by Lucy Marsden
I am a Craft geek.
I’ll even admit that in conversations with other writers, I often blow past “geek” and go straight to “pedant,” sometimes missing “nazi” by mere inches.
Therefore, it’s been interesting to observe my evolving stance on the role of the primary Antagonist where romance novels are concerned. Broadly-speaking it’s this: Unless the Antagonist is the other lover, I don’t give a damn.
I know that the Antagonist is important; in Story, it’s the fact that the Antagonist is blocking the Protagonist’s goal that forces the Protagonist to change and grow in pursuit of that goal. It’s just that, as a reader and a writer, the conflict (i.e. the force for change and growth) that I’m most invested in, is the one between the lovers. (I think of this model of conflict in romance relationships as the sexual crucible, a concept taken from the work of marriage and family therapist Dr. David Schnarch, and one which I’ll discuss more fully later in the post.)
This preference of mine is problematic, I know. As a reader, it means that I will flip pages and skip scenes that are in the Antagonist’s point of view, because unless the big A is on the page with the lovers actively giving them grief, I don’t care, and I want to be in one of the lovers’ POVs in that case, anyway. (An exception to this is any work by Jenny Crusie, because missing a chance to spend time in the head of one of her characters is a sin. I will also make an exception if the POV moment for the Antagonist is relatively brief AND I get the sense that they are soon to be the hero or heroine of their own book.)
Writing-wise, things become tricky, too. If my hero’s goal is in direct conflict with my heroine’s, neither of them can back away from their goal because it’s so important, and only one of them can win, this is GREAT conflict, but not exactly the recipe for a believable Happy Ever After. Take the case of the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan movie, You’ve Got Mail. Hanks’ character destroys Ryan’s character’s cherished family bookstore, and yet we’re supposed to believe that they’ll be HEA because “it was only business.”
Ryan’s character’s motivation had to be violated in order to make that ending “work.” And the minute we violate character is the minute our books become so-hard-the-plaster-fell wall-bangers, so let’s not go there.
Let us instead look at the case of the Nicholas Cage, Cher movie, Moonstruck—by way of a brief detour to the Tarot deck. In some Tarot readings, the Tower card (interestingly, also known as La Foudre, “The Lightning”) means the destruction of our old lives, and at the core, the destruction of the edifice that was our sense of Self. But—and this is a big “But” (*insert preadolescent giggling here*)—it’s often the destruction of a false and ill-fitting Self; a Self that is a lie, and that is holding us back in crucial ways. Screenwriter and novelist Michael Hauge talks about character arc as a process of going from “identity”—this safe but false sense of Self, to “essence”—an authentic, scary, but fully-alive state of being. Living in our essence is risky; we’re naked and striving, with none of our usual defenses to protect us, so we’ll often resist it like hell, or run from it. Living in our essence is the only way to be truly seen and truly fulfilled, however, so we’ll continue to yearn for it, and in our braver moments, we’ll act on it, too.
Back to Moonstruck. In this movie, Loretta is hungry for love and passion, but her life has become about being safe and reasonable, and she is settling for emotional scraps from her fiance, who is more married to his mother than he ever will be to Loretta. When Loretta meets her fiance’s brother, Ronny, she is initially appalled by, then desperately attracted to his intensity—so much so that she goes to bed with him only a few hours later. Ronny proceeds to “tower” Loretta’s gray existence, and we, the audience, cheer him on. It’s not a tragedy to see her dutiful life burn away under the blowtorch of Ronny’s passion and determination, it’s a relief. He sees her essence, won’t accept anything less, and is willing to fight her for it:
"Love don't make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!"
Everything she thought she knew about her life and her Self is remade in the fires of her relationship with Ronny; all the lies and facades melt away, and what is left is true and shining. It’s the philosopher’s stone that’s at the heart of every great romance, and it’s why the crucible is such a perfect metaphor for this alchemical dynamic. Let me be clear: there are wonderful romances out there in which the other lover doesn’t act as the primary antagonist, but most romances DO have a moment in which the lovers call each other on their bullshit in some form or fashion, and the characters grow and change in an important way because of it. I love this, because I think it says something true about the power of human relationships to make us better, and more fully ourselves. Moonstruck works because Ronny’s “towering” serves Loretta’s journey towards her essence and her goal of being deeply, passionately loved, even if the means of achieving her goal gets stood on its head.
So there you have it: my bias about the role of the Antagonist in Romantic relationships, and my favorite Romance dynamic. I want to say more about Schnarch’s work, and the ways in which he says the crucible dynamic plays out for couples in the bedroom, because it is hot and profound, but I’ll leave that for another post. I would also like to recommend The Popcorn Dialogues, Jenny Crusie's, Lucy March's, and Alastair Stephens' rocking podcast for anyone interested in what movies can teach novelists about storytelling. (Seriously: they're currently covering caper movies and Trickster heroes right now, and it's fabulous.)
But enough about me. Do you have preferences about where and how conflict is used in romance novels? Favorite couple dynamics? Examples of what worked for you and what didn’t? Share, please!