The central conundrum of relationship arcs is how to create problems. Storytellers are tempted to write characters who get along immediately and have nothing in their life that conflicts with a relationship. That makes it tough to explain why characters aren’t in a relationship already. In the case of friendships, it might look like the arc is over after a couple of scenes.
The storyteller may find tension-bereft sequences engaging, because they love their characters, but most readers will get bored. That makes it important to cultivate obstacles in relationships, but not all obstacles are created equal. We need to be interested in the things we write, and if we’re not careful, external plot arcs will push the relationship out of the spotlight.
To find the right problems for your story, start by examining the types of relationship arcs you enjoy. Some relationship dynamics are a natural match for specific kinds of obstacles. If you find something you like, it’s win-win – you can have your relationship and eat your plot too. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of six popular relationship types and obstacles for each. Don’t be afraid to mix a few together or transition from one dynamic to another as the story continues.
1. Enemies to Partners
The protagonists start out loathing each other before they are pushed together and learn to work things out.
Zuri gritted her teeth. She’d been foiled again by that stubborn, arrogant, tyrannical asshole Adrian. Everyone raved about how gallant he was, how he had an answer to everything, and how he looked fantastic in those tight pants – but they were wrong. Well, okay, maybe that last part was a little true, but it didn’t matter, because Zuri knew the real Adrian. He’d already stolen her birthright, and now he was planning her family’s downfall. But he didn’t know about her secret weapon. Soon Zuri would have him right where she wanted him, and he would be screaming for mercy.
There could only be one spelling-bee champion, and it was going to be Maya. Everyone thought Ezra was going to win, but Maya had been studying to beat him ever since he transferred into her class. He’d taken her favorite seat in the classroom, hogged her favorite slide during recess, grabbed the last strawberry milk at lunch, and declared himself the master of vocabulary. Maya couldn’t wait to see Ezra’s look of horror when she spelled him into second place.
While not everyone likes this level of conflict, it makes plotting much easier, and it’s great for developing chemistry between characters.
The first obstacle for these arcs is initial dislike. Don’t rely on personality clashes alone to make them start off hating each other. You want something that will last longer and doesn’t risk making the protagonists look petty. Here are some options.
- A fraught history. Your protagonists had a big incident in their past that made them enemies. They might blame each other for a big accident or the death of a mutual friend. Perhaps one thinks the other stole something that was rightfully theirs. If the incident took place many years ago, both protagonists might have been significantly younger and more reckless than they are today. Regardless of what happened, the protagonists will harbor resentment until they finally work through what happened.
- Conflicting goals. Your protagonists are in a position where success for one of them means failure for the other. Perhaps they are both heirs to the same crown or the same estate. One of them might want to destroy a magic item they think is too dangerous, while the other wants to use it constructively. Give both of them an important reason they need to win. Plan ahead how they might compromise in the end, but don’t make it too easy or obvious.
- Factional feuding. Your protagonists are on either side of a larger conflict. Their families might hate each other, the dwarves and elves could be at each other’s throats, or their employers might be in direct competition. In this case, once they stop hating each other, the loyalty to their own faction will become their main obstacle. The protagonists might solve this by brokering peace, choosing one side, or running off together.
The next step is to force them to team up temporarily, perhaps by giving them a shared enemy or another compelling interest in working together. At first, the two of them shouldn’t trust each other at all, which can lead to more problems. But once they realize they make a great team, their hatred will start to thaw.
2. Fun & Friction
The protagonists feel strongly about each other, but those feelings are mixed. They frustrate each other as often as they click.
Zuri and Aki could never agree on anything. When Zuri was ready to slash and burn the enemy, Aki insisted on taking the high road, carefully negotiating for hours and then chiding Zuri for her lack of patience. Zuri had taken it to heart and spent weeks planning a diplomatic mission, only for Aki to look at her like she was a newborn and insist assassination was the only answer. Just when Zuri had decided to leave and forge her own path, Aki pulled her aside. They spoke to her softly in verse as they gazed on her with their deep luminous eyes, and Zuri melted into a puddle that was incapable of going anywhere.
Maya finally had a friend – a best friend. Robin, her new dorm mate, had simply declared it so. Robin wasn’t afraid of anything, including sneaking off campus to explore some underground world full of goblins. Maya managed to stay down there for a full ten minutes before she ran back to the dorm and hid under her blankets. Robin apologized for scaring her, but they were clearly disappointed. Maya tried to cheer them up by playing her flute, and while it did cheer Robin up, it was not for the reason Maya hoped. Robin was convinced that if Maya played her flute for the goblins, she wouldn’t be so scared anymore. Maya was already regretting her promise to try it.
This dynamic is great for drama and shenanigans. It also works well for protagonists who are no longer enemies but still aren’t friends yet, either.
Protagonists in these relationships aren’t strictly enemies, but they have large personal differences that they aren’t good at navigating. Generally, they’ll start off trying to get what they want without compromising, only to have that blow up in their face.
- Personality clashes. Your protagonists have contrasting personalities that make it hard for them to get along. Maybe one of your characters takes everything too seriously and the other is an irreverent joker. One of them might talk too little, while the other talks too much, or maybe one of them is blunt to the point of being hurtful, while the other softens their words until no one knows what they’re saying.
- Value differences. Your protagonists have different cultural values that keep them butting heads. Perhaps one of them wants more rules and security, while the other values freedom. One of them might care the most about preserving tradition, while the other feels change is necessary to adapt to current times. To pull this off, you’ll need to make these cultural divides significant to your story, so there are real dilemmas for protagonists to fight over.
- Clashing methods. Your protagonists have to get something done together, but it’s as difficult as running a three-legged race. One of them wants to take advantage of last-minute opportunities, while the other always wants to stop to get permission from higher-ups. One of them likes to shoot first, while the other is determined to talk their way through everything. One of them likes to use deceit and stealth, while the other can’t keep quiet and is a terrible liar.
To get over their differences, protagonists will have to learn to communicate, negotiate, and ultimately compromise with each other. Make sure you give them a strong incentive to do that.
3. Hurt & Comfort
The characters care about each other a great deal, but they struggle to build trust, express affection, and feel confident about their relationship.
Since Jose first met Adrian in a sheltered part of the castle gardens, Adrian had been his refuge from the intense pressure of being at court. No one listened and understood Jose the way Adrian did. But Adrian wouldn’t talk about his family or position. When Jose asked Adrian to be his date for the ball, Adrian looked devastated. He said it wasn’t possible and fled. Adrian hadn’t come back to their corner of the garden since. Had Jose done something wrong? He would give anything just to have their quiet conversations back.
Caleb was gathering herbs when he found an injured griffin in the woods. It attacked him, and he almost shot it with his bow. Then he saw it was in pain, and he realized it was attacking out of fear and desperation. He came back that evening to bring it some food, and again the next day. Slowly, it began to trust him, until he was able to tend to its wounds. Caleb enjoyed listening to the griffin’s musical trills. It scratched graceful lines into the trees and rocks that almost looked like writing. Yesterday, the griffin had finally healed enough to go home, and Caleb gave it a teary goodbye. But then last night, a villager was killed, and the elders said it was a griffin attack. What had Caleb done?
These stories have less aggression but lots of angst. The point is to let the protagonists feel lost and hurt so that they have the opportunity for a powerful and hard-won reunion.
These arcs need obstacles that specifically get in the way of the characters feeling loved and secure in their relationship. Most often, this depends on poor communication between the protagonists. However, there’s also room for obstacles that can feel hurtful even when the situation is well understood.
Good obstacles for this dynamic include:
- Secret obligations. This is a great opportunity for one of the protagonist to be on a secret mission. Maybe they’re a spy, or maybe they’re a thief who just came to the ball to steal something. Regardless, revealing the secret should put them and perhaps some accomplices at great risk. In turn, this gives them a reason to lie. When the truth is revealed, the other protagonist could assume they were being used the whole time.
- Malicious go-betweens. Someone they are both close to is determined to sabotage the relationship in sneaky ways. They might pretend to support the relationship while telling half-truths that undercut it and passing on messages that have been altered just enough. This works best if other obstacles have forced the protagonists to rely on the go-between.
- Cultural misunderstandings. If one protagonist is a wind spirit and the other is a stone golem, they might have trouble just learning how to communicate. Then different cultural conventions might lead to hurt feelings. Maybe in one culture it’s normal to leave without saying goodbye or telling others where you’re going. Sharing a meal might be really important in one culture but insignificant in another.
- Conflicting priorities. Perhaps one protagonist decides to put their loyalty to the throne over the partnership. In their mind, they might assume the other protagonist will get over the partnership and be happy without them. However, that other partner could take this as a sign that the relationship didn’t mean anything. The protagonist who didn’t prioritize the relationship will have to do something to show how much it means to them.
Protagonists in these scenarios typically get along well and want very badly to overcome their differences, so they just need time to learn about each other and work things out. Don’t be afraid to make a protagonist grovel after they’ve been unintentionally hurtful.
The protagonists’ perfect relationship is doomed from the start by overwhelming outside influences.
Jose had snuck off to a party, where he’d met the bright-eyed Zuri, who somehow managed to knock him on his ass while being incredibly kind. They’d shared a passionate kiss before Jose ran home. Then the next day Jose had learned she was that Zuri, heir to the notorious Onyx Enterprises. They stole glances at each other from across the courtroom as their families faced off, and managed a quick embrace near the bathrooms before they were almost caught. But Jose’s mother noticed he was acting strangely and assigned several bodyguards to keep him from sneaking off again. How would he see Zuri?
When Robin gazed into the mirror of the multiverse, they saw themself gazing back. But it wasn’t the same Robin. This other Robin had two living parents and had chosen to stay at the academy instead of running away. The two Robins were so different, yet so similar. They found themselves talking for hours. Whenever either Robin had a stressful dilemma, the perfect confidante was only a mirror away. They discovered they were capable of things they had never imagined. But each time they used the mirror, something strange slipped into their worlds. The authorities banned the multiverse mirrors, offering only lies as an explanation. Robin had to get to the bottom of it and save their strange friendship with themself.
This relies entirely on external obstacles to keep the characters apart and appeals to a romantic notion of tragedy as the characters maneuver around obstacles to try to be together.
The tricky part here is to make your obstacles big and entrenched, while still leaving an opening for the protagonists to pair up.
- Dark prophecies. Perhaps a prophecy says that once the protagonists team up, they’ll do something that other people are afraid of. Maybe they’ll remake the world or simply lead to the downfall of an important institution. It doesn’t have to be bad as long as everyone thinks it is. The protagonists could discover that they’re okay with the consequences, or they could find out the prophecy is fake.
- Political engagements. The protagonists have already made important political commitments that are mutually exclusive with their partnership. They might be betrothed, soon to be sent away to a special school or post, or bound to serve someone who dislikes the relationship. They may ultimately decide to break their commitments, or they might engage in political intrigue to free themselves of their promises.
- Factional hatred. This is the Romeo-and-Juliet formula. While the protagonists are attached to each other, they are still part of factions engaged in a bitter feud or cutthroat competition. The people running these factions might fear betrayal or leaked secrets when the protagonists spend time together. If the protagonists can’t run off together, they’ll need to work for peace. They might even take over their factions to make peace happen.
It’s very beneficial to have characters who are actively working to keep the protagonists apart, so their obstacles can’t be too private. An authority figure should be able to step in and tell the protagonists to knock it off.
5. Hopeless Longing
The single protagonist longs for a relationship with someone who is out of reach.
Aki had butterflies in their stomach every day now that they’d been assigned as Prince Jose’s stable hand and groom. The dimpled, dashing prince went for a ride every day, showing up in the early morning to pet and praise every horse in his stable. If only Aki were a horse. They noticed that while the prince was supposed to be seen on his charger, he actually preferred his mild-mannered mare. Aki started saddling her instead to give the prince an excuse. Then they heard the prince had been skipping breakfast, so they put a meal to go in the saddlebags. Prince Jose thanked Aki for that, but Aki could only stare at the ground and stammer.
The dread dragon Zenith hadn’t let anyone ride her since her bondmage died two hundred years ago. Even so, Robin had always dreamed of soaring the skies on her back, watching the reflection of the clouds stream over her shining scales of deepest blue. As soon as they were old enough, Robin had volunteered at the dragon rookery so they might meet the great dragon mother. But as soon as they signed up, they were given three strict rules: do not stare at Zenith, do not approach Zenith, and definitely do not touch Zenith. Robin was devastated, but maybe it was just as well, since only a mage could bond with a dragon and Robin would never have the funds for mage school.
This is a strong choice if one character is the main character and the other is a love interest or potential friend who’s not quite as important. It emphasizes the obstacles in the main character’s way so that it’s extra satisfying when they get together.
In these arcs, the protagonist has to impress the out-of-leaguer. But if that’s as simple as approaching them at a party and saying a few jokes, you won’t have enough conflict. The out-of-leaguer should be relatively inaccessible, and the protagonist should have personal obstacles that discourage them.
The protagonist could:
- Be really shy. Every time they’re in the presence of the out-of-leaguer, they could choke up and stop speaking.
- Feel unworthy. The protagonist may think there’s no chance the out-of-leaguer is interested in an equal or two-sided relationship with them. This will hold the protagonist back from making significant overtures, which in turn could convince the out-of-leaguer that the protagonist isn’t interested.
- Be bound by duty. If the protagonist is a lower-level servant or employee, they might keep some distance because they’re supposed to. For instance, a bodyguard may feel their duty is to be an ever-silent presence, and talking to their charge is a violation of their role.
The out-of-leaguer might:
- Overlook the protagonist. Before the protagonist charms the out-of-leaguer, the protagonist has to get on their radar. In this case, you’ll need a good reason the protagonist knows the out-of-leaguer but not vice versa, so the protagonist isn’t just a stalker. For instance, the out-of-leaguer could be a commander and the protagonist might be one of the many soldiers who used to be under their command.
- Be in an exclusive relationship. A love interest might be betrothed or a cool dragon might already have a rider. Make the competition as cool as possible so the protagonist feels insignificant in comparison. This gives the protagonist a bigger mountain to climb.
- Have other high-status individuals as guards. A mild-mannered out-of-leaguer might be surrounded by more aggressive friends, family, or even flunkies who are dedicated to keeping the riffraff away. However, these guards shouldn’t do anything that’s outright despicable in front of the out-of-leaguer, or the out-of-leaguer will look complicit.
Again, make sure you have a premise that allows the protagonist to impress the out-of-leaguer without being creepy. Maybe they have a special talent that’s needed at the moment.
6. Lonely Loners
The protagonists have already determined that they don’t want a relationship when they meet each other. They resist joining the relationship until it’s strong enough to overpower their doubts.
Now that Zuri’s younger siblings have grown up, she finally has her house and business to herself. No more noise and chaos; she has the books perfectly balanced and everything neatly in its place. The only thing left is to stop the fearless mayor, Selma, from building a school across the street. Zuri will scout a new location, and then she’ll pitch it to Selma every day until the mayor relents. But maybe they shouldn’t discuss it late into the night anymore: that woman has dark circles under her eyes and clearly needs some rest. Perhaps some hearty soup as well. A care package? No, that’s ridiculous. Zuri has enough to do without worrying about anyone else, thank you.
Ezra was six when his brother, Caleb, went off to war. After that, no one cared enough to keep Ezra out of trouble; his mother certainly never bothered. That was fine. Ezra learned to look out for himself; he didn’t need anyone. Now the war is over, and Caleb’s back with them. He’s now a man of few words, preferring to spend his time alone. Sometimes Ezra wonders what happened to him, but that’s Caleb’s business. However, their mother is growing increasingly erratic, requiring both of them to pull her out of bars or make amends for her behavior. Caleb always knows what to do, as though he’s done it many times before. Perhaps Ezra and Caleb both had to grow up alone, but they don’t have to stay that way.
These relationship arcs are often low key. They work great for more mature characters or as subplots in stories about community life or exciting events.
The obstacles in these relationships are created by the protagonists in a largely deliberate fashion. Focus on why they don’t want to form a relationship.
- Past hurt or trauma. Perhaps one of the protagonists was betrayed, and they’re now frightened by the prospect of trusting others or being emotionally vulnerable. Alternatively, if a protagonist was in an exclusive relationship where their partner died, they may feel that pairing up again is equivalent to replacing the person they lost.
- Fierce independence. A protagonist may prize being self-reliant and consider receiving help or emotional support to be a weakness. This may be particularly likely if people used to treat them as though they were helpless. They’re still proving everyone wrong long after they’ve won the argument.
- Prioritizing work or duty. Your protagonists are much too busy to devote time to relationships – or to fun, for that matter. They could be tireless leaders that can’t rest until every task is seen to, parents who live for their children and leave no time for themselves, or activists fighting for a cause until they drop.
Regardless of why the characters have decided they don’t want companionship, they’ll probably be happier with others in their life. This gives the protagonists something valuable to teach each other.
Sometimes we want our relationships to be fluffy and feel-good, making it necessary to focus on problems outside of the relationship. But before we add plot arcs we don’t care about, we should look for obstacles we can enjoy.
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