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Writing the Grumpy/Sunshine Trope

Ah, grumpy/sunshine. One of the best romance tropes to play with, because you get to create two characters who seem to, on the surface, have opposing views on life and yet, in the end, find a middle ground that makes them both feel whole.

This trope has exploded in the last few years, and I think it's because, like with so many popular tropes, it plays with extremes.

You've got a very curmudgeonly character with a thundercloud over their head all the time, and a sunshine character who radiates positivity except when they meet the one person they can't make smile.

And then you put them in a bunch of situations that force each to learn what's behind that frown and that smile, and figure out how to make each other feel safe, validated, and emotionally fulfilled, while possibly working through some past trauma.

It's a trope that—and I'm probably ageing myself here by using this term—inspires all the feels.

Translated: it has the potential to create some very emotional (and emotionally satisfying) character development arcs.

But just because the trope has the potential for them doesn't mean that every grumpy/sunshine book will include one.

Or that it should.

Before we discuss the different ways of writing the trope, though, let's do some defining.

What defines a "grumpy" character in romance?

A grumpy character in a romance novel is someone—the trend is usually characters who identify as men, but women and non-binary characters can be grumpy, too!—with a glass-half-empty outlook on the world.

And while that outlook is part of their personality, many grumpy characters have emotional wounds that also affect the way they see the world.

Falling in love with a sunshine character won't suddenly turn a grumpy character into a sunshine, a sunshine character can help a grumpy character see the more positive side of things, as well as give them a safe space to feel any emotions—happiness, sadness, grief, disappointment—they might have been bottling up.

What defines a "sunshine" character in romance?

A sunshine character in a romance novel is someone—again, the trend skews to women, but men and non-binary characters can absolutely be sunny—who has a glass-half-full outlook on life. They might appreciate the little things, and probably look at the world as a generally positive place full of mostly good people. This doesn't mean they walk around farting rainbows or love unicorns or any of the other stereotypical things people associate with hard-core optimists. They're still flawed, but their flaws might be easier to overcome than the grumpy character's.

Don't confuse sunshine characters with Mary Sue characters, though.

What defines a "Mary Sue" character in romance?

Honestly, this could be a whole blog post in and of itself, and maybe one day, it will be. But for now, let's go with a quick summary (with the caveat that the term Mary Sue is problematic, but no one seems to have come up with a better one).

Basically, Mary Sue characters are good to their core, flawless (or maybe with a very small, very easily overcome flaw or emotional wound), loveable, sensible, usually positive characters that many people in the given book/fictional world think are special. Your James Bonds (or, if you so inclined, you could refer to him by the masculine version of the term: Gary Stu. And no, I did not make that up), your Bella Swans (no shade; the Twilight series got me through high school). You could sum up Mary Sue characters with: nice people, not a lot of layers, not a lot of potential for character growth.

If you want to make your sunshine a Mary Sue, go for it, but understand the difference between the two character types, and make that clear to your readers in your title, blurb, marketing material, etc.

Why do so many grumpy/sunshine romance novels have grumpy heroes and sunshine heroines, and not the other way around?

Short answer? The patriarchy. Grumpy women—like bossy women, confident women, successful women, and intelligent women—haven't historically been well-received by the general public.

And for a lot of people, it's easier to conceive of a world where a masculine character is grumpy, because there are so many examples of it in the media; loveable man grumps abound. Loveable woman grumps? Less so.

Another short answer? Readers love a grumpy dude. Hence the plethora of M/M grumpy/sunshine romances.

Do this mean you can't write a nonbinary grumpy or sunshine character, or a lesbian grumpy/sunshine romance? Or a polyamorous, grumpy/sunshine/sunshine romance?

Nope. You can, and, I would argue, if you want to and identify as or have experience with those identities, you should. There are tons of readers out there who would love them.

As much as I'm a proponent for doing market research before writing so you know your audience and their level of interest in your stories, this is one of those times when you might not find tangible proof in more common market research venues—Publisher Rocket, KDPSpy—that readers want to see this type of relationship dynamic in a romance novel.

Go deep into some Reddit forums and Goodreads lists, though, and you'll find that, by virtue of the romance community being made of up lots of readers with different gender identities and sexualities, there will always be readers who want to see more of themselves reflected on the page, in every iteration of a trope you can imagine.

Are there particular sub-genres of romance where grumpy/sunshine romance is more popular?

Because this trope evolved out of fan fiction, it's more common to see it in contemporary sub-genres and paranormal romance (which have a track record of borrowing fan fiction tropes), but you can use the grumpy/sunshine trope in any subgenre—contemporary Western/cowboy, Scottish historical, sci-fi alien—and, as long as you use it well, you'll find readers for it.

Are there certain character archetypes that fit well with grumpy/sunshine romances?

The mountain man/lumberjack character archetype is super common with grumpy characters. You'll also often find grumpiness in characters involved in law enforcement (police, FBI, DEA), the military (Army, Navy, Marines), as well as cowboys/ranchers and bodyguards.

But again, the sky is the limit. Grumpy aliens and princesses, sunshine FBI agents, bodyguards, and mountain men—you name it, there's a trope/character combination readers will love.

And since I mentioned it, what is the mountain man trope?

Mountain man describes a type of (usually) man main character who appreciates solitude and likes the quiet offered by nature (else, why would they live in it?). They often like being in their own company (because living on their own in a cabin in the woods would really suck if they didn't, though this could be a good internal conflict—a mountain dweller who secretly hates the mountains).

If you've seen Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson is a good example of a grumpy mountain man who, for reasons unknown, elects to live in a small city. His grumpiness is softened in later seasons by his partner Diane, who shows him that a life that's a little hectic and messy is a lot more fun than a life lived with only one bowl, spoon, and bottle of whiskey to keep you company.

Are there different ways of writing the grumpy/sunshine romance trope?


Tropes, as I've discussed before, are plot thrusts that push the romance forward. Tropes can also assist with character development, and grumpy/sunshine is one of the best tropes for this, because it allows two people with opposite personalities and outlooks on the world to give each other the space to grow and work through their emotional wounds, i.e., their internal conflicts.

And working through internal conflicts is the bedrock of character development.

But the severity of those wounds, and the conflicts they create, depend on the level of angst you include in your romance novels.

If you tend toward the lower angst end of the romance spectrum, your novel might focus more on the characters opening up to each other and finding commonalities that deepen their connection, rather than fighting through conflicts that threaten it. This means your third act may include an important conversation about a difficult topic—often, this presents as the grumpy characters feeling safe enough with the sunshine character to express their feelings and feel supported—rather than the break-up and a dark moment that normally form the third act in a romance novel.

If, on the other hand, you write angst, conflict-ridden romance, then you'll probably give one or both characters deep-seated internal conflicts to work through before they get to their happily ever after, by which point they'll have changed perceptibly to your readers.

There are also different ways of writing the characters, beyond the gender and partnership dynamics we've already discussed.

Some authors take their grumpy/sunshine characters to the extreme—the grumpiest of grumps, the sunshiniest (yes, I made that word up) of sunshines—while others prefer to present subtler versions of these characters.

Maybe your character isn't so much grumpy as maladjusted, or your sunshine character isn't so much positive as doing a swan—looking calm and graceful on the surface, but paddling like mad under the water.

But is there a "best" way of writing the grumpy/sunshine trope? The kind guaranteed to get you readers?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but there's no one way to write the trope that all readers will love.

How you use the trope depends on three things: 1. your author brand (the sub-genre/niche you write, which you've made the bedrock of who you are as an author and what you promise your readers will get from every one of your books) 2. your readers and 3. your story.

Know what books you want to put out into the world, know what readers of those books want, and then figure out how to make those expectations fit into the grumpy/sunshine story in your head.

Example: if you've branded yourself as a writer of over-the-top heroes who go through a lot of angst and hardship before they get to their happily ever after with the heroes of their dreams, and then decide to make your next book a subtle grumpy/sunshine with low stakes, your readership might not like the switch. Polling them in your newsletter beforehand is one way of gauging their interest in the book, but also, if the idea is keeping you up at night, write a scene or two, see how it feels, and go from there. Situations like this are often when book coaches come in handy.

Another way of answering this question is: the best way to write it is, after taking into account what I've said about author brand and readership, to do it with the right intent. Which means treating the trope like what it is, and what I've already called it—a plot device. Have it affect the romance and the characters in a tangible, satisfying way. Make it a core part of your story.

Until next post, happy reading and writing!


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