Alright, moving back to romantic conflict, today I want to talk about a few things I never want to see again. I've already talked about good romantic conflict a little bit here and here and will be getting into my guilty pleasures (romantic conflict that isn't explicitly good but I nonetheless really like it) eventually but today, allow me to indulge in an unmitigated rant.
I bring you, Trash Relationship Conflicts.
Trigger Warnings: Lots of swearing, discussion of domestic abuse, passing mention of sexual assault, use of a trigger warning (but once again if you're the kind of person bothered by a trigger warning this blog is not for you and you should probably find something more in line with your delicate sensibilities).
Any Good Relationship Conflicts that are Dragged On Too Long
There is a certain point where "this thing stopping these people from being together" just becomes contrived and hard to listen to. Let it be a problem for a little while, and then when it comes to its natural conclusion...stop.
Anything that Could be Resolved If Someone Just Asked a Fucking Question
If you're not talking to each other you're not a good couple.
"Hey, who was that girl I saw you dancing with at that party?"
"Oh, that was just my cousin."
"Cool, let's get smoothies."
How hard was that? No seriously if one of your characters gets wildly jealous and throws a massive temper tantrum without all of the facts it's just going to make them look unstable and that's not good for anybody.
If your characters are just assuming things, unless this is part of a character arc about your characters learning not to assume things, this is just the worst. If your relationship problem could be solved by your characters talking to each other, and there's nothing stopping them from talking to each other (like some kind of royal gag order or physical distance in a setting without cell phones), it is bad drama.
"I Just Can't Decide Which One of Them I Love"
No. No more. I am sick to death of love triangles in which the only conflict is "there's another love interest and I can't pick".
Love triangles can be made to work if each relationship is nuanced, but most of the time you end up with this situation where out of the two love interests you already know which one is about to win. The other one is either awful or boring, or even worse, the winning love interest is awful and for some reason treated like the right one.
Give me a viable reason as to why this character can't pick between these other two characters. I know people like to rip on it a lot, but I thought this was done well in The Hunger Games, where our protagonist Katniss was actually actively disinterested in romance all together and she had a boy she had to pretend to like for the cameras and one who was actually actively interested in her.
She cared about Gale. Caring about someone doesn't mean you want to be with them. So when he's threatened of course it's going to matter to her whether or not he dies or what the Capital does to him. But I feel like what made this triangle so compelling was how in most ways it wasn't a triangle. It was never about the relationships, it was about the publicity and the danger surrounding them.
Anyway, this is old hat, it's not fun, and picking a partner isn't like picking a pair of shoes. You had best believe if someone is wishy washing around for too long at least one of those love interests is going to say 'Alright, good for you, I'm picking for you, bye'.
Self respect exists. Use it.
Look. I am not saying abuse is not something that happens or a viable topic to explore. Conflict is the life blood of any story and usually bad things happening is good. What I am saying, is that if you ARE going to tackle something like abuse you should do some research and handle it with care.
Any time someone tries to strong arm someone else into doing something, and 'no' isn't a viable option, it's abuse. Any time someone tries to twist the truth of a situation or deceive someone to get them to act in a certain way or make them uncertain, it's gaslighting and that's abuse, too.
Getting angry every time their partner so much as talks to another person is toxic. Following them everywhere without permission is more toxic than that. And these things happening is fine. The problem arises when the setting acts like any of it was right or fair.
If your live interest is being a stalker, maybe have another character point out that they are being a stalker. Even better, have your protagonist point out that they are being a stalker. Have someone acknowledge that this is problematic behavior.
And you know what. Unpopular opinion, but I think it's okay for a toxic character to change. But in order to do that they have to at some point take accountability for their trashfire actions, apologize for them and actually be shown doing things to make amends. It isn't good enough for them to stop and just ignore the rest, not because it's bad fiction (I mean it is) but (more importantly) because letting readers think this is okay sets a terrible precedent.
Fiction is the first place people learn about the world and their place in it. They see themselves in stories and model their own behavior after them. This kind of dropping the ball runs the very real risk of someone reading it, then being treated this way and thinking "well, it happened in that book so this must be normal".
One of Them Isn't Into It and the Other Has To "Win Them Over"
Guys. No means no. It doesn't mean 'try harder'.
If one character just explicitly says 'I'm not into you', that is not a cue for the other to go 'ah, but you are the only one for me, now allow me to do everything in my power to persuade you'. Beating up their SO isn't going to help. Being the fastest racer isn't going to help. Amassing wealth probably isn't going to help unless the character in question is a gold digger.
I would suggest, instead of a tired old arc of 'I need to win you over so you'll sleep with me', let your protagonist grow into respecting this other person as an individual and accepting their friendship without romantic strings attached. If they get together after that, so be it.
Anything Involving Sexual Assault
Unless you're writing a bodice ripper erotica, this is not a romantic conflict. You are better than this, guys.
One of Them is Drunk Type Hook Ups
If they hook up when one of them is drunk, it's rapey. If they don't hook up when one of them is drunk and the other one is just convinced that makes them a good person for not 'giving in to temptation', that's also gross because they're basically patting themselves on the back for not being a rapist.
One of Them Keeps Getting Into Situations that Get Them Labelled a Perv In Front of the Other
Anime, I'm looking at you. Also, Harry Dresden and your 'accidental love potion that his floating skull made him make'. Or any moment in which a heroine is dressed up in something revealing that she didn't want to wear on purpose. Moments like this tend to bend over backwards to make the protagonist look like they aren't actually being a pervert, but here's the rub; the author still is.
You do not get to give your main character a pass because you wanted to write something kind of skeevy. This never looks like it's a real romantic conflict, it just looks like the writer saying 'hey, let's show some boobs' then having their protagonist trip and fall into the shower with somebody.
I hate it.
Alright, that is pretty much the long and short of it. Now go forth and do better.
Megan R. Miller