Why Your Characters Must Suffer » Romance University » Conflict
October 31, 2018

Why Your Characters Must Suffer

What are you supposed to do when someone you generally get along with, like or even love does something once, several times, or repeatedly that drives you crazy?

We’ve all come up against that. Not only in happily-ever-after relationships, but also with family members and co-workers and good friends and people it’d be difficult to simply cut out of our lives.

There are all kinds of solutions offered by:

  • advice columnists
  • hair stylists
  • counselors
  • bartenders
  • clergy
  • friends who’ve lived through the same thing
    and millions of other sources.

But as writers, we know one of the best sources of all: romance novels, where couples in love overcome whatever keeps them from living happily ever after in time for The End.

While their main focus is overcoming the challenge to their love relationship, there are also plenty of others affecting these same two people in their roles as family members, co-workers and/or good friends.

Challenges are a good thing.

Or a bad thing, for those writers who sometimes have a tough time creating trouble for their characters.

I get that. My critique partner used to warn, “Laurie, you’re acting like a counselor again…fixing these people’s problems in Chapter Two. You’ve gotta make ‘em suffer.”

And I’d cringe. I loved these characters; I didn’t WANT to make ‘em suffer!

But it got easier once I realized I was actually doing a favor for real-life readers, in spite of the pain it caused my characters. Because if everything went beautifully from Page 1 straight on through, they would’ve wasted their time and money on a book that didn’t keep them engaged.

Of course, many other writers have NO problem challenging their characters. They’ll throw ‘em up against stalkers, bankruptcy, abusive parents, famine, birth defects, zombies, addiction, mean bosses and hurricanes all in the same book…

…making ‘em suffer intensely and then showing how they triumph in the end.

Most writers fall somewhere between Not Enough and Too Much conflict. We’ll challenge our characters at whatever level it takes to keep the reader interested, without going over the top into farce.

What ARE those challenges?

For couples in a romantic relationship, there are seven that the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapists has identified as the most common problems in real life.

That doesn’t mean we’re confined to using just those seven. If our readers would be more excited about a book where the challenge is something like:

  • How to stop the terrorists from blowing up Manhattan
  • Getting back the magical powers lost to the evil wizard
  • Convincing the pirates they should sail to Norway…

…it’s perfectly all right to make THAT the focus of the story.

But whatever the focus, there are ways to create still more conflict between two characters by augmenting the initial problem with other techniques — which we’ll talk about in my class next month on “Challenging Couples in Love.”

For instance, there are the four “misbehaviors” that can verge from mildly annoying to downright disturbing.

And there are the four “danger signals” that show this couple is headed for trouble — including the one that’s been discovered as THE worst enemy in any romantic relationship.

We’ve experienced most of those ourselves, at some point in our lives. Because most real-life relationships develop trouble LESS often from exotic problems and MORE often from familiar ones like:

  • “He never remembers to rinse the bathroom sink.”
  • “She keeps forgetting I work late on Thursdays.”
  • “He tries to be polite but you can tell he hates my sister.”
  • “She hangs onto things we haven’t used in ten years.”

Do these sound like people you know?

None of those issues presents an enormous challenge, but they’re the kind that can drive a wedge between people.

And it works equally well whether those people are tasked with saving Manhattan from the terrorists, or saving enough money for Jimmy’s birthday present. Regardless of how tense the external situation, internal tension heightens it still further.

I recently read a book where the hero is following a suspected criminal and stewing over the fact that his wife said yes to a dinner invitation from a couple he doesn’t much like.

In terms of World Safety, it’s clear that stopping the criminal matters more than surviving a dull evening. But in terms of rooting for this guy on a fundamental level, it’s easier to appreciate his feeling about the unwanted dinner.

Readers like things they can identify with.

They make the characters all the more engaging. Because, even though these people might be negotiating billion-dollar deals or saving the galaxy from the crazed warlord or planning what the princess should wear for the emperor’s ball, way deep down they’re STILL just like us.

They STILL have problems we can relate to. Think of:

  • Sherlock Holmes’ distaste for boring people.
  • Katniss Everdeen’s frustration with her mom.
  • Luke Skywalker’s envy of Han Solo’s assurance.
  • Scarlett O’Hara’s annoyance at her sister’s whining.

Those help make the characters real.

They give readers something more to care about.

Such challenges don’t necessarily get resolved at the end, although the MAIN challenge that keeps couples (or detectives or crusaders) from living happily ever after as of page 1 generally does.

But along the way to that eventual resolution, there’s room for as many smaller challenges as we want to keep readers engaged.

Which leads to a question:

What are some challenges you’ve enjoyed seeing couples face?

Whether they’re major or minor, whether they’ve resulted in a final triumph or simply made the characters more plausible, they’ve contributed to the story.

If you’d like to include the title & author, feel free — or if you’d rather use an example from real life, that’s fine too. (Here’s mine: my husband is always throwing out things I want to keep.)

And if at least 25 people comment, somebody who shares will win free registration to one of my classes next year…when I hope we’ll all be celebrating the return of Romance University!

Originally published as You Love ‘Em, You Hate ‘Em – by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Laurie Schnebly Campbell loves teaching classes in person and online, like next month’s “Challenging Couples in Love,” which she created with insights from her marriage-counselor mom. (Whose most important question to any troubled couple will be answered on November 15.)

Laurie Schnebly Campbell grew up in a family that discussed psychology around the dinner table. With a marriage counselor for a mother, she felt well equipped to get her romance-novel couples to a happy ending…which might be what helped her win “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts.

The only thing she loves more than writing romance is working with other writers, which is why she now teaches an online class every month and has written a book for novelists who want to create believable characters with built-in fatal (or not quite fatal) flaws


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