Questionable: Romantic Conflict

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.)

35 thoughts on “Questionable: Romantic Conflict

  1. 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.
    – Jenny

    Oh. I just realized that book I’m constantly kicking around that’s been driving me nuts has that kind of plot. In a way it’s very Bringing Up Baby and a role reverse-y His Girl Friday. I never thought about it before. Huh. Well that certainly puts my hero’s actions/motivations in a better light for me. I can work with that.

    As for the people in romances needing goals, yeah, most definitely the hero and heroine needs goals and conflicts. Jenny, do you think the story plot has to “belong” more to one of them “more” than the other or does it just depend on the type of story you’re telling?

    1. I think that any plot really belongs to both the protagonist and the antagonist, and the reason some plots, especially romance plots, sometimes come unglued is that the antagonist doesn’t have a big enough role. Of course,in a lot of plots, the antagonist is working behind the scenes, say a murderer who’s trying to avoid being found out, but his or her actions have to be on the page as equally as the protagonist in the main plot because that’s what pushes the protagonist to act.

      So to get back to Moonstruck, there are subplots in that story that have nothing to do with Ronny but that echo the main plot, her parent’s relationship, for example. But even in the beginning scenes when she gets engaged to Johnny, he brings up Ronny right away. Walter and Hildy are together constantly; in the scenes where they’re not together, she’s working on the subplot of Earl’s story which is part of Walter’s plan to get her back.

      BUT remember that the protagonist drives the story and the antagonist shapes it. So it matters a good deal who’s in which role. If you swap them, the story changes. In His Girl Friday, Hildy wants to marry Bruce and have a normal life, so she has to escape Walter and his plots and get on that train with Bruce. That’s why the story is about Hildy’s struggle to keep Walter away from Bruce undercut by her struggle to get the story in the job she loves. Now swap that around and it’s the story of Walter trying to win back the woman he loves, so he has to convince Hildy that she still loves him which he intends to do by getting her interested in the story. Now you’re going to get a lot more of Walter’s POV and less of Hildy’s because you’re going to watch Walter at work. You can use the same scenes and the same plot, but when you swap them around, we’re in Walter’s corner, being surprised by what Hildy does.

      So the story always, always belongs to the protagonist, but it’s shaped by the antagonist.

      1. “The story belongs to the protagonist but it’s shaped by the antagonist.”

        I really hadn’t thought about character cause and effect that way, but that’s perfect. Thank you.

  2. There’s no reason to change the frog example. It works.

    I particularly dislike multiple “Big Misunderstandings” upon “medium misunderstandings” because the characters do not develop. They still have the same ideas they had at the beginning of the story. I need to see a change/adaptation in mindset for the story to be satisfying.

    In “Faking It” Tilda accepts her true nature and Davy, his. The misunderstanding brought about by Simon isn’t manufactured to keep them (emotionally) apart. Their denial of parts of themselves is what does that.

    1. I saw that as a Big Lie more than a Big Misunderstanding. They’re a con man, a thief, an art forger, and a woman with two identities. They lie to everybody. The key to that mess was people sitting down and saying, “I’ve been lying to you all along for this reason . . . ” and they can’t do it, they have real crimes to hide. The one that was the most fun was Ford, undercover as a hit man.

      1. I love Ford. “We don’t want him to end up…like Thomas.” “Catering is no life for a man.”

  3. Great answers & good examples. And agreed about the Big Misunderstanding.

    The thing about His Girl Friday & Bringing Up Baby is that everybody’s smart. I also love that not all their thinking is “out loud” but shown through action. For me, the best stories don’t need to explain everything as it’s about to happen–we understand it ourselves because the characters are so well drawn. While we need some info for the plot to make sense, spoon feeding every last detail & motivation bothers me as much as the big misunderstanding.

    As far as creating romantic conflict, think Jenny’s examples show some different type possibilities. I do find, though, that many conflicts come out of career goals–probably because those are so integral to characters self-actualization. One of my faves is still Desk Set where Spencer & Katharine meet in the course of their work and each has a different agenda but both are changed by interacting with the other. But really, conflict & plot possibilities can grow out of lots of character goals. The key for me is that the goals have to feel important to the characters–if they care about them, that goes a long way in my willingness not just to buy in but to want to see where their ride takes me.

    1. I love The Desk Set. It was one of the few PopD movies that Lani and I both gave perfect 5’s to. And because you mentioned it I went back and read the comments, and there’s a discussion in there about the Other Guy in romantic comedies that I’d forgotten about. We did some good stuff with that series and I’d almost forgotten about it completely.

      1. Have to zip over to PopD & check it out.

        The other guy in Desk Set wasn’t much of a contender if I remember right. And so not right for her. I so loved the scene where he comes into her apartment with Spencer in the robe (meant to be other guy’s xmas gift). One of those magic scenes where you see the meant-to-be couple operating so smoothly with each other even though they haven’t known each other long. Scenes like that always feel like well choreographed dances to me:)

        1. Mike was so clearly not good enough for Bunny. Gig Young is always wonderful, though. He was a great sort-of Other Guy in Teacher’s Pet, which is really the only one of what I call the Lying to Doris Day movies where the romance still works for me. Looking back at it, I think Clark Gable is clearly the protagonist, and they put in the work to arc him. If only the Pillow Talk writers had done the same with Brad Allen. Even Tony Randall couldn’t make up for that character.

  4. I wonder if anyone in real life has ever had this kind of manic pixie life-destroying love come into their lives in the way that it happens in fiction.

    1. Yes, but then the guy turned out to be really not a good guy and the life-destruction was virtually total. Hard to come back from.

    2. I wonder if you could work that out anthropologically… like, do people across culture tell this story? Even before Western culture connected romantic love and marriage, it had a lot of life-destroying love stories about people who fell in love outside their marriage.

      1. Look at myths and legends. Cities fall because people fall in love.
        There’s a kind of brain chemistry induced insanity that happens when people fall in love and they lose the capacity to think clearly about consequences.

    3. Yup. I was dating the guy (he’s still a sweetheart, but so not for me) who fit every one of my “type” categories, and was starting to get a vague inkling that it wasn’t going to work out, when I got blindsided by the guy who broke every one of them.

  5. So how about the hero and heroine resolving their differences early on and a secondary character or subplot becoming the antagonist? Or is that just not “fair”?

    1. It’s two different stories. If you switch your antagonist in the middle of a story, you’re starting a new story. Generally, people stop reading when a story is done. If they’ve settled in with a novel, get halfway through and that first story ends, they tend to get hostile. See Anne Rice’s The Mummy.

      1. What about when the hero and heroine are still working their way towards each other and an outside force (person) takes a swing at her/them, becoming the primary antagonist? Does that take too much attention away from the central relationship?
        I also had a community question: is there a point in a story with a community (to clarify, it’s a romance set in a boarding house and all the characters are significant), is there ever a point when it’s too late to introduce an important character? I’m not talking protag/antag, just a supporting character that plays a significant role.

        1. First, BIG disclaimer: This is what I think, it’s not the word of god. Or goddess. Whatever. You can always do what you want, it’s your story.

          Relationship Question: It’s hard to tell without looking at the actual story, but if the protagonist/antagonist is the two lovers, then an outside person who tries to destroy the relationship is a complication caused by one of the main character’s pursuit of the story. But if the outside person is the chief cause of the problems in the romance, then he or she is probably the antagonist, and that’s a different story. Again, it’s impossible to really say without looking at the story. It would be a good thing to ask beta readers.

          Community: My theory (not necessarily anyone else’s) is that the first act sets up everything in the story, it gives the reader the pieces in the game, if you will. Adding another character after the first third of the book disrupts the world you’ve built. But you can get around that by having somebody refer to that character in some way so the reader knows he or she exists. Then when the new guy or girl shows up, the reader connects back to the original mention, and just fills in that information in the slot she already had reserved for that character.

  6. As I read these comments, I kept remembering that in the original play THE FRONT PAGE, which was turned into HIS GIRL FRIDAY for the screen, the character of Hildy was actually a man. It’s been a very long time since I watched the original–there’s an excellent version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau that’s probably available on DVD somewhere–but I seem to recall that there were astonishingly few alterations made in the movie script to accommodate the gender changes. Does this mean that the original material was meant as a gay romance? Who knows? Obviously it could work that way.

  7. A really simple and lovely example is The Darkest Surrender.

    Strider’s demon means he can’t turn down or lose a challenge. His heroine, Kaia, is a Harpy. They are competing in the Harpy Games.

    If she loses, her family has her killed. If he loses, he not only suffers unimaginable pain for the loss, but loses the opportunity to snatch the first prize, which he needs for some paranormal romance reason.

    This conflict is resolved by the two of them coming to an understanding that, inside a partnership, there is no such thing as winning or losing against each other. You win or lose as a team. A win for one is a win for both.

  8. The reason I asked this question is I always get the note that my central conflict isn’t strong enough in my contemps. Im beginning to think it’s because I don’t develop the antagonist enough. I love the Desk Set example I might graft that onto the book I’m brainstorming now…

    The one I’m editing now is lovers reunited and I have another woman as the antagonist but I didn’t really want to make her a viable threat because I don’t want readers to dislike the hero for being attracted to another woman.

    1. Well, that and the whole catfight thing is really unpleasant.

      If there’s nothing inherent in the lovers’ relationship that’s keeping them apart, then bringing in another woman just shows that the relationship is weak. Look at what these people do besides the romance. Who do they work for, what are their families like, what do they do in their off time? Is there something there that will give you an antagonist?

      The big problem for contemporary romance is that the things that keep lovers apart today keep them apart for good reason. One or more of them is married. One or more of them is in prison. Not barriers that make the people separated by them attractive. It’s the reason so many contemporary romance plots are tied to an external plot to generate conflict.

      1. He used to be a party boy (now reformed) and she used to be very clingy and living her life through him. The basic premise is they were too young and immature before, but now they’ve both got their shit together. BUT she’s still scared he’ll hurt her again so she holds back. :/

        1. Ah, the afraid-to-love-again. Lani and I sliced and diced that one in the Hitch commentary on Pop D. Not a good conflict because all the character has to do is change her mind..

  9. Argh stupid phone. I was going to continue to say maybe I should take bet me as a model because david and Cynthie are the antags but neither is ever really a viable substitute to cal or min. Cynthie and david cause mayhem without making the reader doubt the bond between min and cal.

    1. David and Cynthie are complications, they’re not antagonists.
      Fate/the Fairy Tale is the antagonist; the book was originally magic realism, but I cut way back on that at my editor’s request. There was a lot more magic in the original. There’s still some of it in there, but it’s more subtle. The magic cat showing up. The two of them ending up at the movie theater. Him finding the snow globe. His kitchen attacking him as he tells his mother he’s not interested in Min. Fate/the Fairy Tale whispering “This one” in their ears. It’s Min vs the Fairy Tale/Fate with Cal vs. Fate as the subplot.

    1. I don’t think I know the elements. Try to find something that they can’t resolve by talking, that they’ll have to move their bodies to solve, something that’s difficult enough to obtain that they’ll have to cross personal boundaries to achieve. No idea what that is, of course.


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