Monday, April 15, 2019

Why Conflict Is so Hard to Create in Romance

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Romances don’t usually have a villain, but there is a strong conflict driving the plot.

The romance genre is an odd mix of writing difficulties. On one hand, it’s easy to write because it has a clear structure and set of goals for every story—get two people to fall in love and live happily ever after. On the other hand, since both protagonists want the same thing, it’s extremely difficult to create conflict—and plot is created by conflict.

Unlike most novels, there is no mustache-twirling antagonist standing between the lovebirds and happiness. And since the protagonists need to come together in the end, you can’t have one defeat the other. Without these common antagonistic elements, finding a conflict strong enough to drive a plot can be quite the challenge.

Until you realize that most romance novels have a person vs. self conflict.

There is no bad guy in a romance. The issues keeping the two people apart are their own personal issues. A fear of commitment. An impulsive nature. A lack of communication skills. Some flaw that’s been getting in the way of their happiness that they need to overcome and/or learn to accept to find love and be happy.

Just to be clear—I’m talking about pure romance here. Romance subgenres often have clear antagonists, since there is an additional problem to solve that’s about more than just the romance.

(Here’s more on The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn't a Person)

For some examples, let’s look at my favorite romance author, Jennifer Crusie.

Her novel, The Cinderella Deal, is a classic romance that uses a person vs. self conflict. Lincoln (Linc) Blaise is a cold, controlled, career-focused history professor with a love of order and dislike of mess, color, and chaos. Daisy Flattery is a free-spirited artist and embracer of whimsy who loves color and broken things, and dislikes cold, manufactured things. They are complete opposites in almost every way.

The problem of the novel occurs when Linc lies about being engaged in order to win his dream job—a position at a prestigious private college. To get the job, he needs to produce his fiancée. You might think this is the conflict of the novel, but it’s not, as getting the job isn’t what will make Linc happy. It’s just the setup that provides the two lovebirds the chance to fall in love.

Daisy is Linc’s neighbor and she's in a bit of a financial bind. She took time off from teaching to try to make it as an artist and she’s out of money. She’s also out of inspiration, and desperately needs a change. Again, this seems like a potential conflict for the novel, but her finding herself and succeeding as an artist is not the point of the book.

Both characters have goals motivating them to make the deal—Linc will pay Daisy’s back rent if she agrees to pretend to be his fiancée for the weekend so he can get the job. Naturally things develop from there, but the plot comes from Linc and Daisy having to make compromises and grow as people to get what they want, and in doing so, fall in love. They each need a bit of the other to be happy, and to become the people they want to be. Linc needs a little color, warmth, and whimsy, and Daisy needs a little order, strength, and security.

The scene-to-scene conflicts in this situation come from the two opposing personalities repeatedly being forced to adjust their behavior and views to accomplish their goals. 

The goals are smaller steps to the ultimate goals (job and art), but they nudge Linc and Daisy where they need to go every step of the way.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Now, compare this to Crusie’s paranormal romance, Maybe This Time. Andie Miller and North Archer are very similar characters to Linc and Daisy—he’s the cold, stoic, control freak and she’s the warm, impulsive, free-thinker. These two were married briefly, but it ended, yet they’re still in love a decade later. Their issues come from personal flaws, and they do work on those over the course of the novel, but the person vs. self conflict is not what’s driving this story. The actual conflict is that North’s recently orphaned and difficult niece and nephew need caring for, and North asks Andie to help. When Andie arrives, she discovers the problem isn’t the children, but the ghosts haunting their home.

Andie and North falling back into love are not the driving force of this plot—saving the kids from the ghosts is. There is an antagonist behind the problems the kids face. The love story is more of a subplot, though a strong one. It’s by experiencing the difficulties of the ghost plot that allow Andie and North to rekindle their love affair.

The difference between The Cinderella Deal and Maybe This Time is the type of conflict at its core. 

Linc and Daisy need to overcome their own personal issues to be happy. Andie and North need to defeat ghosts, and in doing so, win happiness.

(Here’s more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

Plotting these two novels requires different types of goals and problems, because the conflicts come from different areas. The Cinderella Deal would not have been the same novel if Linc had to fight for his teaching position or Daisy had to struggle to get a gallery showing. The focus of the novel would have shifted, and the motivating issues to change would have become plot goals to achieve. Achieving the goal would have become more important than changing the personality flaws that would lead to real happiness.

A third example is Anyone But You, a romance that relies completely on the character flaws to keep the lovebirds apart. Nina Askew is recently divorced, just turned forty, and left behind a rich, ambitious husband and fancy house to live the life she always wanted to live. She’s done the “society wife” thing and helped a husband build a career and she’s done with it and the loneliness it earned her. Alex Moore is a just-turned thirty-year-old ER doctor who doesn’t want kids or a high-powered career like the rest of his specialized-doctor family. Nina has just moved into the building Alex lives in, and the two meet.

These two are exactly what each other is looking for, and the attraction is instant. But Nina thinks Alex is a kid and too young for her. She thinks he wants kids and a career and that’s not the life she wants to live again. Alex thinks in order to win Nina he has to become what she left behind, and what his family is pushing him to do—become a cardiologist with a fancy house and quit the ER he loves.

Both need to learn unconditional love to get past their individual hangups. Nina has to trust that Alex loves her and doesn’t care that her body is forty. Alex needs to learn that Nina loves him not his earning potential. They both need to accept who they are and who the other is and just love each other.

The plot comes from their struggles to figure this out. 

They mess up, they make bad assumptions, they assume the wrong things, and all of their choices stem from their fears and insecurities. There are no bad guys, no villains, no terrible problems to overcome, just two people struggling to realize their fear is the real problem, and they can each have what they want if they let that go and accept the other.

(Here’s more on 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

Tips on Writing a Person vs. Self Romance Conflict

If you’re struggling to plot a Happily Ever After (HEA) romance novel, try shifting your thinking to why the protagonists are having trouble finding love. Look for:

The flaws, traits, or beliefs keeping them from love: Something is holding them back from finding love, and this needs to be addressed and overcome in the novel. This is the core of their character arc, and how they’ll need to grow over the course of the novel. It’s also the reason they won’t take whatever step they need to fall in love.

Situations that require a change to achieve a goal: Give the protagonists a strong setup that forces the two characters to interact. They want love, sure, but they often also want something else. For Linc and Daisy, it was a job and growth as an artist. Nina and Alex both wanted to live life on their terms. But those goals gave then reasons to both change, and resist change during the novel. Fear of losing what they wanted, or fear of becoming what they didn’t want to be.

Opportunities to change: Whatever the issue, there will be scenes where the character makes bad decisions because of this flaw, trait, or belief. It isn’t until they change their behavior or belief that they start making good choices that lead to success. Readers see how good they are together, and then see that flaw or belief mess it up.

Romance is all about the characters, so it makes sense that the conflict would come from the characters. They are their own worst enemy, and their quirks and issues are the real problem. When you look for ways to illustrate those issues, and show the characters struggling with those beliefs, then you’ll have an easier time finding both the conflict and the plot.

Do you have any other examples of person vs. self conflicts?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Finding your website for the first time yesterday and reading your article on conflict in romance stories couldn't have happened at a better time. I am new to the craft of fiction writing, and I'm currently revising a romance story. Fiction University is a treasure trove of super practical information. Thank you. Susan L.