Beth Matthews asked:
How do you come up with goals for your characters in a straight contemporary romance? . . . if there’s no suspense element, no capers. Can the romance itself be the goal? Or is it better to be an external goal? So, for example, in Bet Me is Min’s goal to have a date to her sisters wedding? Do the hero and heroine both need goals? Or do you pick one person to be the protagonist and focus on their goal to drive the story?
Conflict starts with conflicting goals, right? Well, I’m having trouble getting my building blocks in a row. Can people please talk about how they formulate conflict and goals in their contemporary romances? Pretty please?
I reformulated your question to ask about romantic conflict because I think that’s what you’re going after. That is, if a good conflict ends with one of the major characters (protagonist and antagonist) completely destroying each other, how can that be the start of a healthy relationship, since good relationships are based on compromise?
Let us all now turn to Moonstruck, possibly the most perfect romance ever filmed. Loretta is the protagonist. Ronny is the antagonist. Loretta wants a safe life with a man she doesn’t love. Ronny’s brother. Ronny wants a passionate life with the woman he adores, Loretta. The key here is that Loretta’s safe life is poisonous to her passionate nature, it imprisons her. So when Ronny, through the course of the plot, destroys Loretta’s life, she’s reborn into the woman she’s meant to be. (There’s that great image at the end of her coming out of the closet in her mother’s kitchen that’s a lovely rebirth image: Loretta in her ordinary clothes but with her hair tousled and her face flushed from making love all night with Ronny.)
Bet Me is going to haunt me forever in these discussions because that was, originally, magic realism. The antagonist was Fate, who takes an active role in the plot, pushing back. Min’s life is minimizing risk; Cal’s life is calculating risk; they’re both risk averse. But Fate (the Fairy Tale) has decided they must be together, so even though their goals are safe, uncomplicated lives, Fate keeps shoving them together. Fate defeats Cal first, because Cal’s plot is a subplot and you wind those up first. Then Fate defeats Min at the end, to such an extent that when everybody in her life who opposed the romance shows up, she deflects them without batting an eye.
Bringing Up Baby has this plot, the madcap liberating the professor. His Girl Friday has this plot, Walter destroying Hildy’s supposedly perfect future so she’ll come back to the life she really loves. There are variations on that; in The Proposal, both lovers have goals that motivate them to fake the relationship only to fall in love in spite of themselves and then have to untangle all the lies they’ve collaborated on before they can get together.
The big thing to avoid in the straight romance (that is, not connected to another kind of plot like a mystery; you can have gay and lesbian straight romances) is the Big Misunderstanding, which is usually created because there’s no real reason for these two crazy kids not to get together. The Big Misunderstanding is almost always toxic unless it’s set up as a straw man: He says, “That woman you saw me with me last night was my sister,” and she says, “I figured it must be because I knew you would’t betray me.” That can work because people can see a Big Misunderstanding coming a mile away, so if one crops up and the lovers behave like people who love and trust each other, it’s a nice surprise.
Lani and I did the movie Hitch for PopD, and it was a great illustration of this. The main romance was godawful, full of stupid plot turns and a really stupid Big Misunderstanding at the end because there was no other reason for these two beautiful, smart, successful people not to be together. But the subplot was a perfect romance: a schlubby guy who falls for a beautiful heiress. There’s a moment when he’s walked her home, and he’s trying to get up the nerve to kiss her, and he leaves her at the door, and then part way down the walk, he just can’t stand it, so he takes out his inhaler and takes a hit on it, and then throws it away, marches masterfully up to the door, and kisses her passionately. It’s a wonderful moment, you’re just cheering for him. And then much later in the movie, she’s telling somebody else about it, and she says, “And he threw away his inhaler!” like it’s the most romantic thing she’d ever seen, and you want to cheer again because she understands him and loves him, too. It’s just wonderful, and it’s a subplot in one of the dumbest romances ever put on film. (Although the scenes between Kevin James and Will Smith are really funny.)
So the short answer is give them real barriers to overcome, make them struggle and change to be with each other, and your goals and conflict will be there.
Oh, and quick answers for your other questions:
Do the hero and heroine both need goals?
If they’re going to be the protagonist and antagonist, yes.
Or do you pick one person to be the protagonist and focus on their goal to drive the story?
You always pick one person to be the protagonist of the main plot and one person to be the antagonist. If the protagonist’s love interest isn’t the antagonist, it’s good to give him or her a plot because that helps set up character.
Conflict starts with conflicting goals, right?
Not necessarily. The goals can be completely unrelated and the pursuit of the goals be the generator of conflict. For example, Jane wants to sell her grandfather’s home to developers to pay for the operation he desperately needs. John wants to save the three-toed-tree-frog whose only habitat is Grandpa’s farm. Jane bears the frog no ill will, John doesn’t want Grandpa to die, but their goals put them at cross purposes to each other. (Apologies to everyone who is tired of hearing about the damn frog; I’ve been using that example for decades.)