15 June 2011

How to create internal conflict in romance

Conflict is the blood of romantic fiction. Readers don't read romance novels because they want to know what happens to the characters - they know it already. They read to know how the characters overcome the conflict and end up together. It's conflict keeps your hero and heroine apart and makes the reader turn the page.
So there's no romance without conflict.

photo by Ambro

Conflict in romance can be external or internal. External conflict comes from the outside and affect your characters; it's the plot. Internal conflict on the other hand comes from within the character. It's an internal battle, an obstacle they have to overcome, a choice between love/lasting relationship and ... this other thing. Internal conflict arises form an unmet need - something that happened in the past and left a hole in the character, the character will struggle to fill (as Molly O'Keefe said in her great article on Conflict from Character in 'Heart to Heart' - RWNZ Newsletter, May 2011).
How do you find these unmet needs? How do you create internal conflict in romance?

There are a number of ways you can 'source' your characters' internal conflict:

1. Your character's goals , plans, ambitions- look at what he/she's always wanted to achieve, their desires. Whether it's a life-long ambition to become a great scientist, a dream of round the world trip, or peace of mind, need for financial security, or revenge. Whatever drives them, the goal is to get somewhere which is away from love.

Risk: this type of internal conflict, if not supported by 'added layers' (see below) and rooted deeper in the character's past risks being too shallow to carry the entire novel. If she wants to go on a round the world trip why can't she go with him? Or why doesn't she go, keep in touch with him while travelling (we have technology), and get back together on return?

This is a good first layer of conflict, because our goals and decisions we make are often based on our previous experiences and even deeper desires or fears, so just the moment the reader think the character can easily overcome this obstacle, you just peel the layer and show another one.

2. Your character's past experience - whether one-off or repeated as an adult; or something that has been haunting your character from her/his childhood. the deeper (the more back in time and the stronger) you can go, the better - the hole will be bigger and more difficult to heal - would certainly not be sorted out with a plaster. Conflict arising from this kind of experience will often be an obstacle to being in a lasting relationship, e.g. inability to trust another person, fear of being abandoned or hurt again.
Look for previous relationship problems and failures; inner fears, doubts. When creating a problem, make sure it's not an opinion formed on a one-off experience, unless the experience is of traumatic size. Again, to build up conflict that could carry a novel, look for experiences which create strong, lasting emotions -

I've recently read a novel where the heroine was reluctant to get back with her miraculously 'returned from dead' husband, because he'd walked away from her life 2 years before and never bothered to communicate with her. When he finally turns up at her wedding (to someone else) he explains that he has been hurt badly at a war, nearly lost his life and certainly ability to contact her. She loves him but feels she can't trust him, because of this one-off event; she had no previous experience of being 'dumped' or 'stood up'. Not enough of a internal conflict for me to make me believe this situation, so I put the book away having read about 2/3.

When you use a recent relationship issue, whether in current relationship, or previous one, make sure the problem actually goes deeper still - to another relationship, or even better - back to childhood experience and fears. See my post on building believable characters for more suggestions.

In another recently read novel, The heroine breaks up with her partner who she is madly in love with because he doesn't want to change his very dangerous job. He's late for dinner or date with her, comes back unharmed but just... She realises that he loves his job and will never give it up; and she does not want him to give up the job he loves, so she walks away.
This novel shows the layers very well, because the reader is soon informed that the heroine's father who was a rescuer himself died while on duty. The heroine knows exactly what it means to loose the most important man in her life to work.
But this does not end here. As the story progresses, we learn the heroine's biggest secret - that her mother committed suicide shortly after her husband's death because she couldn't cope with the death of her beloved father. And the heroine still feels guilty for not being able to prevent it. Do you want your child to feel like that? or do you believe your children deserve a better future?

3. Your characters beliefs and values are great source of internal conflict. I actually think it's the best way to (seemingly) insurmountable problems at your heroine/hero. Because people invest a lot in maintaining values and beliefs, they will hold onto them for much longer than to plans or decision made without this weight. People don't change their beliefs very often, there has to be a special reason for doing so and this one-in-the-lifetime love, this special relationship may be just the agent of the change.

I like books where the source of internal conflict is in the character's belief system - not only because you go really deep, reaching to the core of your character. Also because beliefs are formed throughout life, and are combination of our upbringing, past experience and own decisions, so they rise from all the layers. In fact, you can build the conflict through all the layers.
One of the favourites in romantic fiction is the issue of single parenting - I've read a number of books where the heroine (often due to her own upbringing without or with absent father) finds herself pregnant but doesn't want to bring up the child on her own, or stays in an abusive relationship because she believes children should have both parents. Another favourite includes men who believe that women should stay at home until children are bigger, or give in their careers completely to be mothers and/or homemakers; and they would not marry/be in a serious relationship with a career girl. This belief can stem from happy childhood with mummy at home, or the other way round - the trauma of being shifted from one nursery/childminder to another and never seeing their mother.
There is a layer of goals, then there is a layer of own experience, and there is a layer of beliefs.

Risk: you have to be careful when challenging people's beliefs and values, because values are actually what makes your characters unforgettable and heroic; values can also be saving grace, so be mindful not to challenge a belief or a value that your character absolutely needs to maintain integrity.

4. The other character's goals, past experience and beliefs - to create tension between your characters give them conflicting goals, different past experience or opposing sets of beliefs. If you combine a man raised by a single, working mother yearning for a homemaker and an independent career women who needs to prove her intellectual worth to the world because she's always been 'sois belle and tais-toi!', you should have enough to keep them apart for 200 pages.

Once you have conflict and inevitable choice to make (love or...?)
- put your characters in situation where they have to make this choice
- don't let them act out of character
- peel the layers like an onion; adding depth and drama (more tears, anyone?) as you go.

Read more about internal vs external conflict in Jennifer Holbrook-Talty's great postHere Terry Odell shows how to build conflict and tension into your romance. And here's more about conflict and tension in general.
As a reader I enjoy multi-layered conflict, deeply rooted in the character's beliefs, because I think it reaches to the core of a character and require true growing to get to Happily Ever After. However much I like it, I also think it's difficult to pull off and the more I admire authors who can do it.
As a writer, I try to source internal conflict from my character's beliefs or values.  Do you have a favourite way of creating internal conflict? How do you do it?

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