William Shakespeare had it right when he said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “The course of true love never did run smooth. Gene Pitney crooned the same thing in his song True Love Never Runs Smooth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBijZqQ6KMU
Anyone who’s ever been in love knows there are bumpy spots in the road of romance. Your fictional love stories are no exception. As writers of romance Shakespeare’s quote should be one thing we always remember when building our stories. We must make it hard for our hero and heroine to get together. The road has to be uncomfortable. The conflict has to be strong. And we must make them suffer.
“But,” you wail, “I love my characters! I don’t want to see them suffer.”
We love our children, too. While we don’t put obstacles in their way, there are times when we know, that in order to make them strong and teach them a lesson, they must suffer the consequences of their actions. We do them a disservice when everything is too easy for them. We also do our novel characters, and our readers, a disservice when we sugar-coat the romantic conflict in our stories.
So how can we make our characters suffer for the sake of love? Here are a few tips to make sure the course of true love never runs smooth in your books—at least until the end of the story.
- Make the conflict one they can’t resolve by merely talking to each other. Just as in real life, if the only thing keeping me away from my true love is a failure to communicate, it’s not really a problem. Once we talk, we can reach a solution. Being too stubborn to talk makes your characters TSTL.
- If you absolutely must make them not communicate, you’d better have a problem driving the lack of communication which can’t easily be solved. As in she can’t tell him she’s an ax murderer, or was falsely convicted of being an ax murderer, because his parents were killed by an ax murderer, and he has a deep hatred of all ax murderers.
- Make sure when your characters solve one problem you give them another one ASAP. The cardinal rule for conflict is continually raising the stakes.
- Put your characters in a place where they aren’t safe. Maybe they don’t feel the relationship with the hero or heroine is safe. Or maybe their relationship takes place in a strange place, a volatile situation, or an emotionally charged environment.
- Place an ideological difference between your characters that can’t easily be worked out. He’s an atheist or worships the devil and she’s a devout or fanatical religious person.
- Give them baggage they carry into the relationship. An internal conflict seated in their past, that is part of what makes them who they are, will be hard to overcome. But make sure that baggage will be conquerable within the story plot. Your characters and their relationships must evolve.
- Make sure their external conflicts are in opposition. If their goals must be in agreement, have them disagree on the path to reach the goal. Make that road rockier by having one character’s path in complete ideological opposition to the other character.
- Make their problem one that will get public attention. Nothing makes us suffer more than knowing someone will soon find out about …. Your characters are no different.
- Make sure your subplots complicate the hero and heroine’s relationship. The tighter the subplots and main plot are woven together the more conflict you will inflict on the lovers.
- Throw in a few danger signs that things aren’t going well in the relationship. Maybe the hero responds in a contemptuous manner, or the heroine starts to withdraw (one of the worst signals in a relationship), or they are defensive or critical of each other. Be careful when using these signs, however, because you don’t want your characters to come across as jerks. Make sure their behaviors are relatable to the circumstances and that they show some remorse privately so readers can forgive them.
- And last, but not least, don’t hand your characters the solutions to their problems. Make them work for them. We humans appreciate most what we have when acquiring it carries a cost.
What about you? Do you have a particular way you like to make things rough for your hero and heroine’s road to true love?