There’s some advice in romance writing that it is the external conflict brings the hero and heroine together, and the internal conflicts that keep them apart. That’s a great guideline for writers. Too often I see writers going for just the external conflicts, and these are often clichés, which include:
- The heroine gets kidnapped (this sometimes has a twist of hero being kidnapped, but that’s almost as tired a cliché).
- The evil stepmother/stepfather spreads terrible gossip that breaks up the couple (usually without any really good motivation for why the character should want to do this).
- The ex-mistress convinces the heroine the hero (or vice versa) is not to be trusted (she lies in other words, and the heroine/hero somehow believes this just because the plot demands it).
- Bad things happen to hero and heroine (pick a disaster, and it’s already been used).
- The hero/heroine decides to leave “for the good of the other person” (and how is this ever good to break someone’s heart?).
Now, external conflicts are great in an action story—they really keep the pace going. But in a character-based story (and that means a romance), you really want the focus on the characters and their relationships. And that means you want to develop internal issues for the characters to have to face and overcome in order to be able to have a relationship. In other words, you want a character arc for your protagonist (not an action arc).
So, let’s talk character arc.
- A character arc is where the protagonist has an internal issue that at the start of the story prevents that person from forming a deep relationship.
An arc needs a starting point. This should be as close to the opening of the story as possible. In other words, you want to set up conflict between the hero and heroine (and only one of them should be the protagonist), so that these two people have a deep, internal divide between them.
This can be a personality divide—she’s disorganized, he’s compulsively correct—or it can be an attitude to life—she champions the poor, he’s idle rich, or anything else that comes out of the core personalities of the characters.
- There must be consequences for changing or not changing—in other words, the stakes must be high.
If change is easy for the protagonist, there’s not going to be much of a story there. You can go for a small change in a short story, but longer works demand greater conflicts. If the hero can easily also become a champion of the poor, the story ends right there. There must be obstacles to change—and reasons not to change.
The best way to accomplish this is to set up that the protagonist can only get the external goal by giving up the internal need—or vice versa. This sets up a dilemma for the protagonist. You want tough choices and to make them tougher. This gives you the arc of rising action—you want to keep raising the stakes and keep making it harder to make that change. This means there must be a benefit to not changing—all this means really good, thought-out motivations. The reasons WHY characters do things must make it onto the page so the characters make sense to the readers.
- Did you set up conflicts between needs and wants?
You want to build in conflict so your story doesn’t wander or fade out about page 100. The best way to do this is set up lots of internal conflicts with external goals. In other words, if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to keep secrets, she’s not really conflicted about these things. But if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to be honest, now you have her conflicted—she can’t have it both ways.
You want to set up these conflicts for all your major characters. And you want to make sure the needs and wants are well motivated.
- Are the needs and wants really well motivated?
Reader needs to know WHY wants and needs matter to a character. This is very important.
This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. Debra Dixon in her book GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict, talks about how this core motivation works best if deeply entrenched in the character–in other words, you want his to be something the character learned in the formative years. It is a deeply held believe that shapes that person’s identity, and to let go of it would be to face the destruction of self.
If your character’s needs go deep—as in straight to core development years in their childhood—the reader is going to understand that these are core issues. The character who grew up poor and who saw her mother die because there was no money for a doctor will make sense as a woman who will marry just to have money. The character that started torturing small animals at six is going to seem a lot spookier and threatening than anyone who started killing people as an adult.
To make things matter to the reader, make it matter to the character. However, make sure you have someone look over your ideas—motivations have to be plausible, too. They have to fit your character’s background. In general, accountants don’t suddenly wake up one day wanting to be lion tamers—that’s too big a jump to be plausible to readers. So it needs a lot of motivation (as in he’ll get three million dollars if he makes the job change within six months.)
- Are any of your conflicts clichés?
A cliché is something that has been done—and over done to death. Now, if you can come up with a great new twist, awesome. But don’t settle for the first idea that pops into your head.
In Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters & Viewpoint, he holds that the first four to five ideas will be clichés. They pop into mind just because you have read them too often. Throw them out and keep digging. Somewhere about idea six or seven you’ll start to come up with ideas that better fit your characters in terms of both actions and motivations.
Always keep digging. Hunt down clichés and put a fresh twist on them. Let your characters come up with better ideas. And never settle for ideas you’ve already read in too many other books.
- Let your characters fail.
All too often, we learn best from failure—so let your characters fail and lose. That is where they are going to find a path to change. That is the peak of the character arc—all is lost, and the old self must die. That is where realizations happen.
A tip here—the bigger the change, the greater the threat/failure must be. If someone is making a minor change, you can use a minor defeat. But if a character must make a 180, you need a HUGE disaster—the loss of everything.
If a woman loses her job when she fails to reach her goal, readers are going to be left wondering why she can’t just get another job. It doesn’t seem a big deal.
Remember, too, that death—while dramatic—is not always the greatest threat to a character. You want to find out what means the loss of “self” for a character.
- Make it personal.
The stakes must be personal.
Let’s say your main character helps disabled kids. Great. And if the center where she works gets shut down, she won’t be able to help the kids. Those are good stakes, but it’s not that personal to her. Why can’t she go to work for another disabled center? Why can’t the kids go to another place?
Now it would matter more if one of those kids was hers. But it would matter even more if it’s not the center that would be shut down—it would matter to her most if she’s going to be banned from every working with kids anywhere, ever. Now the thing that defines her is being threatened—she will no longer be who she is if she loses. That’s called raising the stakes, and the higher you raise them, the more the conflict will matter to the characters and the readers.
This is where you want to go digging for gold. You don’t want the character arc to fit any old character—you want it to be specific to your protagonist.
And for that gold, you want to go looking inside your character, not to outside circumstances. Dig into your characters. Develop their internal needs, and what will shatter that person inside. Then you can use the external conflicts to be icing on the strong character arc you’ve developed.
One of these days you’re gonna hafta gather all of your best “how-to” material and publish it as a book. Perhaps someday you can address the differences between writing a short story, a novella, and a full-length novel.
Actually, I’ve found structure is structure–doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel. The main difference is complexity–you can’t stuff 20 characters into a short story and do all of them justice. So it’s really about number of characters and subplots–that’s the difference.