy without kicking dogs, etc)

  • Villain is a creep who pushes boundaries (yeah, I see where this could signal a 'romance trope' where she 'fixes' him).
  • He has self-serving motives for the relationship (money, power, family name)
  • He only noticed Alice after discovering she could lead to an opportunity.
  • He imposes tangible loses on Alice (financial, work opportunity, reputation).
  • He pursues Alice and the other POV character simultaneously with the same technique.
  • He has sex with people he doesn't care about, and breaks up if they become attached.
  • He does not value relationships, but assumes everyone else does (the suckers).
  • He attacks an enemy through their marriage/love interest.
  • His status requires him being a free agent, or he does not want public displays of affection.
  • He needs a status marriage.
  • He thinks love is a vulnerability, but sex is a prerequisite.
  • He has relatives who control his future, and ultimately he values his class, wealth, status more than love.
  • He is over-invested in the 'romance' preferring the chase to the conquest.
  • He keeps his clothes on during sex (symbolically hiding himself)
  • A fundamental political or religious hypocrisy (vow of chastity, ethnic supremacy)
  • He judges her body-type, skin color, or other aesthetics in relation to his future children.
  • He's using Alice as a beard to misdirect from another relationship.
  • He's a different person when they are alone, not in a good way.
  • He doesn't do enough.

Any 'bad boyfriend' trope will work, but also non-romantic situations where he prioritizes himself and his status over others.

The relationship is cursed

(assuming a no-fault, doomed relationship)

  • In a love triangle someone is 2nd choice. Zero-sum game means one woman will ultimately be the odd-man out. (Rivalry is a big Romance Genre trope, so the goal is to signal it was never an even competition.)
  • Their beliefs/values are incompatible. Disagreements threaten their friendship, arguments result in tears, not make-up sex.
  • One is much more experienced/worldly than the other.
  • They are both the same 'type' and compete for status/attention/jobs.
  • The sex is cruel, selfish, one-sided.
  • The sex is awkward, an 'intimacy embarrassment' is handled badly.
  • The sex is intoxicating and increasingly risky (both are using the other to work through past issues.)
  • They have conflicting priorities, which didn't matter... until it mattered.
  • They have incompatible sexual orientations (she wants a daddy, he wants a stripper), or they cannot provide what the other needs (stability, excitement, submission, spirituality, etc).
  • Society would never accept them, and it sours their time together.
  • There was never a relationship, just presumption or family obligation.
  • They do not have the maturity to work through hurdles together.

It might be interesting to point readers to feel sympathy towards a 'no fault' breakup, before Villain evolves into a complete bastard, or before we realize Alice is a biased narrator.

  • This is a great answer. I know it's a big ask but could I pressure you for two, contrasting, prose excerpts to solidify it. A sort of "do this; not this". For instance, if we were to contrive to do the same thing when Elizabeth meets Darcy at the initial ball, how would it read if Elizabeth was sure of success but the reader was signalled 'no'?
    – NeRoboto
    Nov 14, 2021 at 19:40
  • Austen's over-confidant heroine is Emma. 2 examples where Emma misreads a suitor. 1st is Philip Elton who is after Emma's money while she is trying to match him with her friend (it's obvious to everyone but Emma). 2nd is Frank Churchill whom the story points as an ideal match for Emma in class, looks, charm, wit. He's a more advanced manipulator, and uses Emma as a beard to divert from his secret relationship. Emma gets used but was not really in love, she just liked the attention they got as a couple. Everyone feels sorry for her 'humiliation' which makes her feel more foolish than upset.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 14, 2021 at 21:08
  • Intended to add my 2 cents, but you really covered pretty much everything. It was a really complete answer Nov 15, 2021 at 3:27

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