Dishonesty in Romance

I really need to stop reading books where the hero or heroine keeps secrets. I've just been reading too many of them lately, and my tolerance is so low that even a whiff of it sends my blood pressure up.

I know that books need conflict to work well, but there's something about the 'I have a secret agenda' plot that drives me absolutely up the wall. Especially when the hero or heroine is STILL lying midway or later in the novel. For me, it comes down to trust.

Trust is important in a relationship. Without it, I'm not going to believe that a couple will ever have a lifetime Happily Ever After. Chemistry or attraction is all well and good, but without trust, I don't believe love can last.

I guess that makes me old fashioned in a way. But it's why I can't stand cheating in books, either. I'm not saying the 'secret agenda' plot can never work, but it loses its believability for me when it continues past the very beginning of the novel. Because I consider any hero or heroine who forgives someone who has been lying to them for so long as TSTL. How on earth can they ever trust that person to be honest with them when every aspect of their association is based on lie after lie?

Am I the only one who hates this trope with a passion? Are there more dishonest heroines these days or am I just noticing them? Are there any other plot devices that drive you up the wall or lead you to put a book down as a DNF?


  1. Are we talking about a secret baby type secret, or omission of facts that aren't really important until later in the book? I'm not a fan of the secret baby type secret, but if it's something like "honey, I'm really super rich, but didn't want to tell you because I wanted you to love me for me," then I'm more forgiving.

    As far as plot devices that make a book DNF, I'd say a character replacing a substance addiction with the hero/heroine--they still behave in an obsessed, addictive way, which makes me see the relationship as one big substitution for their drug of choice. If they get clean BEFORE they get serious with the significant other, that's different.

  2. Great post! How can romance blossom into love without trust? I realize we're discussing fiction, but whether art imitates life or life imitates art, one influences the other. I choose to write and read stories where the hero/ine follows his or her heart AND uses their head.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I have seen this a lot with spy books (which seem to have become a popular subset of historicals in the past 3-5 years) but also in other types. Drives me mad unless there are significant consequences for the lying that the author makes clear will still reverberate in the relationship years later. That would be realistic. But "oh, you lied to me for 300 pages and the first six months of our life together but I forgive it because you did it for love"? No^infinity.

  4. @Noelle,

    We're talking about the 'I'm lying about who I am and what I do through the whole book' or 'I'm just using you for x, y, z reasons and am plotting your destruction.'

    And yes, secret babies are right there, too.


    I can take a little dishonesty about minor things. But when one or both are lying all the way through the novel, especially when they're plotting the downfall of the other? No. Just...no. I can't see anyone with a brain trusting someone like that.

  5. @lilywhitelefevre,

    Oh, the spy books! Yeah, the only ones that work for me (in a tongue in cheek kind of way) are where both h/h are spies or the 'spy status' isn't a secret from the other person in their relationship.

  6. I'm conflicted on this, for a couple of reasons. First, why is the character lying? There are some forgivable reasons for lying. Also, the lie may precede the romance. In fact, but for the lie, there would be no romance. Not because the hero knows that as soon as he tells the truth she'll dump him (or vice versa) but because the lie is what put those two people in each other's orbit.

    The other reason I'm conflicted is that there has to be sustained conflict to make a romance work. "You only met me because of this situation I was in, so if I told you about it, we'd no longer have any reason to see each other," is different from "I lied just to get close to you and now I don't want to fess up." In the former, it's a trade-off -- maintain the illusion to maintain the contact, or tell the secret (which may not be yours to tell -- we sometimes keep other people's secrets) and lose the relationship. In the latter, it's a deliberate ruse to create the relationship, which brings in bad intent, etc.

    But consider other conflicts that call into question the quality of the HEA: Hatfields & McCoys: their families hate each other but they love each other; geographical/professional conflict: I can't live where you work, etc.; and so forth.

    At least with lies, once it's out the protagonists have some choices to make: forgive or not forgive. Here's where the intent and purpose of the lie becomes critical. I can forgive someone their lie if I believe they acted in good faith, got caught up in something that spiraled out of control, wanted to tell me the truth but it would possibly harm another person, etc.

    As with everything else, I take it on a case-by-case basis.

  7. @Magdalen,

    For me, it really matters how much of the story has taken place with one character lying to another.

    "but for the lie, there would be no romance."

    I think that's why I don't like the trope, to be honest. If the lie is the main reason our characters meet, then the lie is even more important than one that occurs between people who might have met otherwise. And when that lie is continued throughout the novel, it just doesn't work for me.

    I've just finished a book where the heroine plotted the hero's public humiliation (for $) and she was STILL doing it at 60% of the way into the book. I nearly put the book down at that point. Even with good reasons, there comes a point in a story where I just can't take the dishonesty anymore.

  8. It all boils down to execution for me. I've read some books of this ilk that drove me up the dang wall, and others I've really enjoyed. I do think The Big Secret plot device can work very well - depending on the nature of the secret.

    One reason why spy books are hard sells for me is the nature of their business. They LIE for a living. They're professional liars. And sometimes these characters get so wrapped up in their lies, it's hard to know where the truth is exactly. Then I start not believing in the romance because of the trust issue....and yeah. Don't read a lot of spy stories these days ;)

  9. Amber -- I'm concerned you're still confusing the bad intent with the actual crime.

    In a book I'm working on now, the heroine meets the hero solely because she's pretending to be her twin sister. Has nothing to do with him -- she's helping the sister out because a family friend has cancer. Good motive, but the fact remains that he thinks she's the OTHER twin.

    It's not her intent to deceive him, and at first she doesn't care because he'll be gone the next day. But her lie leads to an opportunity to spend more time with him -- still, no bad motive because there's no romance.

    By the time a romance does start to develop, my heroine's really screwed. It's not just that telling him destroys the romance, it would hurt a bunch of other people as well (including the person with cancer -- the intended beneficiary of the initial lie).

    In the end, it turns out that so much of the circumstances leading to the romance was capricious that both the hero and heroine have some major explaining to do. But the romance was surprisingly honest. Apart from answering to the wrong name, my heroine is more open with the hero than he is with her, so her conscience is clear.

    I don't condone the lying, but I see how people can fail to make a proper risk-benefit analysis at the inception of the lie because they have no idea that a romance will end up in the mix. We still need to know: why did they tell the original lie and how valid is their reason for not telling the beloved right away?

  10. @Wendy,

    There are some authors who can make it work for me, but I've just been reading too many too close together, I think.


    There are various degrees of dishonesty. But my main issue isn't so much with whether they lie but when they continue to lie until the very end. It works for some readers, just not for me.

    I've read three books recently where the heroine continues to lie.

    The first is Good Girls Don't. The heroine doesn't lie to the hero, but she does lie to her family. Repeatedly. With good intentions of course, but the constant lying grated on me.

    The second was Never Cry Wolf by C. Eden. The heroine has a 'secret agenda.' And she comes clean w. the hero early on. Except every chapter, there's something ELSE she hasn't told the truth about.

    The third was Courtney Milan's Unclaimed. The heroine agrees to ruin the hero's pristine reputation in exchange for money. And continues to plot his downfall (even if reluctantly) well after the midway point in the book.

    In every case, the dishonesty is chronic, repeated, and left me with a clear distaste for the character.

    Intent matters, but so does the number, frequency and duration of the dishonesty. At least to me.

  11. Amber -- I see your point. I think you could count the repeated lies as new offenses. My heroine has one lie and then a whole lot of "omitting" to tell him the truth.

    But then she's MY heroine. Of course I'm going to defend her. :-)

  12. I hate it too! I end up rushing through the book to get to the part where the lie is exposed. I also hate cheating. And I have a pretty low tolerance for The Big Misunderstanding. I can take it in very small doses, but not over and over again in a book.

  13. @Penelope,

    I do that, too. Which is why I get frustrated when I'm at the 50% point and the heroine or hero is still lying. These days it seems as if the heroines are the ones with the truth-deficiency, though.

  14. @Magdalen,

    LOL Of course, you'll defend her ;) I do have to fess up, though, one of my all time favorite romances has the 'secret identity' trope in it. A Secret Love by Stephanie Laurens. The heroine (who has known the hero since childhood) assumes a disguise and pretends to be a widow. The hero eventually figures out who she is by her perfume.

    I'm not sure why this one still works for me. It could be because Laurens uses the disguise (ok LIE) as a way to shake up their existing relationship dynamic.

    I guess that means, never say never. I just think I'm burned out on dishonesty being used SO MUCH lately.

  15. Sounds like you've read too many in a row, for sure. I think the tangled web plot can be very interesting; done well, I enjoy watching a character grow by learning that little lies lead to big lies, and reaching the point where he or she has to 'fess up and ask forgiveness. Some good groveling, maybe something that has to be done to prove trustworthy, can help.

    I think trust cuts both ways, too. If a character has a reason for a secret or a false identity, then she or she has to trust the other person enough to reveal the truth. Good writers make me believe that point has been reached, wherever in the book it happens.