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Discussion: Cheating Tropes

I’ve seen some discussions about books lately that have frustrated me, largely because they center around “the cheating trope.” For this post, I’m going to be breaking down that “the cheating trope” is actually a few key tropes with major differences, and how applying the same interpretation to all of them does a major disservice to the works that employ them.

Trope #1: Traditional Cheating

To get this sorted out first and foremost, let’s define the traditional cheating trope. Cheating in a relationship is generally considered the act of emotionally or physically engaging with another person outside of a monogamous relationship. Cheating can be a one time offense or a long term affair. It can be emotional in nature, such as conducting a long term long distance affair where no physical intimacy may take place but the relationship itself is a betrayal. It can also involve singular intimate and physical acts. For many, cheating involves an aspect of lying. This can be lying about one’s whereabouts, lying about whom the affair is with, lying about how often the cheating occurred, denying that it happened at all, or denying what it might mean.

Trope #2: “Justified” Cheating

I put justified in quotations to assuage the different opinions on whether or not cheating is actually justifiable. This trope generally occurs in the case of a neglectful or abusive relationship. The abused/neglected party is generally very unhappy but for one reason or another unable or unwilling to leave the relationship. When another person enters their life who sparks genuine attraction for them, it becomes a gateway to their achieving happiness by leaving the negative relationship behind. Depending on the severity of the relationship, sometimes “cheating” occurs and to mixed results depending on how vindictive the partner is.

Trope #3: Reverse Cheating

In this situation, the trope focuses not on the person doing the cheating, but the person they are cheating with. Depending on the story, the person in this trope may be aware that they are part of an affair, or they themselves may be misled into believing they are the primary relationship of the other person. This trope is often met with mixed reviews, as some readers will take the side of the protagonist as they aren’t actually the cheater in a relationship, and others will blame the protagonist for being just as culpable.

What’s the difference?

Ultimately, these three tropes make up a sort of “cheating scale.” The extremes range from a situation in which the cheating is perpetrated by the protagonist and seen as an act of betrayal to a situation in which the protagonist will be highly sympathetic. There’s a lot of grey area when it comes to cheating, especially when it comes to what line must be crossed for it to be truly considered cheating. There are a lot of stories that due to the circumstances, and context, don’t portray cheating for the majority of readers. Because these tropes are on a scale, it leads to different readings for different readers.

Why does it matter?

Ultimately this matters when it comes to our role as book reviewers. Cheating tropes may be meant to inspire a certain set of feelings, but can easily be turned into a subjective interpretation. Authorial intent does matter to a certain extent, and if as a reader you can put aside how you feel about cheating you can usually determine where on the “cheating scale” the author wanted the protagonist to be. However, cheating is a highly subjective topic and many people have very strong feelings about cheating that will cloud their judgement when reading about it. If you are a person with a very black-and-white view of cheating, you may want to consider avoiding reading and reviewing books in which cheating is a significant plot point. It comes down to “don’t like it, don’t read it” when the use of the cheating trope is meant by the author to lead a certain direction.

What I’m trying to get at here is this: I understand and sympathize with readers who find a book unbearable because of the presence of a cheating plot line. I also believe that those readers should stop, put down the book, and think. Will the cheating plot line ruin the experience of the book regardless of where on the “cheating scale” it falls? If so, DNF. Put the book away, do not review it. If not, then move forward with caution. For some readers, cheating is going to be a big topic that will take over their review. If you know that about yourself, take it into account and try to realize how large a part of the story the cheating trope or plot line really is. It does a disservice to the rest of the story if the trope becomes all you can focus on.

By Catherine

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

One reply on “Discussion: Cheating Tropes”

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