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Trope Discussion: Asshole With a Heart of Gold

Hiya readers and welcome to another discussion post! Feel free to jump in at the bottom and leave your thoughts on this trope, which I’m sure many of us are familiar with!

The Trope Itself

The trope for “Asshole With a Heart of Gold” is essentially based around a character–usually a man, the male romantic lead in a romance novel–who is externally a gruff, rude, sarcastic asshole with a reputation for misdeeds but at his core is a morally upright person, generally with softer needs and wants than his peers attribute to him. Often times this character’s asshole nature is more reputation than reality, and for one reason or another he has not set the record straight. There are also times where the reputation is earned but one being actively repented. The image of being an asshole, bad person, or just generally unlikable is the most important part of the trope because an undeserved reputation is easily refuted in the course of a romantic story.

Reputation vs. Reality

The times where this trope is done well are based in the idea of reputation vs. reality. Sometimes there is an overall plot that has to do with perceptions–such as in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth must come to terms with the fact that she is hastily judgmental of others. In a novel that is also making a point about getting to know others before you judge them for what’s on the outside, the “Asshole With a Heart of Gold” trope generally comes out well. You have the basic steps of an initial disastrous first meeting, in which the (usually female) main character meets our Asshole and they don’t get along. Usually a sarcastic comment goes amiss, perhaps the Asshole made an assumption about the protagonist and the protagonist reacts by confirming for themselves the Asshole’s reputation. Miscommunication takes over from here.

In these cases, the use of the trope is generally both to create delicious tension between the romantic leads and to make a statement about judgement based on appearance, rumors, gossip, and other external factors. The trope works in these stories because it promotes a lesson. Additionally, the use of the trope in these stories creates that tension with a “bad” character but ultimately the Asshole is proven to be a good or at least decent person. The reputation for whatever misdeeds is proven to be blown out of proportion, and if the Asshole did commit any misdeeds in the past they have long since been repented and forgiven. The reality of the trope in this context, then, is that the Asshole is not actually an asshole but has the unearned reputation of one.

When The Asshole is Really an Asshole

And here we reach the murky waters of a True Asshole. Some stories featuring this trope are stories about redemption. Often they are romantic stories, but ones that equally focus on the Asshole as well as the other romantic lead. The Asshole’s character growth is meant to show you that they grew out of and redeemed themselves of whatever misconduct they engaged in before. This can work well, when their behavior is largely self destructive and doesn’t cause much harm to the outside world. It can also work when their past actions haven’t been great but are hardly damaging to others. But then there are times this trope is used to try and excuse unacceptable behavior, and that can happen one of two ways.

The first way this happens is to utilize the trope to redeem a character with a very dark past. A good example of this happens frequently in vampire fiction, where the vampire is usually a centuries old killer. Sometimes the vampire has already developed a code of conduct for more ethical killing by the time the story starts, other times they change their behavior only because it makes their love interest uncomfortable. Something about the romantic interest inspires the Asshole to want to try and be a better person, and if done right the trope still works out as a redemption story.

The second way this trope is employed, though, is to say “no no this person was good all along!” without any proof to that point. This use of the trope generally comes about when the romantic lead is given information otherwise not shared with the rest of the world. The Asshole has a soft spot for children, or suffered a terrible loss, or has some other explanation for their behavior and attitudes. The romantic lead then does some pseudo-therapy to try and help the Asshole work through their trauma, and through the power of love brings the Asshole over to the good side. Often, when this is the direction the trope takes, the Asshole’s actions are not wholly redeemable, or the Asshole doesn’t really do anything to repent or make amends. This is where the trope really does rely on the romantic chemistry of the pair to carry the weak story.

Final Thoughts

I think like many other readers, I was exposed to a lot of this trope in the days of Wattpad stories, Quizzilla, and rampant fanfiction. Any bad guy, villain, or tortured hero from a popular fandom that could be rehabilitated was treated to several variations on this trope. There were plenty of Wattpad stories that styled themselves off similar romance novels focusing on someone whose position in life set them up to be an Asshole, but they were sweet on the romantic interest. Personally, I find this trope delightful when it’s well done and written with a degree of nuance. Presenting a story that’s just as much about reputation and trauma is very interesting, especially considering this trope is largely applied to men in fiction, and trauma experienced by men is largely ignored by society. But I can’t say I’m thrilled by the continued use of this trope as a weak excuse to let romantic leads get away with controlling, disturbing behavior.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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