Six Soap Opera Tropes in SFF

In 2022, the soap opera is alive and well, both in daytime and in primetime. Its twists and turns, complete with Friday cliffhangers, still leave viewers gasping, and steamy love scenes that make even the most modest viewers blush. And such sensational drama isn’t unique to the soap; plenty of sci-fi and fantasy authors have ensnared legions of fans with sudsy plot points. Here are classic soap tropes that have added oodles of drama to some of our favorite genre titles.

 

The Return From the Dead

A return from the dead packs an emotional wallop and can send a story spinning in an unexpected direction. On Days of Our Lives, villainous Stefano DiMera was presumed dead so many times—and resurrected just as many!—that he earned the moniker “the Phoenix.”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizened wizard Gandalf squares off against the Balrog of Morgoth. Just as he cuts the bridge on which the Balrog stands, Gandalf is ensnared by the Balrog’s whip, falling to his (seeming) death in the Mines of Moria. In The Two Towers, though, Gandalf is revealed to be alive. He states that “darkness took” him and he wandered down unclear roads until he was sent back, naked, to finish an unnamed task. Eventually snapped up by the lordly eagle Gwaihir the Windlord, Gandalf was then reborn, known as “the White” instead of “the Grey.”

 

The Baby Switch

What could be tougher than someone discovering the child they had raised—and the person they believed themselves to be—wasn’t their own? This is the dilemma facing characters who have had their little ones switched at birth—only to find their worlds turned upside down when they discover the shocking truth.

Perhaps the most famous baby switch storyline in daytime took place in a soap crossover extravaganza. In 2004, on All My Children, BFFs Bianca Montgomery and Babe Carey Chandler, both heavily pregnant, were stranded in a cabin during a storm. Both women gave birth to live babies, but before they came to, nefarious Paul Cramer—a character from sister soap One Life to Live—intervened.

Determined to get a baby for his sister Kelly, whose child was born dead, he took Babe’s live son and gave him to Kelly, who raised him as her own; meanwhile, Paul gave Bianca’s living daughter to Babe—also his ex-wife—and told Bianca her little girl had died.

The changeling trope is plenty popular in fantasy and mythology. Amanda Hocking’s Switched features Wendy Everly, whose mother slaps her on her sixth birthday before declaring Wendy isn’t her daughter. As it turns out, there’s a good reason Wendy feels like a fish out of water; she was indeed switched at birth. At the same time, she grapples with her irresistible attraction to the enigmatic Finn. Seemingly rude at first, Finn soon reveals to Wendy hidden—and seemingly impossible—truths that begin to unravel her identity. But can Finn guide Wendy through the emotional and political minefield of returning to the magical (and royal) world into which she was born. Or is Wendy destined to remain torn between who she was born to be and who she wants to be?

 

Amnesia

Forgetting your past can create a confusing future—especially once characters figure out their real identities! Guiding Light’s Reva Shayne drove her car off a bridge, suffered amnesia, wound up living in an Amish community, and eventually reunited with her true love, Joshua Lewis. Eventually, Reva discovered that, while she’d been an amnesiac, she had married Prince Richard of San Cristobel and had his son—who turned out to be town troublemaker and Reva’s tormentor, Jonathan Randall.

In 2019, The True Queen by Zen Cho deployed the amnesia trope to great effect. Sisters Sakti and Muna wash up on an island with no knowledge other than their sibling bond. Slowly, it is revealed that they are suffering from a curse, and they must be separated to save themselves. But with the connection that has kept them together still so strong, how can one sister say goodbye to another? And can they work together—and separately—to regain their pasts…and create viable futures? Cho memorably depicts an indelible connection between the sisters that confounds society, magic, and geography, keeping family and love at the heart of her characters’ relatable conflicts.

 

Doppelgängers

If you aren’t switched at birth and die before returning to life, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have a lookalike who has tried to take over your existence.

Many soaps feature doppelgängers who turn out to be separated-at-birth twins of deceased beloved town residents; currently, The Young and the Restless has two such characters. Starting in the late 1980s, the CBS soap has made a habit of surprise lookalikes. Perhaps the most memorable instance came when society dame Katherine Chancellor was abducted by criminals. In her place, the bad guys subbed in Katherine’s lookalike Marge Cotroke, a blue-collar waitress, to pretend to be Kay…and give them access to the Chancellor millions. Marge and Katherine eventually figured out the scheme and swapped back, although they briefly switched lives once again in the 2000s.

Last year’s sci-fi thriller The Anomaly, penned by French author Hervé Le Tellier, provides Agatha Christie-level intrigue for characters flying on the same plane. As it turns out, each passenger has a double somewhere in the world—an exact copy of themselves. That echoes the soap trope of someone’s double taking over their life by pretending to be them.

 

The Love Triangle/Quad

When a person has chemistry with multiple partners, drama arises…and viewers and readers tune in! One of daytime’s most memorable quads came during the 1990s on The Young and the Restless. Sisters Drucilla and Olivia Barber fell for a pair of half-brothers, Neil and Malcolm Winters. But although each couple seemed destined for happily ever after, sparks also flew between Neil and Olivia, who bonded over their fractured relationships with Dru, while Malcolm pined for ballerina-turned-model Dru. One night, Dru took cold medicine and made love to a man she thought was Neil…only for it to turn out to be her brother-in-law! Cue years’ worth of story.

In fantasy, no author does love triangles like Jacqueline Carey. In Kushiel’s Dart, an indentured servant-turned-purveyor of passion, Phèdre nó Delaunay often withholds emotion from intimate acts. But that isn’t always the case. She falls head over heels with her exact opposite, the avowedly-celibate Joscelin Verreuil. As they spar, sparks fly, and slowly but surely each learns more about themselves as they discover more about the other. But Joscelin isn’t Phèdre’s only love. Her ultimate frenemy is the seductive, scheming noblewoman Melisande Shahrizai, who intrigues and repels her in equal measure. And while Phèdre does her best to outwit Melisande and foil her plots, the passion between them burns fire-bright throughout the series.

 

The Wedding Bust-Up

There’s no better time for a big showdown than two parties pledge their love to one another. Last year on The Bold and the Beautiful, fans were overjoyed to see fashion heiress Steffy Forrester finally extricate herself from a decades-long love triangle and find love with hunky ER doc Finn. The two blissfully wed at her family estate but found a shocking surprise waiting for them. Finn’s birth mother decided to show up for the reception: and she was none other than villainous Sheila Carter, who had shot Steffy’s mother decades before. Awkward!

Katherine Kurtz pulled off a similar plot device beautifully in her Deryni novel, The Bishop’s Heir. To unite his realm, King Kelson Haldane of Gwynedd reluctantly agrees to wed a rebellious cousin. The woman in question, Sidana, princess of Meara—once an independent province, now technically part of the realm of Gwynedd—seems nice enough; it’s her brothers and mother that are really causing political problems.

Hatred and desire for freedom grow within hearts on both sides of the conflict, especially within the bride-to-be’s family; they want Meara to be a sovereign principality once again, and they despite the magical Deryni race that populates Gwynedd. So as Kelson and Sidana stand at the altar, the reader is waiting for the pair to say “I do”…only for Sidana brother, Llewell, to commit the ultimate betrayal by cutting his own sister’s throat rather than seeing her give herself to a man he hates. Sidana bleeds out in front of her groom, ending the story on an excellent and tragic cliffhanger…and upping the political stakes for the next Deryni novel even further.

 

A public historian, Carly Silver has written for BBC News, History Today, Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, The Atlantic, Narratively, ThoughtCo/About.com (for which she served as the ancient/classical history expert), Biblical Archaeology, Eidolon, All That’s Interesting, and other publications. She works as an associate editor at HarperCollins and resides in Brooklyn, New York.


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