Monday, June 7, 2010

Likable Conflict

Romance novels typically fall into a class of stories in which two people who can’t seem to get along come together and discover that they really need each other. In romances they have to fall in love, but in other stories of this type that is not a requirement. But how are we to pull this off without the reader hating one or both of the characters?

A good place to start is to find a way for both characters to be right. In You’ve Got Mail it is a battle between the big huge store and the little independent store. There’s nothing wrong with either. Both the man and the woman are trying to make a living with their business. Each has its good points and each has its bad points. So aside from some prejudices, the audience has no reason to hate either character. While the battle between good vs. evil makes for many great stories, the ideal conflict in this type of story is created when both characters want directly opposing things and yet the reader is cheering for both of them. Of course, the resolution can’t be something simple.

You may recall the story of the prince who wanted to eat something that was both very hot and very cold. The king called for the best chefs and told them to fix such a dish or he would cut off their heads. Try as they might, they couldn’t come up with anything, but a kitchen boy took a bowl of ice cream and poured hot fudge on it. While it makes for a good children’s story, that is too simple of a solution for a romance, but it is a similar idea. So, we pit the guy from the historical preservation society against the developer who wants to build a shopping mall. He wants people to remember the past and she wants to encourage growth in the future and they both want to do it with the same piece of ground. Neither is wrong in what they want to do and we can easily see why they are good things to do, but they can’t both have their way and that’s why they clash heads. And being sadistic like we are, the historical site has to be right in the middle of the only suitable piece of land for building a mall.

The beauty of this is that neither side has to be at the throat of the other. The historical society can calmly state their case for preserving the site and the developer can calmly make case for rezoning. Each can stand firm, believing right to be on their side. And as they fall in love, they can reach the point where they want to help each other out, the historical guy would like to let her build the mall and she would like to let him keep his site, but neither can back down, perhaps because of the people they represent. It seems like nothing will work, but then they come together and by working together they come to a solution that is better than they anticipated.