I recently finished reading a romance that I enjoyed. The characters were likable, exercised common sense, and were respectful of each other all the way through. They were reunited lovers–one of my favorite storylines–and there were some fundamental personality changes that needed to take place in order to reach a resolution. I finished the story with a smile. However, it didn’t make my “keeper shelf” where the books I’m certain to re-read go. In a while, I’ll probably forget I read the story.
Why? That’s the question I asked myself when I closed the book. What was missing that made the story forgettable?
Looking back, I realized it was lack of conflict for the heroine. The couple broke up because of issues the hero had and those issues had to be resolved to achieve their happily ever after. But the heroine hadn’t had, nor been part of, the problem and while the hero had to make some big internal changes, she didn’t. She was the same woman he fell in love with and she didn’t have to alter in any way to make them work as a couple.
There was conflict elsewhere in the story–external and the hero’s internal–but it missed the ahhh sensation due to the heroine not having a personal conflict of her own to deal with.
As I was contemplating this further, I was reminded of the scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening where Betty Buckley (playing a nutjob, which was creepier for me because of her past roles as the mom on Eight is Enough and the sweet gym teacher in Carrie) asks Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, “Who’s chasing whom?” explaining that in every romantic relationship one person is always chasing the other.
In the books I love most, not only are the protagonists chasing each other, they’re chasing their personal dreams, and they’re conflicted about how to make them happen and still get their (wo)man. My favorite books are those where the internal conflicts of each character morph and grow as the story progresses, where the changes they need to make take place before the end of the book and initiate the need for even more changes. This doesn’t mean the book has to be angsty and/or dark. Even romantic comedies can have characters dealing with layered, personal internal conflicts in addition to their romantic and external ones.
Stories can still be enjoyable with only one of the main protagonists dealing with a major (or multiple major conflicts). The non-conflicted character can still be admirable and real. They can have faults and foibles, goals and full lives. But without some friction, there’s not as much for me to root for and become invested in as a reader. I really, really dislike conflict in my daily life, but I really, really crave it in my reading material.
So how about you? Are you a conflict junky, too? What are some of your favorite conflicted heroes/heroines? Were their partners equally driven to change and grow? And just for fun, because it’s Monday and we all have a new week in which to rock our respective worlds, I’ll give away a tote bag and winner’s choice of my backlist (anthologies are iffy, but if I have it, I’ll send it.) to one of the commentors. Winner will be announced this weekend.
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