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Writing the Age Gap Romance Trope

Updated 15 May 2024

Age gap is one of the OG romance tropes and has been around for a long time.

You can find evidence of it in early historical romances, written back when the heroes and heroines often had decades separating them. Sometimes, the heroines were younger than 18 when they got together with the heroes. 

And now, you'll find it in many contemporary romance niches, especially those featuring alpha heroes, billionaires, CEOs, and mafia bosses. It's exploded in the last few years, to the point where you can't scroll through an Amazon Kindle bestseller list without seeing at least a few romances feautring the trope.

But what qualifies as an "age gap" in romance?

Generally, a romance novel qualifies as "age gap" if there is more than 10 years' difference between the main characters, and the age difference affects the characters' internal conflicts and/or external conflicts.

I know what you're thinking . . .

What is internal conflict, and how can the age gap romance trope affect it?

Internal conflict is responsible for most of the tension—aka angst—in romances, and age gap romance novels are no exception.

And it might seem like, in an age gap romance, the internal conflict is about the age gap itself—that the crux of story is two people getting over their preconceived notions about each other's age and finding common ground on which to build a relationship.

Not so, friends.

Or at least, that's not the only conflict.

Good internal conflict is all about emotion, because it results from emotional wounds. It hurts to work through, and that hurt promotes character development, spurring the character to develop a deeper understanding of their self, their needs and wants, and the world around them.

In the best age gap romances, there are several conflicts, and the one about the age gap is the least important and easiest to work through.

What other conflicts, you ask? Why, external conflict, of course!

What is external conflict, and how can the age gap romance trope affect it?

External conflict is a person, event, or force—a mother, a tornado, or a schoolboard, for example—that makes it difficult for the main characters to get together. But unlike internal conflict, external conflict doesn't automatically lead to character development, not unless it's connected in some way to the characters' internal conflicts.

Let's look at the mother example. Maybe one of the main character's mothers hates the idea of their daughter being with her ex-stepfather, and this forces that main character to finally decide to pursue her own happiness and stop putting her family's needs before her own.

For the tornado example, maybe hiding in a storm shelter (aka the forced proximity trope) and seeing their lives threatened by a force they can't control motivates them to take chances they would have been too afraid of before, and spend the time in the shelter expressing their feelings and deciding how to move forward together, instead of apart

The best age gap romance novels, the ones readers love, have a blend of both internal and external conflict.

Why do readers love the age gap romance trope?

Two words: forbidden love. Which is a trope in and of itself, commonly seen in fantasy and paranormal romance and romantasy, but also describes a group of tropes that revolve around—you guessed it—forbidden love.

And what does forbidden love create? Tension, friends, tension! Which is really just another word for internal and external conflict.

And solving those conflicts promotes character development, which is the backbone of so many good romance novels. And it's one of the reasons readers love age gap romances—they get the satisfaction of seeing two or more people grow through their love for one another, a love that defies expectations.

The growth can be subtle, like in The X Ingredient by Roslyn Sinclair, where it's in Diana that we see the most change, as she grapples with her sexuality and divorce, or more overt and equal between the characters, as in Birthday Girl by Penelope Douglas, and To Tame a Wicked Widow by Nicola Davidson, an older woman, younger man historical romance with characters who have to reckon with family and societal expectations to be together.

Are there particular sub-genres of romance where age gap romance is more popular?

Even though age gap started in historical romance, it's more common to find it in contemporary romance now. But you will find it in other sub-genres, like paranormal, historical, and fantasy.

However, be careful if you're using the trope in a paranormal or fantasy romance where one character is centuries older than the other. For the book to qualify as an age gap romance, the age gap has to affect the characters' internal or external conflicts in a signficant way. Otherwise, the story won't contain the beats—i.e., important scenes–that age gap romance readers expect and want from romances with the trope.

Are there certain character archetypes that fit well with age gap romances?

I listed a few at the beginning of this post—your alpha heroes, your CEOs and mafia bosses. But the trope also works well with professor characters, stepparents and stepsiblings, daddies, and even shifters. And don't forget that, though most age gap romances algorithms show you will feature men as the older character, there are just as many readers clamoring for age gap romances with older women.

What are the most common tropes authors use with age gap romance trope?

Age gap goes well with the guardian/ward trope, where the age difference adds another layer of internal conflict for the guardian, who has to battle feelings for someone who is not only younger than them but is also under their care.

The trope also works beautifully with forced proximity, because the characters can't escape their feelings for each other and have to eventually confront them. Cole McCade's Over and Over Again is a great example of this trope combo.

What are the no-nos of writing the age gap romance trope?

The age gap trope has two big no-nos:

-the youngest main character must be over the age of 18 when the relationship begins in earnest. The characters might have shared crushes on each other and a few kisses, or even gone to bed together in the past, but in the book itself, the character must be 18 or older. No exceptions, from readers or from Amazon, who can dungeon (or prevent you from publishing) books that break this rule

-the age gap must affect the story in some way. Yes, I know, I've said this many times in this post, but that's because it's important! Readers want to see the trope explored fully; they hate it when the trope is tagged in a subtitle or blurb, but when they read the book, the age gap is only mentioned once, and has no effect on the romance, character development, or sub-plot

So now that you know the age gap romance trope, how you can use it, and what readers expect from it, go forth and write your best age gap romance novel!


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