Seven Obstacles for Characters in Love

Two of your characters meet, fall in love, and decide to face the rest of the novel’s adventures hand-in-hand, where they will let nothing come between them.

Sweet, right?

Here’s the thing. This might be sweet, but it’s also boring. In real life, you can get away with sweet. But in Novel Land, you need tension. There’s a reason why Friends keeps the “will they/won’t they” of Ross and Rachel’s relationship going until the very last episode.

In a fictional romance, there needs to be something that keeps your lovestruck characters apart, and this is true for all genres. If their romance has a tragic ending, that thing succeeds at separating them. If it has a happy ending, they overcome the obstacle.

Here are seven options you can consider as obstacles for the lovers in your story:

  1. Duty/status keeps them apart. (Examples: Aragorn and Arwen, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; Anakin and Padme, Star Wars; Ead and Sabran, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon)

Perhaps they choose to stay apart for selfless reasons, such as Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn doesn’t want to make Arwen suffer by marrying a mortal man. Perhaps their love is forbidden, like in Star Wars. Because Anakin is part of the Jedi Order, he is supposed to remain celibate, and his secret marriage provides lots of opportunities for tension. Or perhaps it’s a matter of status, where someone of royalty is not supposed to attach themselves to someone of lower rank. It could also be physical distance due to war or some other circumstance that causes duty to prevail over romantic feelings.

  1. They are too stubborn to admit they like each other. (Examples: Mal and Inara, Firefly; Kaz and Inej, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo; Starbuck and Apollo, Battlestar Galactica)

This is one of my favourite tropes. There’s just something amusing (and frustrating) about watching two characters, who love each other, refuse to get together. Most often, the reason behind their stubbornness is deep-seated fear about commitment or about hurting the other person. In Firefly, Mal and Inara obviously have feelings for each other, but neither makes a move because they don’t like complications (and are probably afraid of being rejected and/or hurt by the other). The tension between them builds over each of their scenes together and sparks fly in their dialogue.

  1. They can’t be together for professional reasons. (Examples: Chuck and Sarah, Chuck; Jack and Sam, Stargate: SG-1; Leslie and Ben, Parks and Recreation)

This is similar to duty, except closely tied to one or both of the partners’ professions. In Chuck, Sarah is Chuck’s CIA handler and body guard; her judgement would be impaired if she was in a romantic relationship with him, so she wants to keep things professional (of course, there are other reasons why she is afraid of having a relationship as well, such as past trauma and difficulty trusting others). There is often a power dynamic going on here, where one character is responsible for the other. This could also be a boss/subordinate, teacher/student, General/Captain, doctor/intern, etc. (Consent can become an issue depending on the power dynamic as well.)

  1. They are enemies. (Katniss and Peeta, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Eris and Safire, The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli; Clarke and Lexa, The 100)

When characters are on the opposite side of a war or politics (or maybe they just hate each other), tension rises. In The Hunger Games, Katniss doesn’t want to fall in love with Peeta because she knows she has to kill him if she wants to survive. In The Sky Weaver, a thief taunts a commander by stealing something valuable to her, and the two engage in a cat and mouse game (though it’s often not clear who is the cat and who is the mouse). Their fiery exchanges are delightful to read. 

  1. One of them is with someone else. (Harry and Ginny, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling; Rory and Jess, Gilmore Girls; Jack and Allison, Eureka.)

Drama and inner turmoil escalate when a character is in love with someone who’s already taken. It takes Harry five books to realize how awesome Ginny is, and when he finally does, she is dating someone else (serves him right for taking her for granted!). Most of us can relate to those scenes where he has to watch her snogging Dean and wish she was with him instead.

  1. One of them is oblivious. (Sheldon and Amy, The Big Bang Theory; Buffy and Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Mal and Alina, The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo)

Sometimes, this trope just ends in unrequited love, where one character rejects the other. Other times, when one character realizes another is in love with them, they fall in love too. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s a bit of both. At first, Buffy is disgusted by Spike’s feelings for her, but she eventually falls for him because he is loyal to her and understands her.

  1. Something supernatural keeps them apart. (Captain America and Peggy Carter, Captain America: The First Avenger; Buffy and Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Rose and the Doctor, Doctor Who)

Funny how literal magic can kill the magic of romance, isn’t it? The galaxy’s the limit with these obstacles. They could be stuck in different times, stuck on different planets, in a magical coma, separated by parallel universes, magically enslaved, wormholed, befuddled, charmed, cursed, you name it. Your only limit is your imagination.

Whether you pick one of these options or go with something else, make sure your romance is rife with tension so your readers root for your lovestruck characters to overcome their obstacle!

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