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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Can this love affair be saved?

Terry McLaughlin wants to know.

I understand conflict, especially the internal kind. It's that ache in my gut that makes me reach for the antacids when I have to throw problems at my characters.

Here's my dilemma: if both my hero and my heroine have conflicts so huge, so overwhelming, so physically and emotionally threatening that they'll extinguish all life on the planet by jumping into bed together, then why would they make that leap? I'm not writing about out-of-control, stupid, selfish, crazy people. I want my characters to be sympathetic.

Forget about motivation--there's no villain aiming a missile at a Kindergarten class, insisting the hero and heroine slide between the sheets and do what they want to do in spite of all the monumentally important reasons not to slide.

If editors want conflict that's bigger than life, how do realistic, relatable characters deal with it? If there's too much at stake, too much at risk, too many reasons keeping this couple apart, then why would they have anything to do with each other? The external conflicts may provide a reason for physical proximity, but another layer of internal conflicts will be lying in wait, ready to shred their story.

If the hero and heroine hate each other at first sight, if their grandparents or companies or tribes or genetic molecules hate each other, how would they get past that hate long enough to start liking each other? Why would two intelligent, sensible people plow through all that baggage just to test an attraction? Wouldn't it be safer, and smarter, and more sensible to say adiós--especially if the fate of their worlds hung in the balance?

We've all heard the warning about false conflicts that could be resolved if the characters sat down and talked with each other. What happens if they sit down to talk things over, and they both realize they shouldn't get involved with each other in the first place? If the obstacles are too strong--and if those obstacles continue to intensify--why wouldn't the characters give up and find someone else to love?

Jenny Crusie has made the point that if the hero and heroine are completely conflicted, then one must destroy the other in order to resolve the plot--or one character must decide his or her goal wasn't really that important to begin with, which is a cop-out.

Yes, I know there's this annoying problem of filling pages with the answers to these questions, not to mention that pesky thing called a book deadline. (Deadlines have solved many of my writing conflicts.)

But I'm wondering what readers and writers think about these issues. Have you ever read a book that made you wonder why these two people bothered with each other? Have you ever suspected a happily-ever-after relationship wouldn't last past the morning after? How do you make the impossible seem not only possible, but longed for?

22 Comments:

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Great questions, Terry!

I think there has to be some aspect of the relationship where the hero and heroine can agree for those sorts of love affairs to work. I guess you'd call it common ground, maybe they don't agree on most things, but they have similar values. In fact, that's often one of the predictors compatability tests look at--do you want the same thing for your future? do you share the same values when it comes to finances and family relationships. I think usually there's a lot of sexual tension with love affairs with intense conflict, too. That whole forbidden fruit appeal. Some people are attracted to their polar opposites. Look at James Carville and Mary Matalin. They have found a way to make it work. Maybe we should ask them their secret! :)

 
At 9:30 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

My favorite conflict is when the h/h are torn between love of the other and duty to something that can't be shrugged off (country, family).
The whole "Return of the King" thing when he had to accept his destiny and live through it all in order to return to his true love.

Yes, I've read a few books where the obstacles before the h/h were such that even after they've found their HEA, I do wonder how long it will last. Two against the whole world seems a little lonely to me. I like it when at least something or someone else is on their side.

 
At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Jean Hart Stewart said...

Great blog. Any writer needs reminded to concentrate on the main issues of conflict. I've just started book eight in my series, Garland of Druids, and am working with this right now. Thanks. Jean

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Mo :-)! Mary Matalin has often explained that she and James share basic values--the common ground you suggested. And they certainly have a lot of interests in common, don't they ;-)?

However, neither of them has ever threatened the other's job or family or existence. It's that kind of overwhelming conflict I'm having trouble with here. I don't understand why people who threaten each other on that level would risk coming together.

I'm too practical, I know. I enjoy reading the kind of fiction that pushes the envelope--and admire the writers who can pull it off--but I'll never be able to write stories like that.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, gillian :-)! I like your phrase "two against the whole world seems a little lonely." It certainly does.

Here's a problem I see with the duty vs. heroine scenario: if a hero shirks his duty for the sake of the heroine, then he's less heroic, right? And if he's less heroic, why would the heroine continue to admire him? On the other hand, if he chooses duty and leaves her in the dust, then she knows she's not his first priority (if she's still alive). So how could she trust him in the future? Seems a lose-lose situation for the poor hero.

I know I must be over-thinking this whole issue. As a reader, I just go with the flow--I'm so easily manipulated :-)! But as a writer, I struggle with these conflict issues.

Thanks for sharing, gillian--it's good to hear what others think :-)!

 
At 12:30 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, jean :-)! Thanks for the comment :-).

You're right about having to concentrate on the main issues of conflict. I find that after I've set up my conflicts (which change and sometimes multiply as the characters' goals shift), my primary problem is remembering to clarify motivations for my readers. The two certainly go hand-in-hand.

Good luck with your eighth book in your series, Jean!

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Here's a problem I see with the duty vs. heroine scenario: if a hero shirks his duty for the sake of the heroine, then he's less heroic, right? And if he's less heroic, why would the heroine continue to admire him? On the other hand, if he chooses duty and leaves her in the dust, then she knows she's not his first priority (if she's still alive). So how could she trust him in the future? Seems a lose-lose situation for the poor hero

This is how I see it with regard to the above scenario...Most of the romance books I read, the characters don't realize they're truly in love until the END of the book...they are both learning and discovering things about one another, so when the hero picks duty over her, then she loves him even more for who he is and what he stands for because when he chooses saving the world he's doing it for HER too and if she has any brains at all she'll see it's not about HER! :)

Okay, give me another one, Terry. :)

Great blog. Makes us think and analyze and get headaches as we over-analyze...

 
At 1:33 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

If the hero and heroine hate each other at first sight, if their grandparents or companies or tribes or genetic molecules hate each other, how would they get past that hate long enough to start liking each other? Why would two intelligent, sensible people plow through all that baggage just to test an attraction? Wouldn't it be safer, and smarter, and more sensible to say adiós--especially if the fate of their worlds hung in the balance?

This makes me think of Romeo and Juliet. I personally think love and even lust (in the beginning) makes people do CRAZY things and throw caution to the wind...or is it just me? :)

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

My answer to this question is that I prefer books with more realistic, solvable conflicts, between people who actually like each other. :) Does the motivation for this blog post involve throwing a book across the room? You don't need to name names or titles. In fact, please don't.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Characters can appear to be completely, unreconcilable opposites--and remain that way, as in political opposites--if by the end of the book, they realize they share underlying values and it's really a thing of different methodology.

Karyn Langhorne wrote Unfinished Business which was about an interracial couple who were also political opposites. Very well done.

I have read a book or two, which shall remain unnamed, where by the end, even if the characters got together, I found that I didn't like either of them and didn't think they should be together. I can take honest reconciliation but not forced.

 
At 2:43 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Terry, I think it is the love the hero and heroine have for each other that ultimately solves the problems for each other.

In the Romeo and Juliet scenario, the two families see that being enemies is not a good thing, because their children loved each other so much that they were willing to die. Of course, a romance would have them living. The love itself teaches the lesson.

The duty vs love scenario, the hero always must choose duty because the heroine loves him enough to let him do what he must do. What authors often give us then is a twist. In some manner, the choice the hero and heroine made to sacrifice for the greater good, ultimately is the very thing that enables them to be together in the end.

At least that is how I see it!

 
At 3:41 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oh, good point, Diane. The hero and heroine can choose TOGETHER to save the world. Or decide "together" that he must honor his duty and then everyone is happy!

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Very often the dutiful hero scenario has a hero who THINKS he has to do something to uphold his honor or do his duty and it turns out his reasons for doing so are all wrong. Sometimes it takes the heroine showing him he is not sacrificing honor to give up this duty only he sees he must perform. My hero sees his duty as filling his brother's shoes the way his brother would AND not getting any joy out of life because his brother never will. One of his friends tells him. "You can be a martyr to your grief if you like, but it won't bring him back. Are you sure this is what HE would want for you?"

The heroine teaches him about joy and trust just by being herself. Her conflict is that she doesn't think that is what he wants.

 
At 11:01 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hey there, Theresa :-)! I see your reasoning--thank you! This is just the kind of help I was hoping for :-).

And as for your your crazy-in-lust rationale...I like it :-). (Maybe because I've used it to get myself out of a couple of tight spots before).

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Esri :-)! No, this blog isn't based on any particular reading experience ;-). As a reader, I can buy into just about any premise (although I share your preference for friendship).

But as a writer, I struggle with the idea that I'm not thinking in big enough terms, that my conflicts won't be truly compelling until they're awesomely huge & hairy.

 
At 11:15 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Patricia :-)! My first book featured a hero & heroine who were political opposites, and it was interesting to see how many judges (during the pre-pubbed days) and reviewers thought that difference of opinion was the essence of the conflict--which, of course, it wasn't. It was just a conversation starter ;-).

You raised such in important point: we really have to like the characters, don't we? There's no point in rooting for them to get together--no matter what the conflict is--if we don't care about them in the first place.

 
At 11:17 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Diane--aha! The sacrifice! Yes, that's a terrific resolution to the conflict tug-of-war. And certainly heroic :-).

 
At 11:21 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi there, doglady :-)! Yes, pulling the motivational rug out from beneath a misguided character would certainly topple his goals and do away with much of the conflict :-).

Your story sounds like it's packed with emotion and conflict :-).

 
At 12:38 PM, Blogger Pat Cochran said...

I can only speak about conflict from a personal angle. Ken and I began our relationship with many points of conflict. He's Caucasian, I'm Hispanic. I'm several years older. His family wasn't greatly taken with the situation, he was the "baby" of
the family. I am the eldest of
my siblings. Financially, our families were not on the same footing. One of the main points
of conflict was that this was happening in Texas in the late
1950s. It was a situation that
did not sit well with people of
both races. We married despite
the conflict and, as you know, we
are still together after these
many years. Conflict seems to be
the basis for so many situations.
How to handle it: you beat it or
you allow it to get the best of
you!!

Pat Cochran

 
At 6:32 PM, Blogger Tess said...

Thank you for addressing this! At times I find that many conflicts seem artificial, or, as you point out, so big that one can't imagine two people being able to work past them.

Any number of times I've read books where it does seem impossible two people could get past their conflicts and end up together, forever.

Other times, though, the author is skillful enough to make me believe it.

GMC are a wonderful things, but sometimes I do wonder if we focus on it to the exclusivity of other important story elements.

 
At 7:39 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Pat--thanks for sharing your wonderful story :-). I do love a Romeo & Juliet tale with a happy ending!

 
At 7:43 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Tess :-)! Your comment about GMC has got me thinking (which is usually a dangerous thing, LOL!). Sometimes I wish I could keep that acronym in mind as I write, so I won't have to backtrack and add in those structural layers, but I'm beginning to realize I just have to let the story flow, at first, and give it its shape later.

And there are, indeed, many other important story elements, as you mention :-).

Isn't this business of writing novels just funfunFUN ;-)?

 

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