What does conflict look like in a romance novel?

In a romance novel, the obstacles will need to keep your characters from either starting a relationship or falling in love. There may be physical obstacles, deriving from external sources, keeping the protagonist and love interest apart, and their struggles to overcome those obstacles so they can be together is the story’s external conflict.

But a romance novel cannot only have external conflict.

Why? Because the core value in any romance novel is love, and love is about emotion. It stands to reason, then, that there needs to be an internal, emotional reason keeping the characters apart — one that will be difficult for the characters to overcome, thereby creating internal conflict.

Given all we now know about antagonistic sources, obstacles and conflict, let’s take another look at the stories we studied in Step 9.

❤ Aladdin

  • External obstacle: Jafar, the evil sorcerer and advisor to the sultan, is motivated by power. He’ll do whatever it takes to eliminate Aladdin so he can marry Jasmine and become sultan. 
  • External challenge: If Aladdin can fool Jafar, he’ll have a chance to win Princess Jasmine’s heart. This is a challenge for Aladdin because, even though he’s in disguise and protected by the genie’s magic, Jafar knows his real identity.
  • Impact on relationship: Once Jafar learns who Aladdin is, he reasons he must have the magic lamp. He steals it and the genie’s magic for himself, banishes Aladdin, and attempts to force Jasmine to marry him.
  • Internal obstacle: As an orphaned street rat, Aladdin believes he has nothing to offer Princess Jasmine. He believes she values money and wants to marry a prince.
  • Internal challenge: If Aladdin keeps up his ruse — with the genie’s help — of posing as Prince Ali, then Jasmine will fall in love with him. This is a challenge for Aladdin because he promised the genie he’d set him free.
  • Impact on relationship: Aladdin is not willing to be himself with Jasmine and continues to hide behind the genie’s magic. When she learns the truth, and that he lied to her, he realises how much he hurt her.

❤ Love Hard

  • External obstacle: When Josh offers to help Natalie catch the eye of Tag, the guy whose picture he used on his fake dating profile, she accepts. After all, Tag is the hot guy she travelled across the country to meet. Only problem is, Josh is outdoorsy and into extreme sports — Natalie is not.
  • External challenge: If Natalie can fake interest in Tag’s hobbies long enough to impress him, then maybe she’ll find her happy-ever-after and won’t have to write about yet another one of her relationship disasters. This is a challenge for Natalie because she doesn’t have the physical prowess to keep up with Tag.
  • Impact on relationship: Natalie’s obsession with Tag, blinds her to the fact that Josh is the one she’s compatible with. 
  • Internal obstacle: Natalie agrees to pose as Josh’s girlfriend to help him impress his parents. Then she meets Josh’s brother, who is successful, good-looking, arrogant and attention-seeking, and realises why Josh has an inferiority complex. When Josh fake-proposes to her in an effort to keep his parents’ attention on him and not his brother, she can’t bring herself to publicly reject him.
  • Internal challengeIf Natalie can keep up the fake-relationship charade a bit longer, then she and Josh can stage a break-up and she can get back to looking for Mr Right. This is a challenge for Natalie because she starts to form attachments with Josh’s family and hates deceiving them.
  • Impact on relationship: When Josh’s family throws her and Josh a surprise engagement party, Tag shows up and Natalie struggles to hide the fact she’s the bride-to-be. Eventually, the stress is too much and she announces to all the guests that she and Josh have been lying.

❤ To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

  • External obstacle: Even though Gen, Lara Jean’s former best friend, broke up with Peter, she has a vendetta against Lara Jean and will do whatever it takes to destroy Lara Jean’s relationship with him. 
  • External challenge: If Lara Jean can ignore Gen’s spitefulness, she and Peter will pull off their fake relationship. This is a challenge for Lara Jean because Gen posts a video online that ruins Lara Jean’s reputation.
  • Impact on relationship: Peter doesn’t want to believe that Gen was the one responsible for posting the video, and Lara Jean accuses him of wanting to protect Gen at her expense. 
  • Internal obstacle: Lara Jean is afraid to love. Her mother died when she was young, and losing someone she loved so much hurt. She’s afraid to truly open herself up to people because one day she might lose them.
  • Internal challenge: If Lara Jean can be honest with herself and Peter about how she really feels about him, then maybe she’ll learn he feels the same way and they can turn their fake relationship into something real. This is a challenge for Lara Jean because she doesn’t believe Peter would fall for a girl like her.
  • Impact on relationship: In trying to hide her true feelings, Lara Jean hurts Peter; he feels as if she’s rejecting him.

❤ The Hating Game

  • External obstacle: Lucy and Josh are competing for the same job, which is fine, because they’ve hated each other passionately for years. But the heightened animosity between them introduces something new into their relationship — a whole lot of sexual tension.
  • External challenge: If Lucy can ignore her growing attraction to Josh, then she’ll be able to focus on preparing a brilliant proposal that will win her the job. This is a challenge for Lucy because Josh keeps showing her how sweet and nice he is.
  • Impact on relationship: Lucy misinterprets something Josh says to his boss, which makes her think he’s only being nice to undermine her efforts to get the job.
  • Internal obstacle: Lucy is a people pleaser. She wants people to like her, so she does whatever she can to keep them happy, even if it means putting herself at a disadvantage. She realises she’s attracted to Josh but can’t see a future for them once one of them gets the job over the other — but then she starts to develop feelings for him.
  • Internal challengeIf Lucy leaves the publishing company and gets a job somewhere else, then she won’t have to compete with Josh and they can stay together. This is a challenge for Lucy because it’s always been her dream to work at a publishing company and she truly believes she’s the right person for the job..
  • Impact on relationship: Lucy is torn between wanting to fight for her dream job and wanting to be in a relationship with Josh. Having one means sacrificing the other.

Now let’s see how closely you were paying attention. Take the quiz below to see if you can identify the antagonists, and which type of antagonist they are, influencing the external plot in each of the stories above.