In every single first draft I write, I get the note that I need to introduce more conflict between the hero and heroine. Every. Time. I can’t help it. I write a nice guy, and a nice girl, and there’s a bit of disagreement but then they get together way too smoothly. Maybe it’s because I’m a sap. But it’s also because I think love should be simple. Ideally, when it works, it works – no messing around or decoding texts needed. When I hear someone say, ‘So I texted him, and he didn’t reply but then he DID Whatsapp me, but then I replied but he didn’t get back to me …’ I pour them a gin, and say, in the words of Mallory Ortberg, ‘I wish you a speedy recovery from your feelings.’
But. If love is simple all the time, then writers of romance go out of business. Darcy meets Elizabeth at the ball, they hit it off right away and there’s a double wedding on the next page. Harry and Sally have such a great time on their drive to New York that they don’t bother finding two apartments. Etc. Hence: conflicts.
There are two kinds of conflict: outer conflicts, and inner conflicts. Outer conflicts come from characters’ circumstances. Eg: he’s got a girlfriend, or she has a boyfriend. She’s rich and he’s poor. He’s running an evil empire of megashops and she owns a tiny shop-around-the-corner. These are fine, even necessary as a starting point – but they’re not as powerful as inner conflicts, which come from deep inside us. In Four Weddings and A Funeral, the outer conflict is that he’s a bumbling Englishman and she’s a glamorous engaged American. But the real, inner conflict is that he won’t grow up, and that she doesn’t believe in love any more. These inner conflicts can be linked to the outer conflicts – maybe the evil empire CEO has lost sight of his true values, as represented by the heroine – but they remain even when the outer conflict is taken away.
When I wrote The Out of Office Girl, I knew I had to have a conflict between Sam, the hero, and the heroine Alice. So I made them antagonists at work: he’s the protective agent of Luther, the film star, while she wants Luther to tell all in his memoir. But that was too easily resolved. In my big major horrible redraft, I realized that to really drive them apart, I needed something deeper. The real conflict between them comes from the fact that deep down, Alice doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of Sam’s love, because she lacks confidence. More than that: she’s scared of getting involved with him, because he’s real, and Luther – her previous crush – was just a fantasy. Sam, on the other hand, is a control freak who needs to change his lifestyle and trust other people more. In this way I was able to tie their conflicts into their character arcs (but that’s a post for another day).
And that’s where I think the best conflicts come from – from deep inside the characters themselves. Yes, love should be simple, but sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes we’re like Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids; on a hiding to nowhere and driving away nice guys.