Romance Required?

Have you ever noticed that movies and stories frequently have a romantic element?  Even a movie that doesn’t require the romantic storyline to advance the plot (like one of my favorites, The Italian Job) often has a love interest between two of the characters.  You’ll usually hear that this is to draw in the female crowd, especially when you find it in action movies.  (Perhaps the idea is that a guy can convince his girlfriend to accompany him to the movie if there’s a love-related subplot.)  On top of that, any movie with a primarily love-related story is immediately classified as a “chick flick” or some other female-related term.

Do women really require romance?

In all honesty, I have a romantic relationship in most of my books.  The attraction/dislike counterplay that my main characters feel towards each other is a major part of the plot in Dragon.  But my NaNo novel that I’m planning for this year doesn’t have that type of relationship between the main characters, and I think the story is still strong.

What is behind the female drive for romance?  It’s an interesting thing to think about, because it dances into two different concepts.  One is that this is something biological, that women have a yearning which fiction and Hollywood happily supply.  The other is almost opposite; that we are raised from childhood with images of romance and love and this has conditioned us to want those things as adults.

What are your thoughts on the issue?  Do you always include a romantic relationship in your tales?

 

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Life

This will be the final Romantic Obstacles posts, and I saved a good one for last.  This is the obstacle where life gets in the way, and the best name for it is simply Life.

This plays in different ways.  First, there is the “you don’t fit in my life but I fell in love with you anyway” variation.  A great example of this is the movie Sabrina. (I like the recent version, but I’m sure the older one works the same way.)  If you haven’t seen it, the chauffeur’s daughter falls in love with a son of the wealthy family that employs her father.  Often the objections in these scenarios come not from the couple but from the friends/family/colleagues of one or both of the couple.  You can also set it up to be one of the involved characters who balk, although the person in a lesser position is a better choice for the one to step back than the one who is well-off.  Remember, you always have to play these so neither character comes off as someone who the reader dislikes.

A second way life can get in the way is simple geography.  (See The Holiday for a great version of this.)  I live in Canada, you live in Arizona, we both have lives/jobs/families we don’t want to give up.  Of course, you have to start the story knowing this will be the obstacle, since you’ll need to find a way to bring the couple together if they live that far apart.  Visiting relatives, taking a vacation, or going somewhere temporarily for a job are all great ways to introduce a couple that will eventually need to overcome the obstacle of Life.

You may have other variations, but I’m going to share just one more.  This one ties into one of the Noble Cause obstacles, and is the “but I had plans” problem.  The characters’ lives fit together now, but one (or both) had plans that will pull them apart.  This is great to use when you have a couple that weren’t looking for romance when they got together, or perhaps when one has given up on a dream.  Of course, the plans can be small (I was going to live with my sister, I got in to a college across the country) or they could be big and even unexpected (my dad got sick, I was offered a major new job).  As long as they conflict with staying with the other person, they will work for this obstacle.

Remember when you introduce Life as an obstacle, you’re going to have to resolve it.  Just like the other obstacles, you want to make sure that you bring your readers along and play the characters out in the right way.  You don’t have to keep the couple together (as long as you are okay with irritated readers) but you do have to resolve the problem to finish the story.

Personality Traits

When you are writing and want to throw a romantic obstacle in the path of your couple, this is one that needs to be built-in from the beginning.  Personality Traits (or flaws) are an interesting obstacle to overcome, because sometimes it takes convincing on the part of the non-flawed person and sometimes it takes self-reflection on the part of the flawed person.

There are many types of Personality Traits that can inhibit the growth of a romantic relationship.  Lack of confidence is a big one, which comes out as “I’m not good enough” or “she couldn’t possibly love me.”  That lack in a character can either be explained in your story or not; you don’t have to tell us why someone is this way, you just have to write them so the trait is believable when it appears.  This can be either an overall lack of confidence, or a negative perception of some trait that is related to lovability.  Someone who is confident and capable in other areas can still be unsure of themselves in romance.

Another trait that can play a part is the hard heart.  “I’ve been hurt before so no one is ever going to hurt me again,” is the overall impression of this aspect of a character.  Again, it is entirely up to the author to decide if the reader needs the background information of this trait or not.  A great example of this is the character of Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You. She was hurt, so she decided to swear off dating to protect herself.  In her case, she also took on an attitude of “I don’t care what others think,” which is often used hand-in-hand with this personality trait.  It takes a bit of coaxing on our non-flawed partner’s side to get past this, but it can be interesting to play with as a writer.

There is a fun trait that may take some careful writing on your part: arrogance.  It often appears as a “playboy” attitude.  This is the character that is too good-looking, too rich, too awesome, etc. to settle down with one person.  (Think Barney fromHow I Met Your Mother.)  It’s usually a guy, although it can be a girl, but either way they will resist the growing attraction to the other half of the romantic equation.  It takes some skill to write this kind of person into your equation, mostly because you still want the reader to like the character and cheer for the relationship.  If everyone likes Bob but can’t stand Katie, they are going to question why you have the couple together no matter what reason you give them.

There are lots of Personality Traits that can be used as obstacles for a romantic couple.  I’m sure you can think of at least one that I missed.  Just remember to use them in a way that is both believable as an obstacle and also possible to overcome!

False Pretenses

The False Pretense (or Big Lie) is another classic example of a romantic obstacle.  This one dovetails with the Unspoken Truth; while one could be resolved if someone would just say something, the other doesn’t become an obstacle until someone says something.

The Big Lie is when one or the other of your romantic couple has a big secret that could mess everything up.  A common way of making this happen is to have one (or both) start the relationship for a reason besides interest in the other person.  A great example of this is the movie How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, wherein she sets out to start dating a guy just to lose him (for a magazine article) and he sets out to start dating her to win a bet.  There are a multitude of reasons you can create for someone as a false pretense; writing an article and to win a bet are just two common ones.

Another (trickier to write) version of the Big Lie is something in one person’s life that they conceal from the other, usually something that could be a deal breaker.  Unlike the Unspoken Truth, it is intentionally concealed or omitted.  This could be a kid, a spouse, a medical condition; the challenge here is to make it a possible problem without making it unforgivable.  That’s a two-part challenge.  If the Lie isn’t big enough the reader won’t buy it; if it’s too big, the reader won’t buy the couple getting back together.

Just like all of the other romantic obstacles, you have to keep the reader in mind when you fling this in the path of the characters.  This is one (like the Love Triangle) that can be dangerous – it has to be played just right, so that you don’t alienate your characters from each other, or your readers from your story.

As a fun aside, you can also use a False Pretense to get a couple together, although it plays out a bit differently.  In this case, two people who are not romantically involved pretend to be together in order to fool a third person or group.  Eventually, their pretense leads them to true attraction and suddenly the big lie isn’t a lie anymore… 🙂

First Impressions

No matter what romantic obstacles you throw at a couple, it’s hard to overcome a bad first impression.  Another way to think about this challenge is the “But I Don’t Like You” problem.

This obstacle has to be set up at the beginning of the story.  The basic concept is that you have two characters who will eventually be a couple but neither of them knows that.  In fact, based on their first interactions, they don’t like each other.  (It’s even better if they can’t stand each other.)  Then, throughout the course of the story, their relationship develops, but both of them have the initial “but I don’t like you” response to their own feelings which prolongs the time before they finally give in and get together.

You can set this up in many ways, but unlike some of our other obstacles this one is fairly straightforward overall.  There are infinite variations on characters that can make them start off with a negative response: differing backgrounds, hostile settings, personalities that clash, working against each other, opposite opinions on an issue, the list can go on and on.  From there, it’s simply a matter of writing them so they dislike each other.

The one thing to remember is that you have to set it up so that this initial dislike is possible to overcome, hopefully in a believable way.  Ideally, the bad first impressions are strong but superficial, so as the couple are forced to interact, the reason for their animosity is washed away.  People also change, even in real life, so if the cause of the irritation is a personality quirk of one of the characters, they can develop in a way that makes it a moot point.  You can also set characters up to show themselves as deeper/nicer/smarter than they first appear to each other by putting them in a situation that lends itself to serious conversation or personality-revealing behavior.

Remember, like all of our obstacles, this one can be used in conjunction with others.  Throw in a love triangle or unspoken truth as they are overcoming their first impressions, and make them work even harder!  (The movie Cutting Edge is a great example of this!)

The Noble Cause

There are many obstacles you can throw in the way of a romantic couple in your writing.  The Love Triangle.  The Unspoken Truth.  The Noble Cause.

The Noble Cause is a legitimate or perceived reason that the couple shouldn’t be together.  While it is different from the misunderstandings that cause an unspoken truth, it is often accompanied by silence as well.  Like both of the obstacles we talked about before, this can take different forms.

One of the most common often appears as a sacrifice that must be made by one person for the benefit of the other.  This usually comes as a choice that one of the couple has to make, typically between a goal and the relationship, and the other makes it for them by ending the relationship.  He breaks it off so she’ll go to college.  She can’t have kids, so she ends the romance because she wants him to have the family he always dreamed of.  Typically these make us feel even more strongly that the couple should be together, because one person is choosing the other’s happiness over their own.

Another variation is when a relationship is avoided, however difficultly, to preserve an existing relationship between the couple.  This can be a mutual decision, discussed (sometimes more than once) by the couple.  They don’t want to ruin their friendship, or their working relationship, or whatever existing tie they have.  It can also be a decision made by one of the couple, especially if that person is in a position of authority.  I use this as an obstacle for the couple in Dragon; he’s her tutor, so he doesn’t want to start a romantic relationship that would interfere with her training.  In order for the reader to continue liking both parties, this needs to at least appear to be a decision made for the good of the other person, rather than a selfish one.

The third way the Noble Cause can be used is when the couple ends or avoids starting a relationship because of something greater outside of their romance.  These are often temporary obstacles, which even the couple knows will end, but they don’t have to be.   Good temporary examples are both characters going to different colleges, the couple waiting to be together until after a war/protest/major world event, one or both not wanting to flaunt happiness in the face of a sad situation like a sick family member, or even a character delaying the romance to give someone else the spotlight (like during a sibling’s wedding).  A major world event can also be an obstacle with no clear end, as can a family separation like death or divorce.  This second example works best if the couple are together because of their families, particularly if their siblings are married to each other, because then the split of their families forces them to split for family solidarity.

Much like our previous obstacles, the Noble Cause can be tied in with other obstacles. While You Were Sleeping,one of my favorite movies as a teen, uses all three in harmony.  There is a perceived love triangle, an unspoken truth, and a noble cause, all wrapped up in one brother in a coma.

This obstacle may be less frustrating to readers, although if they are invested in the characters’ romance, they still won’t like it.  When one or both of the couple are making a sacrifice for the greater good (the other person or someone or something outside of the relationship), it makes us like them better.  The Noble Cause makes readers impatient, but they are less likely to shout at the book and may even shed a tear if the cause is good enough.

The Unspoken Truth

Last week I talked about the love triangle, one of the many obstacles that can be thrown at a romantic couple in story.  This week I want to talk about the unspoken truth, otherwise known as the awkward silence.

This obstacle is one of the things that can make a reader shout at a book, “Just tell her already!”  One of my favorite authors (Mercedes Lackey) used this to great effect in her first trilogy.  The unspoken truth is that conversation that just needs to happen, but for whatever reason, the characters refuse to have it.  It can be tied to a love triangle, as well, which makes it even more interesting (or frustrating, depending on your point of view).

There are two major ways to set this up with your characters.  The first is to start it with a misunderstanding, or even a fight.  (This is where you can tie it in to a love triangle, especially if the triangle isn’t real, just the perception of one character.)  Someone makes an incorrect assumption and removes themselves from the situation, the other one doesn’t know why the first pulled back and is hurt, and suddenly your romantic couple are no longer even speaking to one another.  Obviously that’s just one way to develop it, but really, a lot of these awkward silences grow out of some type of misunderstanding.

The other way comes from character traits, rather than any actual event.  This is where you use flaws like shyness, insecurity, or stubbornness to your advantage.  The boy is too shy to tell the girl how he feels.  The girl can’t imagine that a boy like that would be interested in her, so she misreads or ignores his advances.  Both characters know that they are interested, but both are too stubborn to be the first one to say anything.  These types of silences are just as effective as ones based on misunderstandings.

Of course, it’s really fun to use both.  There’s a misunderstanding, they stop talking, she realizes she was wrong but is too stubborn to admit it, he’s convinced he’s no good for her, etc. and so on.  I say it’s fun, but that’s from an author’s point of view.  Authors like to make their characters work for it.  Readers, of course, want to strangle the characters (and their creator) for their inability to just have the conversation already.  You have to admit it, though; a well-written unspoken truth obstacle makes it that much sweeter when the couple finally gets it figured out!

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