All writers know that you need conflict and tension to drive to story forward, and to engage readers so they want to keep reading. In a thriller, writers can rely more on plot because the reader is anxious to see what happens next.
In romance the reader wants to know what happens to the characters and how it will affect their relationship. It’s important to keep the level of conflict high, but readers will tune out if all you do is throw a new bump in the road to love.
Build a character web, and you won’t have to always rely on the conflict between the main characters.
What’s a character web?
It’s a method of assigning roles to each main and supporting character that crosses alliances and conflicts between each character, and not just in relation to the MCs.
I’ll use my current WIP Crush as an example again. Austin is the Napa winemaker and Simon is the financial guy. There is a conflict between Austin and Simon over their backgrounds and goals, as well as an eventual conflict when Austin thinks Simon cozied up to him just to buyout his winery at a bargain price.
Now let’s add in the supporting characters:
Simon’s boss: He starts in an alliance with Simon. Then when he wants the winery (conflict with Austin), he pushes Simon to do things which harm the relationship with Austin (conflict with Simon and Austin). It also increases the underlying tension between Simon and Austin.
Austin’s dad: He never really supported Austin (conflict with Austin). Later he and Simon end up in conflict. Eventually he’ll end up in an alliance with Simon which helps Austin, and this will allow Austin and Simon to reconcile their differences.
Austin’s brother: He appears to be in alliance with Austin, until we learn he’s the cause of the financial problems which put the winery in jeopardy (conflict with Austin) and he resists Simon’s suggestions for changes ( conflict with Simon.)
Austin’s assistant, Penny: She’s on Austin’s side (alliance with Austin). She’s skeptical of Simon’s suggestions (conflict with Simon), but eventually comes around (alliance with Simon). Then Austin’s concern over Simon’s true motives puts her back into conflict with Simon.
As you can see, conflicts and alliances between characters are fluid. You want this to happen as the story progresses. An original ally may become an enemy (Simon’s boss) and an original enemy may become an ally (Austin’s dad).
Not every subplot conflict has to get resolved, but the obstacles to the main couple getting together should be resolved in a way that eventually allows them to get together by the end of the story. Simon and his boss do not resolve their conflict, but other events occur so that conflict doesn’t keep Simon and Austin apart.
If that sounds a bit complicated, just make a list of all your characters. Then write one or two sentences about their relationship with each of the other key characters, indicating whether it’s an alliance or conflict and what the main element of that relationship entails.
- Austin’s assistant Penny is an alliance since she supports him in every way around the winery.
- Austin’s brother Logan is an alliance since they run the winery together. Logan will become a conflict when the financial problems pile up.
- Simon’s boss is always in conflict with Austin.
- In alliance with Austin
- In conflict at first with Simon over what she sees as meddling in winery finances
- Begins alliance with Simon when she realizes his ideas are good
- Begins a new conflict with Simon when she thinks he’s trying to cheat Austin out of the winery
If you’re a spatial person as opposed to a list maker, write each character’s name on a piece of paper, one in each corner. Then draw lines between each. Solid lines for alliances and dotted lines for conflicts, with a note about each connection. Once you start playing around with all the ways the characters connect, you’ll see many other possibilities. (the image above isn’t a good representation since the arrows don’t go both ways, but in your story and your diagram, each character should have an effect on every other character, or at least on the main characters).
- Conflict between Simon’s boss and Austin’s father
- Conflict between Penny and Austin’s brother
Depending on how long the story is, you may be able to explore these secondary conflicts in more detail. That’s called subplot: when the conflict does not involve one of the main characters. In a novella, don’t even think about it. You won’t be able to resolve it without leaving loose threads of the main characters’ conflict. In a novel, subplots can serve as a break so you’re not always concentrating on the main characters and their issues.
In a romance, you want to show some good times between the main characters, but unless some conflict occurs the story can quickly become boring. Such subplots can help keep some tension up while the MCs are enjoying a romantic moment. Even better: have the subplot intrude on the fun for the MCs. Always connect everything back to the main characters and their conflicts, or you can take too much of the spotlight from the main action of the story.
If you find that your stories get bogged down in the middle, reworking some of the conflicts with the supporting characters can help bring more excitement and tension in.
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Have you enjoyed these discussions of building characters and layering the conflicts and alliances? Please leave a comment to let me know. And if you have a topic you’d like me to cover, just ask.