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What is Dark Romance? Tropes, trigger warnings, and book recs

Dipsea|2024.05.15

#BookTok

Maybe Fourth Wing was your gateway drug into romance, maybe the Netflix show Bridgerton inspired a deeper dive, or maybe you read Fifty Shades of Grey ten years ago and the algorithm is just catching up to you. But if you've been scrolling through #BookTok on TikTok lately, you've probably started seeing Gothic-looking book covers adorned with skulls, roses, and the occasional shirtless men in stark black and white.

Welcome to the dark side—let’s explore the wild world of dark romance. We’ll show what you can expect from dark romance authors, the common tropes in these love stories, and some book recommendations for you to explore dark themes.

What is dark romance?

Let's get one thing straight: Dark romance isn't for everyone. It's not about kisses, butterflies, and happy endings where the heroine rides off into the sunset with her love interest. No, dark romance is a subgenre of romance that’s all about the messy, complicated, and sometimes downright twisted side of love and relationships. It (sometimes) even explores themes of violence, abuse, and trauma.

That's what makes dark romance so addictive to its fans. It has all of the most delicious themes common in most romance—love, chemistry, and spice. But where most romance keeps its characters unequivocally good and its themes light, dark romance is not afraid to explore the darker aspects of human nature and relationships.

This genre delves into taboo themes like power dynamics, obsession, and fear. And its characters often walk a very thin line between good guy and bad guy.

3 common tropes found in dark romance

There is a diverse spectrum of dark romance novels. While some popular BookTok books are full-on stalking fantasies, many are closer to a beach read with a dose of darkness. Let’s explore three common themes that tie the dark romance genre together.

1. Morally gray characters and anti-heroes

The male protagonists of dark romance are often flawed, not-so-good guys who may engage in questionable or even criminal behavior. They might even be a straight-up serial killer. Often, they’ll stop at no cost to protect what they love (usually, their girl).

In a typical romance, a love interest might quit bull riding for his lover or practice figure skating lifts with her. Dark romance MMCs tend to ruthlessly destroy the lives of (or in some cases, like, actually kill) any man who’s ever wronged their beloved. Kind of a different storyline!

2. Internally consistent (but not traditional) moral codes

The men of dark romance may not abide by a traditional definition of right and wrong, but they do usually have a code they live by that is consistent with their own morals, and tend to be extremely pragmatic in a violent and unjust world.

Zade of Haunting Adeline has no qualms killing people if they are violent men who prey on the weak (women and children).

Draco in Manacled (a popular Harry Potter fanfic with a juicy enemies to lovers trope) will do anything to protect and defend his mother, and is also critically aware that if he didn’t do the Dark Lord’s dirty work, someone else would.

Hades in Forbidden Fruit, a spicy audiobook on Dipsea, refuses to play by the rules of the other gods. He’s happy to let them think that Persephone is kept in the Underworld against her will, because he will do absolutely anything to have her.

But whether the MMCs in dark romance are villains or just seem like villains, across the board they are willing to be the “monster” if it means protecting, loving, and cherishing their princess. And while the men (and gods) of dark romance certainly aren’t good, they are usually only bad for a very good reason.

3. Taboo themes and intense emotional journeys

Dark romance novels often explore controversial topics such as obsession, captivity, violence, BDSM, and dubious consent or non-consensual acts. The flawed characters of this genre are often working through childhood trauma or otherwise living in violent circumstances that have shaped their ruthless attitudes and informed their personal moral codes.

These themes create a sense of intensity and extremity which heighten the drama and addictiveness of the stories, but these challenging topics also act as deep paths of connection between the main characters. They can heal, protect, and cherish each other in a world that has been cruel to them or does not understand them.

Books recs for beginners

For those just starting their journey into the tantalizing world of dark romance, dipping your toes into the genre can be both thrilling and slightly intimidating. To ease your way into this spicy realm, here are five popular dark romance books that serve as perfect entry points for beginners:

"Still Beating" by Jennifer Hartmann: This gripping standalone novel introduces readers to a world where love and danger collide in unexpected ways. Following the tumultuous relationship between a young woman named Ava and a mysterious man with a troubled past, "Still Beating" explores themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the healing power of love. With its compelling storyline and complex characters, this book is sure to keep you hooked from beginning to end.

"Hawke" by Jescie Hall: If you're a fan of steamy romance with a hint of suspense, "Hawke" is the perfect choice. Set in a small town where secrets run deep, this novel follows the forbidden romance between a brooding bad boy named Hawke and a fiercely independent woman named Liv. As their attraction intensifies, they must navigate the dangerous consequences of their love in a town where everyone has something to hide. With its sizzling chemistry and edge-of-your-seat suspense, "Hawke" is a must-read for fans of dark romance.

The Never After series by Emily McIntire: Dive into a world of forbidden love and dark magic with this captivating series. Set in a dystopian future where society is ruled by ruthless leaders, these books follow the journey of a young woman named Elara as she navigates a dangerous romance with a mysterious stranger named Kael. Filled with twists, turns, and heart-pounding suspense, "The Never After series" will keep you guessing until the very end.

"Does It Hurt?" by H.D. Carlton: For readers who enjoy their romance with a side of psychological intrigue, "Does It Hurt?" delivers in spades. This chilling tale follows the twisted relationship between a young woman named Lily and a seductive stranger named Jack. As Lily becomes entangled in Jack's dark world of obsession and manipulation, she must confront her deepest fears and desires. With its haunting prose and spine-tingling suspense, "Does It Hurt?" is a must-read for fans of psychological dark romance.

”Wicked Words” an audiobook on the Dipsea app: When celebrity biographer Adrienne Stone's father passes away, he leaves the family estate to her reckless brother. But her brother, burned by his debts, is forced to sell it to notorious tech mogul, Alexander Blackwood. In a twist of fate, Adrienne finds herself agreeing to write Alexander's biography and, despite their initial animosity, she discovers a man far different from what the headlines suggest. With its blend of intrigue, passion, and unexpected twists, "Wicked Words" will keep you enthralled from start to finish.

Trigger warnings and critiques of dark romance

There are a few critiques of dark romance and dark fantasy that often come up.

Some people argue that this subgenre romanticizes and glorifies toxic relationships and unhealthy behaviors. There's a concern that readers, especially younger ones, might internalize these problematic dynamics and view them as desirable or acceptable in real life.

Critics also point out that the power imbalances and non-consensual elements in many dark romance stories can be triggering or harmful to readers who have experienced trauma or abuse. There's a fine line between exploring these themes in a fictional setting and glamorizing them, and some believe that dark romance writers cross that line.

However, at Dipsea we think that dark romance provides a safe space to explore these darker themes and fantasies without real-world consequences. And we’re confident that readers are capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality. Ultimately, as with any genre, it's up to individuals to decide what they're comfortable with.

In most dark romance books, there are trigger warnings which will tell you what to expect beforehand. If you’re worried about encountering content that disturbing or upsetting, make sure you read these warnings ahead of time!

Explore the dark side of romance

Fiction plays a unique role in everyone’s lives and we’re not here to shame you!

If you have a fresh download on your Kindle or are browsing Amazon listings, you can check trigger warnings and content warnings on Goodreads.

If you’re listening on a spicy audiobook platform like Dipsea, you can get all the information you need in the tags before you press play.

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