Themes in books: vilifying the ex

Although this is a well known and incorporated trend, I got to thinking on this recently and more so, whose fault is it that such a thing happens.


Now, I’m talking about the trend in romance genre books to vilify the ex of one or both of the characters. Now this can be anything from something mild as the person took the main character/s for granted all the way up to the classic abuser/evil person. It seems if an ex is shown in a positive light, they are often dead and then details slowly emerge to show the dead ex is actually a bastard/evil person in disguise.


Rarely do you read about someone having a loving, positive relationship that unfortunately ended for whatever reason and the people have moved on. Now it has happened! Don’t get me wrong and as soon as I wrote that I thought of a few books where the ex is now the best friend. Also an exaggerated idea because where are the ones where there is no real drama, the relationship just ended but no thanks, lets not be friends. We saw each other naked and in the realm of immaturity, we now need to ignore the others’ existence.


Why does it seem there are only exaggerations in past relationships? And really, who is to blame?


Are the authors to blame for continuing this (imo horrible) theme or really, are we the readers to blame? Here I think it’s partially because readers demand and want the romance/relationship they are reading to be “THE ONE!” This has to be TRUE LOVE, all caps, and be the end all / be all relationship. All others have to pale in comparison to the connection, the love, and the sex of this relationship. The music has to soar, the angels weep and the sex flows until the end of the time. It’s definitely romantic and it’s a HEA for sure.


But to get to that, do all past relationships have to be either evil or now your best friend you never really fit with anyway?


So come on, I really want to know. What are your thoughts? 

10 thoughts on “Themes in books: vilifying the ex

  1. I find this a bit annoying too. OK, some people do have terrible previous relationships or have boyfriends/girlfriends who turn out to be cheating bastards/bitches. But on the whole most relationships just fizzle out or run their course. Why can’t this be represented too?
    The way I see it the big bad ex is often used to either provide some easy dramatic tension – like the jealous ex – or to show how marvellously wonderful the new lover is – a sort of compare and contrast. Sometimes it works, especially if an author wants to write something with a lot of angst. More often that not the ex just becomes this unrealistic monster who behaves in no way like anyone I would know and that’s just poor characterisation.

    • I think I would be more sympathetic to the bad ex if it wasn’t over-represented. I’m sort of like you where no doubt a lot of relationships just…end so why include the ex at all? Real people are reading this and yes, all romance is a fantasy, so why not just go straight for the new relationship? WHy do you have to justify being 26 and single?

  2. Well, I guess I would consider, “the person took the main character/s for granted” as a relationship that just didn’t work out and let’s move on. To me, that’s way different from the “evil ex” that I see so much of in romance.
    In my opinion, it boils down to this: why did that relationship end, and this one will survive? I don’t think authors have to turn an ex into a monster to show why it didn’t work out, but they do have to show why it didn’t work out (if the ex is included in the story in some way). Otherwise, why wouldn’t the protag be with that person still? That’s what I always wonder. And I wouldn’t want to read a story where one of the main characters broke up with the perfect man b/c he got a job 8 hrs away, and then he meets some other guy and falls in love but still thinks how perfect that other guy is. I’d either want him to make it work with the perfect dude 8 hrs away, or I need the author to show me why the new guy is more perfect for him. I need to know why the new guy is a better fit. And I much prefer if the author does this without vilifying the ex.
    It seems if an ex is shown in a positive light, they are often dead and then details slowly emerge to show the dead ex is actually a bastard/evil person in disguise.
    OMG. This could get me going on a full-blown rant. I hate this–it always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. You know what I think when I start to learn, usually along with the protag, that the ex was actually a monster in disguise? How stupid do you have to be to not know about the evil lurking in someone you love and live with for 5, 10, 15 years? I’m not saying it absolutely can’t happen, but if it does it has to be soooooo flippin’ skillfully. I rarely see it done like that, though.
    I have to be honest, though. I don’t even like it when the dead ex is shown in a positive light and isn’t turned into a monster, but rather the relationship is slowly devalued in the protag’s memory b/c the new love interest is so amazing. Death is the one situation where I’m okay with the idea that if it weren’t for that, the protag would probably still be with the ex. It doesn’t mean the protag can’t move on, or love someone else completely–b/c they can, that’s…life. I don’t need the author to take away from what went before in order to make me believe in the happiness of the present.
    But of course, this is all just my (long-winded) opinion. *g*

    • Hi Dakota! Always lovely when you stop by, hope you’ve been doing well.
      I do understand what you’re saying and you’re right – the scenario you suggest would be kind of boring lol. But again I have to wonder, do you really care why it ended if the ex isn’t present? Why can’t the person just be going about their life without mention of the ex? Does there HAVE to be an explanation to why a person is single?
      I can understand if that plays into why there is tension or conflict in the new relationship and then please be more original than the evil ex.
      oooo I included the death aspect because it’s a hot button for me personally. I realize people tend to forget bad characteristics of someone dead and all of a sudden the dead person is a saint. It’s not really how you want to remember the person. Most likely there were fights and arguments like anything else and maybe it wasn’t your perfect relationship or maybe it was, but let it go and leave it in the past. I HATE having to vilify all existing relationships to show that your new and shiney one is THE ONE!
      Looks like I agree a lot! hehe.

  3. Because then The One looks even better in comparison and its more fun to have the broken-hearted hero/ine who survived The Ex and became a better person.
    Basically, these are the Lifetime-esque romances. I can’t stand them. I mean honestly, the only person I can stand reading who can do this constantly is Jackie Collins. And if you ever read anything by her, those exes are three-dimensional psychopaths.
    But they’re still people. What happens with this is that too often the ex is a caricature. He was a slovenly douchebag with a roving eye. She couldn’t keep her legs shut to save her life and her boobs were fake (the ULTIMATE INSULT dun dundunnn…heh).
    The best example (it may be biased but I really do believe this) of an ex put to rest in a useful way was Brandon Carr’s ex-lover Ray in James’ Inland Empire. I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read it but that was a neat way to solve a problem and get a little closure.
    Let’s face it, unless you aren’t human at all, there’s no way to really have a good relationship of any sort with an ex. I mean, I’m crazy enough to be friends with my ex-fiance still. I can tell you that it’s a stupid thing to do and there are still feelings both ways…because that’s what happens when you do that.
    I guess its natural to want to make the ex evil but sometimes, you really just can’t. It ended, probably with mistakes on both sides. And that’s all there is to it.

    • Thank you thank you thank you!
      I wanted to hear from others if these were just “romance tropes” or something that readers wanted too. If for them, the romance isn’t enough without thinking the new person is the one and the only one they’ll ever love again.
      Another good example of an ex was the book where the two are barely civil (I can’t think of the name but it’ll come to me). I remember feeling how refreshing it was that the ex’s would barely talk to each other and frankly just didn’t want to have anything to do with each other. No loud dramatics, but they had different versions of why the relationship went wrong and left it at that.
      More of that please!

  4. Like all romantic themes and tropes, I’m willing to be convinced, but, even so, I get annoyed with the constant rehashing of the evil ex character.
    I think Jen is spot on. This is a very (ie too) easy device for conflict and, by comparison, reinforces the notion that the two protags are in Twu Wuv.
    What really pisses me off is the ex-girlfriend or wife who encourages the ex-boyfriend or hubby to explore his only recently acknowledged gay tendencies. I mean, seriously. Tell me how that works without any tension and hurt whatsoever. It’s bullshit, imho.

    • I’ve known some men and women who went gay after a relationship – serious heterosexual relationship at that – and there is never any “oh i wish you well lets be bffs.” Perhaps there isn’t hate and death threats but people are hurt and insecure. Plus this is someone you were married to for when the ex-wife becomes a bff. I just don’t buy that at all. It feels like an insult and once again throwing in a crap woman characterization to the mix.
      Of course as soon as I write that someone will say “it happened to me and we’re bffs now!”

  5. Firstly, Hi Kassa. I like your reviews. πŸ™‚
    Secondly, thank you for posting about this theme. I was thinking about it just a fews days ago and I felt really aggravated, without an outlet for it. I had just read a book in which hero 1 started dating again a long time of emotional hiberanation following the death of his partner of many years. He met hero 2 and of course passion was ignited. Hero 2 felt some pangs of jealousy, hero 1 sometimes still felt like he was cheating. That’s normal IMO, who wouldn’t feel a tad insecure or wouldn’t still be initially attached in some way to the past. But at this point everything went south. Through the eyes of hero 2 we discovered that the dead partner wasn’t perfect, not a monster mind you, but definitely self-centered and selfish, so obviously hero 2 was not only an improvement, but the better choice.
    Did this solution work for me? Not really. I felt the author needed some sort of conflict (jealousy/guilt) to spice up the story and instead of letting us see how the two of them talked their problems out and solved them together, she took a shortcut and basically said to us: see, of course hero 2 shouldn’t feel insecure, he’s loving hero 1 in a better and more healthy way than the ex, and of course hero 2 shouldn’t feel guilty, his dead partner was a bit of a prick after all. That’s just taking the easy way out (and not even a very effective one, IMO). That’s sad. Why should hero 2 end up with so many wasted years on his hands just to make us believe his new relationship really is the best of all possible realtionships?
    Regarding the exes who become BFF, I think it has to be chalked up to a certain tendence to cover everything with a patina of good sentiments and positivity. I mean, could our heroes harbour negative emotions that they don’t feel the need to exorcise? Like, for instance, a lingering sense of resentment or ill feeling, emotive rejection of past relationships, a mild case of anger, antipathy born of a realatonship gone bad, indifference? Better if they don’t. Heroes are often these wonderfully mature, responsable, free-of-bad-emotions, ideal human beings who become best friends with their exes. Yes, right. *rolls eyes*
    Both cases (the ex who was in truth a prick and let’s be best friends!) are obviously possible RL scenarios, just a) overdone ad nauseam in romances and b) not so common in RL anyway. Just my opinion of course! πŸ˜‰

    • Hi there, welcome! Thanks for posting and the kind words. I now have 5 readers!!! I’m moving up in the world. Watch out wankfests.. hehe.
      This topic annoys me greatly for many of the reasons you listed. Why does a dead partner have to be vilified? It’s incredibly reassuring to hear from other readers that these antics don’t work for them either. Reading being so subjective that just because I hate the trope , others may like it.
      I do think it’s often an easy way to explain relationships and induce tension. Evil ex produces the heroic new man. Romantic I guess but too often used. Even worse – once you realize this is annoying you’ll see it everywhere! Watch out πŸ˜€

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