Seven Great Sources of Conflict for Romances

Tristan and Yvaine from Stardust tied back to back

Tristan and Yvaine have to get past both their initial dislike and Tristan's misguided devotion to Victoria.

If the two lovebirds are meant for each other, why don’t they just hook up? This question has vexed countless storytellers and lead to a plethora of bad romance tropes, including unrealistic misunderstandings, persistent suitors, and bizarre breakups. But as the romance genre shows, this question has many wonderful answers. Get your imagination going with these seven.

1. Lifestyle Differences

Arthur and Trillian from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, Arthur is a risk-adverse man who likes his daily routine. He meets Trillian at a party, and they hit it off; that is, until she asks him to take a spontaneous trip across the world with her. He balks, and instead she takes off with a guy who offers to show her his spaceship. When their paths cross again, they finally have the opportunity to meet in the center.

Lifestyle differences work well for romances because they leave the initial chemistry intact while making long-term relationships difficult. Maybe one person wants to settle down and have kids, but their love interest isn’t ready to be weighed down. One person might love to party while the other hates crowds. One might value traditional gender roles while the other despises them. They could hate each other’s friends or want to live in completely different places.

Ultimately, lifestyle differences are about your characters’ priorities. To make the conflict feel genuine, show your audience how important the characters’ lifestyles are to them. However, both parties will need to compromise, so they shouldn’t be too important. Don’t mar your happy ending by making it look like either partner stopped being true to themselves.

2. Cultural Taboos

Dax and Lenara almost kissing

In the Deep Space Nine episode Rejoined, the reincarnating character Dax encounters a spouse from a previous life. They instantly reconnect, but that comes with a problem: resuming romances from previous incarnations is forbidden in their society. And just like in real life, flouting a taboo comes with serious consequences. Without the support of their people, they won’t be able to reincarnate again.

All societies have taboos related to romance. These rules can be relics of past survival strategies or just a reflection of bigotry between different groups. While it can be easier to use taboos from a fictional culture that your audience doesn’t share, you can use real ones as well. Your lovebirds could be of the same gender or cousins. Any romance between consenting adults is a fair choice for your story.

Remember that culture isn’t just something people other than your heroes engage in. Cultural messages seep into our subconscious whether we like it or not. If the taboo is strong enough in their culture, your heroes may be ashamed of their feelings. This can provide your story with internal conflict and give your characters an opportunity for growth.

3. Current Partners

Anna and Kristoff from Disney's Frozen

In Disney’s Frozen, Anna rushes into an engagement with the handsome Hans. After she meets Kristoff and they start to hit it off, both Anna and Kristoff assume a relationship isn’t possible because of her engagement. When they are told Anna’s illness can only be cured by “true love,” they look in the wrong direction. Once Anna discovers her romance with Hans was superficial and false, she is ready to begin a relationship with Kristoff.

Romantic relationships come in all shapes and sizes, giving this conflict a lot of flexibility. Participants in the romance might be devoted to their current partners, stay with them out of obligation, or even believe that no one else will love them. The conflict could be resolved when they leave their old partners, discontinue their new romance, or enter into a polyamorous arrangement.

The downside of this conflict is that it can drag on, frustrating the audience. If you need to keep your love triangle going for longer than about movie length, change the nature of it in some way. Don’t let the audience feel like it isn’t going anywhere.

4. Character Flaws

Jessica Jones and Luke Crane on motorcycle

In season one of Jessica Jones, Jessica has developed an unhealthy fixation on the widower of a woman whose death she was involved in. She starts a relationship with him without being upfront about it, and when he finds out, he blames her for his wife’s death even though she had no control over the situation. A traumatic history brings out their faults and makes continuing their relationship difficult.

Don’t be afraid to make your lovebirds imperfect. They could have intimacy or trust issues, become stressed and lash out unfairly, or have unexamined bigotry toward their partner that complicates their relationship. They might hold on to their partner too tightly or push them away for fear of getting hurt.

Every weakness you give a character provides you with additional conflict to fuel your story. In addition, most flaws are not something a character can work out overnight, providing your story with a lasting conflict and a powerful resolution. Let the heroes help each other through their problems; it will give their romance more meaning.

5. Opposing InterestsClarke and Lexa from The 100

In The 100 season two,* Clarke and Lexa are leaders of two different factions in a violent, post-apocalyptic setting. They develop mutual trust and admiration, but their people have conflicting interests, and either of them will do anything to protect their own. When Lexa makes a choice that will ensure the safety of her people at the cost of Clarke’s mission to save hers, the trust they developed is brutally broken.

Giving your lovebirds mutually exclusive goals will not only keep them from getting too cozy but also give your story a lot more conflict. The options are endless. They could be honor champions for two monarchs engaged in a bitter dispute. One might be a thief; the other might be a guard. One might arrange deals for a corrupt corporate power while the other wants to expose it.

Giving your heroes opposing goals will be easier if you avoid black and white morality in your story. Then both characters can learn something valuable from the other’s viewpoint, and they can find a solution that bridges the gap between them.

6. Initial Dislike

Rapunzel and Flynn from Tangled

In Disney’s Tangled, Rapunzel and Flynn meet when Flynn needs a place to hide and intrudes into Rapunzel’s home. Initially frightened of Flynn, Rapunzel ties him up and steals from him. Then she uses his prize as collateral so he’ll agree to be her guide. While Flynn has to help her in order to get his treasure back, he does everything in his power to get rid of her. Slowly, their adversarial relationship changes to one of mutual respect.

The less the lovebirds like each other at the start, the more time you have to develop their romance before a happy ending feels inevitable. A backstory with conflict between them is especially effective in providing mutual hatred they can work through. Otherwise, poor first impressions, personal prejudice, or being caught with a hand in the cookie jar can give them a reason to dislike each other.

For this method to work, the heroes need a reason to stick together despite their dislike, preferably to complete a common objective. In the last few years, Disney has done this repetitively but effectively. In Tangled, Rapunzel needs a guide, and Flynn wants his treasure back. In Frozen, Anna needs a guide, and Kristoff needs money (then a replacement sleigh). In Wreck-It Ralph, Felix needs to find Ralph, and Calhoun is tracking Cy-Bugs.

7. Magical Curses

Sophie and Howl from Howl's Moving Castle

In Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle, the main character, Sophie, is under a curse that transforms her into an old woman. Looking for a refuge, she ends up in the Castle of Howl, a wizard who is shallow and petty because he is bound to a demon. Falsely assuming she can’t be loved because she looks old, Sophie sets out to break their curses.

Speculative fiction stories can offer fascinating barriers to romance. Perhaps like Rogue in X-Men, your hero can’t touch anyone without doing them harm. Or maybe like Liv in iZombie, your hero has an infectious disease they’re afraid of spreading to loved ones. They might be under a spell that keeps them from expressing how they feel or unable to leave the service of a nefarious master.

Whatever you do with technology or magic, try to keep it simple and consistent with the rest of your setting. If your romance is central to your story, considering building your magic system around the effect your romance needs.

Regardless of what conflict you use to keep your heroes apart, remember to show your audience why they should be together. Demonstrate how they support each other, bring out the best in each other, work well together, or make each other happy.

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  1. S.D. Miller

    Excellent list.

    In Kate Noble’s debut novel “Compromised”, set in post-Napoleonic England, a dandy in his late 20s must find a woman to marry, or his tyrannical father will disown him.

    Two sisters, 21 and 18, have returned from abroad with their father and his new wife, and they move back into their London house. While out riding early one morning in Hyde park, the younger sister collides with the dandy–the impression is unfavorable for both.

    The dandy shows up at a coming out party for the girls, spots a miscreant feeding the younger sister heavily spiked punch, and he saves her (even though he doesn’t like her). She vomits on his shoes, then runs off. He looks for a place to rinse off his shoes and finds the door to a pretty little greenhouse that happens to have a fountain. While there, the older sister enters to temporarily escape the hubbub of the party. The setting amongst the exotic plants, divinely perfumed flowers, and the moon shining through the glass, is too much–the dandy and the girl kiss. It’s love at first sight.

    The next morning dad and stepmom are trying to piece together what happened to their youngest, who is hung over and had a torn dress. The society they move in is driven by gossip and does not tolerate young ladies with lose morals. Enter the dandy, all apologetic. He has compromised their daughter, and to make it better (and since his head is still swimming with images of the moon and the beautiful girl he kissed) proposes marriage. There is a moment of confusion until the parents realize he means the older daughter. She is brought in and has no objection, so plans are made. But rather than an immediate wedding they will wait a couple of months, so the marriage doesn’t seem rushed.

    After a couple of “dates” (1800’s style), the stepmother gets tired of playing chaperon and presses the younger girl into the role. The dandy brings his best friend along and now it’s a foursome, and perfectly acceptable. The problem is, dandy and older daughter are discovering they don’t have anything in common beyond a love of moonlight. In fact, the horrible snotty little sister is smart, and quite the intellectual challenge. The sort of partner dandy finds invigorating.

    Then dandy’s father dies, and as it turns out, left him the inheritance and title anyway–his earlier ranting was all a bluff. Girls’ dad had figured out the reason dandy proposed was to appease his father and secure the inheritance. Now dandy doesn’t need to get married, and so girls’ dad panics and has the announcement of their engagement (dandy and older daughter) put in the paper. Dandy doesn’t notice for more than a week because he’s at his ancestral home in the country, going through his father’s papers and discovering that the old man really did care for him.

    Dandy returns to London and it all blows up….

    Seems to me “Compromised” is a combination of Initial Dislike and Current Partners.

    • Irma Niza Jamal

      That seemed like a very interesting story. Thank you for mentioning it. I’m gonna go look it up now. =D

  2. Jupitersky

    Really like this list as well as the ones on Outline and Plot Twist. Very informative and well written. Thanks!

  3. Gwen

    I’m having trouble writing a romance in one of my stories. It’s a secret relationship between a hero and villain, and I’m having trouble coming up with motivations. What are some good motivations, besides physical attraction I could use?

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Gwen, that’s a great question. The short answer is that each of them should fulfill an emotional need the other person has. Maybe the hero feels like no one understands them, but the villain does. Maybe the villain wants someone to nurture them, and the hero’s kind efforts to reform them make them feel nurtured. Maybe the hero wants some live-in-the-moment excitement in their dreary life of responsibility, and the villain gives them excitement. There are many possibilities; think about your characters and decide what they would find compelling.

      • Gwen

        Thanks for replying! I was having a lot of trouble with this, since I want to make the relationship mutually caring, though that’s hard to do with these two. Sapphire and Rit, why are you so hard to write?! DX
        Thanks for the suggestions, these helped a lot!

  4. LB

    “Your lovebirds could be of the same gender or cousins.”

    What. Do you really think it’s okay to compare those things? You really think it’s appropriate to even mention them in the same sentence?

    As a survivor of inc*st, this is incredibly inappropriate.

  5. GreatWyrmGold

    I feel like #6 gets overplayed in pop culture (usually as a romance subplot in a story of another genre, rather than a romance story on its own). Usually not well, but often. Sometimes it seems like the leads initially dislike each other just to enable relationship drama.

  6. Tifa

    Yay! Howl and Sophie get a mention!
    What a great list; this will definitely be useful for me in the future.

  7. James G. Skinnner

    I’ve had to be different in my latest and last novel. There is no emotional conflict between a triangle of three persons. There is a very strong reason. But, conflict does exist! And it is very, repeat very powerful. And above those that have read it confirm it is, above all a very romantic novel. I’ve sent it in for various competitions. Any interest in finding out?

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