The Desert Island Test


It’s contest judging season, and I have to say most of the manuscripts I’ve seen lately have been failing my “desert island” test. It’s a test I put my own plot ideas through—and it sorts out if all you have going is external conflict.

The question to ask is: If I dropped the hero and heroine in my romance onto a desert island, would there still be any conflict? If the answer is no, you know you’ve put all the conflict into external circumstances. There’s a problem with this.

Stories need conflict—the more the better. When you short-change your characters by having them only focus on external issues, you’re short-changing the romance and the reader. We all have issues. And the hero and heroine in a romance need to have personal issues that relate to the external ones you create to the plot—but these should be core issues. Issues so deep that dropping these two people onto a desert island would result in more than a few arguments—it might even result in separate living quarters on opposite sides of the island.

A good demonstration of this actually showed up in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Captain Jack and Elizabeth are stuck on a desert island. Now these two are not the hero and heroine of a romance—the movie’s action/adventure—but you get instant conflict. She has ideas about how he should be acting, and he has ideas about getting drunk on rum, and since she’s here maybe he’ll have sex with her. The rum goes into an alert fire, thanks to Elizabeth. And now he’s ready to feed her to the sharks. She’s proper—he’s not. She’s focused on being active, facing their situation, taking charge—he’s focused on trying to avoid most everything, particularly the situation. You have personality conflicts showing up in action. That’s what makes a good romance into a great one.

Here’s the trick with this—it’s no good just giving a character arbitrary personal issues. These issues have to rub against the other person’s issues—if she likes cats, he has to be  dog guy, and vice versa. They have to be motivated in the character’s past—that makes the character more believable as a real person. And they work best if they have something to do with the external issues as well. As in, if these are cat and dog people, animals should probably come into the external problems (which is why you see stories about shape shifters and he’s a wolfman and she’s a cat-person quite literally—that’s amplified personal conflict since cat and dogs don’t even speak the same language).

For example, if you have a heroine who has been brought up a tom-boy, she’s going to have a pretty blunt way of taking action. She’s going to be insecure about having much skill with feminine grace, and she may end up pushy and take-charge. This is going to rub against a guy who is also take-charge and who has a pretty blunt way of taking actions. This is where being too much alike creates as much friction as does two opposites. I used this in Barely Proper for part of the conflict between here and heroine. I also did something similar in Under the Kissing Bough—the hero and heroine are two people with deep insecurities. They have different ways of hiding that they don’t feel adequate, but their insecurities keep cropping up and coming between them. For A Proper Mistress I went for the opposites. The heroine is level-headed and practical—she’s had to be due to her past. The hero is a bit of a wild cannon. They both learn from each other—she learns to enjoy spontaneity, and he learns a bit about responsibilities. So their issues become strengths to the other person—that makes for a very satisfying relationship, and a satisfying read.

So take a look at your characters—what would happen if you dropped them onto a desert island? Would they get along fine? Would one take charge and the other would allow it and all is good? Or would they fight and argue best plans for rescue? Would one be all about accepting the situation while the other is fighting it? Would one be exploring the island while the other hugs the beach, refusing to go into the dark jungle? How would their personalities clash—and how would their personalities complement each other?

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2 thoughts on “The Desert Island Test

  1. I think that the scene from the second “The Pirates Of The Caribbean” movie that you refer to was stolen from the movie “The African Queen” although your remarks are just as relevent. And while not a romance, wouldn’t a good example of this type of clash of personalities also be relevent to adventure fictions like “Robinson Carusoe”?

    • I wouldn’t say it was stolen from African Queen — in that movie, Kate Hepburn does dump out the bottles, but they’re in a different situation. There are echos also to Father Goose (Leslie Caron and Cary Grant–otherwise known as Goody-Two-Shoes and The Filty Beast). It’s an older cliche to have the guy who is a bit of a boozer and the starchy woman — in a romance she’ll generally reform him (or they come to an understanding as in African Queen).

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