You want your characters to face realistic obstacles. You want them to encounter challenges and meet adversity. These obstacles create the conflict you need for your story to progress.
Since I write mainly romance, the central conflict will always be between the hero and heroine. They will have different motivations and want different things. The story will then involve the progressive alignment of their needs and wants. In the end the reader must believe that the two have resolved their conflict(s) and formed a solid bond.
Top Tip: If your characters’ conflict can be resolved with a single conversation, then you don’t have a realistic conflict. That is, you don’t have a sustainable conflict to carry the story.
Of course, the hero and heroine will have many conversations and likely a final one where multiple threads come together. The point here is that the entire conflict cannot hang on a misunderstanding that, say, two friends could easily clear up.
How to proceed? Let’s consider the possibilities.
Realistic Obstacles: Interior
The beauty of writing a novel is that you, the author, have direct access to your character’s interiors. You get to explore how they think and feel.
Ordinary interior obstacles include: a drop in confidence after a break-up, divorce or job loss; any body issue; a perceived mental defect such as dyslexia; social awkwardness or shyness; blindness to one’s own defects, aka ‘all around jerkishness’; the harboring of an unpleasant secret.
More extraordinary interior obstacles include: PTSD as a result of wartime combat or an abusive childhood; dislocation due to enforced emigration; struggles with substance abuse due to whatever reason; the harboring of a very unpleasant secret.
Tip: Interior obstacles are chinks in the psychological armor. Every character has them. You choose the depth of the dents.
Realistic Obstacles: Exterior
Exterior obstacles come in two varieties:
Villains are a staple of fiction for a reason. How can the good guy be a good guy if there is no bad guy?
A villain stands in the way of a character’s desires: an overly strict boss who denies a promotion, a scheming coworker who spoils a big presentation, a rival in love who lies to get what s/he wants, a member of the opposing team who resorts to dirty tricks.
Tip: To create realistic villains, imagine them as the main characters in their own story.
Anyone other than a serial killer, terrorist or psychopath has their own recognizably human motivations. For instance, Mr. Darcy is the hero of Pride and Prejudice. At the same time he acts as a temporary villain when he thwarts the relationship between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett. He has his reasons (and eventually overcomes them).
Similarly, the scheming coworker also wants to land the big account, just as the member of the opposing hockey team wants to win the Stanley Cup. You learn a lot about your villains when you consider their motivations. And you never know. They may star in your next story.
He’s a real estate developer. She’s an environmentalist trying to preserve the land proposed for a new shopping mall.
Got it? Okay, I’ll admit my example is extremely old school, but the premise is valid.
Tip: The fail-safe formula for creating external conflict: He wants X. She wants Y.
A newer version might be: He’s developed a hot new gaming app. She’s developed an equally hot new gaming app. They both want the same thing, namely market share, but only one can have it. What happens next?
Tip: When they both want Z in the real world, you have to find good interior obstacles for them to overcome.
Realistic Obstacles: Putting It All Together
My most recent romance, The Hard Bargain, due out August 23, will serve as an example. The story opens when my hero, Arthur Wexler, encounters an exterior obstacle. His Aunt Jeanine, the villain (for the moment), has invoked an obscure clause in the Wexler company documents. It requires that Arthur marry before his next birthday in order to inherit the company. As a very contented bachelor, he is justifiably annoyed.
To get his Aunt Jeanine temporarily off his back, he hires Carla Pereira, an actress, to poise as his fiancée at a family dinner. A one and done situation. However, Carla performs so well that Aunt Jeanine unexpectedly invites her on the family cruise. Now Arthur is super annoyed.
Carla was happy to accept the dinner gig which came with a fat paycheck. She is not as happy to be roped into a family cruise, and here’s where the hard bargaining comes in. Suffice it to say that Carla goes on the cruise, but after that, she opts out of Arthur’s life. She has her own sizable interior obstacles.
Now Arthur and Carla have to discover whether there is a path ahead for them. And there’s still Aunt Jeanine to contend with.
Tip: A good conflict involves the constant play of interior and exterior obstacles.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen