If you know me at all you know I'm a complete sucker for romance. And of course the best romances have a little bit of conflict, because frankly we read to see things go poorly for people that aren't us. Something has to be at stake, right?
Romantic conflict is great, but sometimes it's just terrible. Sometimes it's unhealthy but you guiltily enjoy it anyway. That's what I want to talk about tonight. Some sources of romantic conflict. Good, bad and guilty pleasure (ugly).
So without farther ado...
(Edit: I am not even halfway through good conflicts and this is already a longer blog entry than I usually do, this is going to have to get split up into three parts guys.)
(Edit II: This part of the blog entry has gotten too long I'm going to have to split it up even more.)
[Trigger Warnings: Mention of sexual assault and domestic violence as an example of what not to do (not graphic). Mention of homophobia. Use of a trigger warning (tbh if that's something that's going to bother you, you probably want to find another blog that's better for your delicate sensibilities).]
Good Romantic Conflicts
One character is sleeping with their boss, for example, or one character is much stronger than the other in terms of combat ability. Maybe one is richer than the other (this happens a lot in soap operas, I've noticed). Perhaps one of them is some sort of preternatural creature and the other...isn't. Whatever the reason, one character has a lot more power than the other one, and it chafes.
And it should chafe! These characters should have things that balance them out of course, that's always the case, but in that particular area? Yes, I want to see some salt.
Power imbalance is a good conflict because no matter how much these characters love and respect one another, it's something that has the potential to come between them and cause problems. It's a real, legitimate reason for there to be friction between them that doesn't involve contrived miscommunications or one of them being a horrible person to the other. It's just pure and simple jealousy and perhaps a lack of awareness on the part of the more powerful character.
(Mayfly-December, Or Both of them Are Adults)
Surprise, this is not the last time in this blog entry that I'm going to tackle age difference. It can be done well, and it can be done poorly. This is similar to the power imbalance in many ways because one character is going to have more experience than the other, but in a case where neither character is immortal, the one with more experience will likely have less physical ability than the one with less experience.
I'm a big fan of mayfly-december romance, however, and in that case the power imbalance is likely to be a part of the situation regardless of how things go. Even so, the idea that one character could live forever and the other is for sure going to die, just hurts. It makes me feel so many things for characters who recognize this and then go for it anyway.
If you're aiming to hit both of these points, plot lines where an old and powerful being (such as an angel, demon or god) falls in love with a mortal but is still subject to the rules of being that powerful being that it is can be interesting. If you want to crank that up a notch, whatever enforces those rules might consider humans to be expendable.
Forbidden By Society
Gay pairings in settings where being homosexual is frowned upon. The Romeo and Juliet effect where these two characters would be expected to be enemies. Perhaps they aren't supposed to be together because of class reasons, or because one of them has been branded a criminal. Ooh, maybe one of them is a priest of a celibate order. Regardless, society being the reason two characters can't just be together in peace is always a really good one.
I deal with this in my Chronicles of Drasule series (e-book only, the links to which can be found over yonder on my bookshelf /plug) where there are certain major families with certain powers that make up the ruling class. These families are huge, sharing a common ancestor that dates back so long ago that just marrying someone with the same power as you isn't blatant incest (but yeah, that undertone is there) and is allowed, but marrying someone from a different house is expressly forbidden due to the fear of what mixing the powers these families have would cause in the world.
It's just a really handy way to make characters who are clearly attracted to each other hesitate to actually do anything about it.
There's Three of Them
No, I do not mean a love triangle. I am so sick of love triangles.
I mean, there are three characters. They are all in love. Character A in love with Character B who is in love with Character C who is in love with Character A. It's a form of polyamory and I want more of it please.
But listen, this is great conflict. Just by nature of what it is, it's great conflict. We're at the point where writing the average trials and tribulations of two people trying to navigate each other as human beings is just beaten into the ground and we have to introduce other conflict for those people, but three people in one relationship? Even in a setting where that's commonplace (and to be honest I can't think of one), the dynamic of three people getting to know one another and settle into vibing together rather than as individuals is A+ for me.
Listen up. It's not cheating as long as everyone is enthusiastic and knows what the rules are and there's a certain purity to love that involves a, acknowledging that you cannot be everything for another person and that trying to be is unhealthy and b, acknowledging that loving someone else doesn't make you love your other partner any less.
If A is disrupted, it effects both B and C and it effects them differently. Not only that but you have the opportunity for scenes where B and C are together and discussing A and how much they both mutually care about this person. Ah, I can't get enough of it!
In fact, I'm going to put a polyamorous relationship on my novelling to do list, I have a lot of muse for this right now.
Sleeping With the Enemy
You can't do a lot better than Hero x Villain in terms of 'how are they going to make this work'. However, this is also situational and you have to be really careful with it because it can easily turn into a garbage trope.
First of all, the villain has to be bad enough that the reader hesitates. That means, they make bad decisions and do deliberately bad things. Otherwise, they aren't a villain, they're a hero in a villain hat and that's boring.
And this is where I'm going to get picky on you and I can already hear some of you rolling your eyes (impressive I know): they can't be too bad.
The temptation to come on strong with a bodice-ripper scenario exists, I know, but please try to abate it unless you're writing a bodice-ripper romance fantasy. There's a certain audience that wants this, but generally it's just going to make people uncomfortable and make your (let's be honest it's usually the guy) hero irredeemably evil. Leave the sexual assault on the cutting room floor and let's not touch that again please.
Do not get me wrong. There is a time and a place as long as your reader is aware out of the gate that it's that kind of book. But plenty of books that already exist romanticize sexual assault and as you can see from the rest of this blog entry, there are SO many other things you can do to give your pairings conflict and still keep them ship-able and interesting, so I'm just not going to condone this one.
But if both of them work for organizations that want different things. For instance, one is an activist and the other is a corporate executive. One is part of a superhero team and the other fixes robots for the big bad. One is a cop and the other literally makes their money heisting diamonds.
Give them something that they can look at the other character regardless of their actions until this point and think 'I'm not sure if I can trust them'. 'Sure, they are being kind now, but what if they are faking in order to get secrets or to get an edge on me?'. Rival characters who want the same thing but only one of them can get it are a really good example of this too, particularly if they're willing to step aside for each other by the end.
The trick is to make it personal enough to give them friction but not so personal that it strays into abuse. Yes, they can fight! Physical blows are allowed guys, but the trick is to make it an even battle. If at any point your story has devolved into one character just beating the shit out of the other one (physically, sexually or emotionally) without explicit consent and enthusiasm, it is no longer an even battle and it's strayed into abuse.
That doesn't mean that a character can't do bad things and then be redeemed later, but let's try not to make those bad things involve rape. Listen, it's not about the sex, it's about power and control. Any situation where one character seizes power from the other without consent and gives them no way around it, it's abusive, ergo sexual assault is inherently abusive and the character that does it probably shouldn't be able to live that down.
A good example, though, of a character doing something really bad to the other in a pairing like this and then proceeding to get better is Gajeel from Fairy Tail. Okay, your mileage may vary, but I'm such a sucker for him and Levy.
When they first met, he nailed her to a post. It wasn't personal, it was Levy and her team. They were really hurt, put in the hospital for a while after, but this is an anime where that kind of thing happens all the time and it's pretty much expected they put up a fight when it happened because these characters are not pushovers.
The really important part though, is that after everything is said and done, he takes steps to start to redeem himself. He actively protects her. He becomes kind, makes up for his actions. Given they aren't the focus characters of the series I don't believe we get to see him take accountability for what he did at the beginning there (although that would be a plus in a situation like this) but I want to think it happened. The point is, that behavior at this point, now that they trust each other, would be unforgivable. The line is a bit farther over as long as they are strangers.
One character has to leave for a while. Physical distance puts strain on the pairing. This is an excellent one to go to if your characters have been in a relationship for a little while but not long enough to be comfortable with the separation.
The "I Didn't Realize I Was Bi" Arc
One character is crossdressing and the other character thinks they're straight but are confused about their feelings for this person. OR, even better, one character isn't crossdressing and the other (same sex) thinks they're straight and is confused about their feelings for this person.
I highly advise this one if you've been through it. These are complicated feelings. This is relationship conflict gold. "I can't just go and be with you because I have to figure myself out first" is pretty much the soul of a romance arc and this is one that can look an awful lot like "I can't just go and be with you because of you", but ultimately it's self-discovery and it's so good.
The Cool-Down Hug
In which one character is going super saiyan 4 and the other has to fight their way to them to give them a cool down hug. Best done with people that have superpowers and beings of extreme power. Such as vampires or dragons.
I actually have a lot more of these but holy cow this blog entry is getting long, so we're gonna move the rest over to Thursday's entry and pick this back up later. Keep on the look out for Torchlighters (I just got my feedback back from my beta readers and I'll be delving into the final draft in the coming weeks, so exciting!)
Megan R. Miller