Most fantasy and sci-fi relies on a strong external plot to keep tensions high. The kingdom is at war. A villain terrorizes the city. A ship is stranded in space. And the characters in these stories are often skilled at combating these threats or are learning the skills they need.
There’s also likely an internal plot, in which a protagonist has a personal goal or a shortcoming. Again, they’re motivated to grow and improve themselves.
However, characters who are familiar with solving problems with brains, brawn, or willpower might not handle a relational dust-up very well.
If you want to add some variety or another layer of complications in your story, consider hitting your characters with interpersonal troubles. Here are three ways you can do this:
1. Poke Holes in Relationships
In the first few episodes of Stranger Things 3, we catch clues that the Mind Flayer has returned to Hawkins. We expect to see Mike, Eleven, Will, and the rest of the gang relentlessly tracking it down. So why are Eleven and Max shopping for new outfits at the mall? And why is Will trying so hard to get his friends to play D&D?
It all started with Chief Hopper, who’s at a loss for how to react to Eleven, his adopted daughter, growing up and falling in love. He threatens Mike, who’s too afraid to tell Eleven the real reason he’s avoiding her, so she gives him the dumping of the century.
As the kids deal with the emotional fallout in their own ways, they know they should be working together to defeat the monsters of the Upside Down. But the awkwardness of puberty and a few poorly executed conversations have completely distracted and isolated them.
As you develop complications to your story’s plot, ask yourself: What would drive your characters so far apart that they can’t even speak to each other? Maybe a misunderstanding or miscommunication leaves them assuming the worst, or a point of conflict arises that no one has any experience with addressing. Throwing characters into the unknown—while isolated from allies—can ratchet up the tension.
2. Expose a Big Secret
The 2019 reboot of the Ms. Marvel comics delivers more than another chapter of Kamala Khan saving the world while finishing her homework and hiding her secret identity from her parents. Instead of leaning on those predictable sources of tension, the Magnificent Ms. Marvel series forces Kamala to do something even harder.
An alien race kidnaps Kamala’s parents to test Ms. Marvel’s abilities before asking her to save their planet. She passes with flying colors—but the charade with her parents is over. Her father is furious about Kamala’s deception, and her mother struggles to give Kamala independence. When Kamala agrees to travel to the aliens’ homeworld, her parents won’t let her go alone. Cue the most awkward intergalactic vacation ever.
Kamala loves her parents and wants to respect them, but to be the hero she knows she can be, she has to trade subterfuge for assertion when they try to keep her from rushing into danger.
How would your plot change with some juicy details spilled right away? Who might get hurt? How does your protagonist deal with having everything out in the open, when they are so used to lying?
3. Force a Decision (pun intended)
Set nearly a decade before Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the tie-in novel Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray explores the rocky early relationship between Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The two can’t seem to find anything in common. Qui-Gon questions authority and studies controversial prophesies while Obi-Wan holds himself to a stricter standard than the Jedi code.
These differences lead them to worry that they’ve failed each other, and to fear the disgrace of breaking their bond. Their strained situation drags on as the two are called to the planet Pijal to look into rising political tension.
What Obi-Wan doesn’t know is that Qui-Gon has just been offered a seat on the Jedi Council. Such duties would not leave time for mentorship, and the Council needs a decision quickly. If the duo can’t learn to trust and understand each other on this mission, their time together is up.
Are your characters working toward a common goal but don’t really see eye to eye? Try establishing a deadline or ultimatum. Would one sell the other out? Would one make a sacrifice to protect the other? Not only will this increase complications, it will reveal the heart of your characters through their actions.
These aren’t the only ways to push your characters into uncomfortable spaces. Watch for relational tension in the next book you read or movie you watch and identify the cause of the conflict.
Don’t go easy on your characters. Perfect relationships, in which friends never argue or lovers never quarrel, are boring to read about. Complications between them brings more realism to your story and keeps readers on the edge of their seats, rooting for a resolution.