by Jean Lorrah
Interesting that this topic should come up just now. I'm in the planning stages of what may die aborning or may become a fantasy romance, and right now I am precisely trying to work out the conflicts of the two main characters so that they complement one another.
Any author who has ever been in a workshop with me knows that around the bottom of page two I start writing "Who is the protagonist and what is his or her conflict?" The rule of thumb is this: by two pages into a novel the reader must know who one of the protagonists is (there may be only one, but in a romance there are generally two). The protagonist is the person who undergoes the conflict--that is, who has a goal. The more serious that goal, the more serious the conflict. Sometimes a protagonist starts out with one goal, but achieving it leads to a bigger conflict--Dorothy wants to go over the rainbow, but when she does, it becomes much more important to get home.
Disney films are really great at defining conflict this way, probably because they are designed so children can relate to them. The Little Mermaid wants to see the world beyond the ocean--but when she does, she falls in love and gets a whole new goal. Simba "just can't wait to be king," but it never dawns on the baby lion that in order for that to happen, his beloved father has to die. His evil uncle is able to play to that weakness, and almost succeeds in causing Simba to refuse ever to have a goal in life again.
Or look at Ambrov Keon. Risa's first goal is very simple: to survive after the shipwreck in which her father dies. She meets Sergi, who saves her life. His goal, having lost the channel he was escorting in the same storm, is to bring a channel to Keon. After he discovers that Risa has the potential to become the best channel he has ever met, his goal becomes to bring Risa to Keon. As the book proceeds, the goal of both of them becomes to save Keon, although their ideas about how to do that are completely different. The shared goal, however, leads them to fall in love.
Now that is the same structure I want for my fantasy romance. I've got vague ideas about the two protagonists. My female protagonist, tentatively named Clare, is a mercenary warrior who travels with two male companions. They have been living this life for six years, and she has reached the age at which she is ready to settle down, while the men are content with their life as it is.
My male protagonist, Jonal, is a minor lord who has been dragged into a war begun by his overlord, who is simply out to take over more land. Feudal fealty requires Jonal to raise an army and fight in his lord's service, while his men follow him for the same reason. Naturally, they are on the losing side.
Jonal and Clare first meet on opposite sides in the battle. He has never seen an Amazon before--she almost kills him because he can't bring himself to try to kill a woman. He looks at the mercenaries, who can choose which side they will fight on, and who choose their own masters, and for a moment wishes he had their freedom.
I'm missing a piece here--I need conflict between them when they next meet off the battlefield. But it's not that he attempts to rape her--I know that is a staple of romances these days, but I can't write that particular scenario. This guy is the hero, folks! I need something that is the equivalent of the junct vs. householder value system that creates the tension between Risa and Sergi--but as in a romance the focus has to be on the love story, not the background, it cannot be even half as complex as that. It must be something believable that can be drawn quickly in bold strokes. I have the next piece, though. Jonal's overlord has lost the war he started. In the treaty that follows he must give up some of his lands--and so he gives up Jonal's! Our male protagonist suddenly has what he wanted--he's free all right! That automatically reverses his goal: now he wants his land and title back.
You can tell that this is all pretty vague at this point. Right now I haven't the foggiest notion of how he manages to hook up with Clare and her companions, or what the in-between goal is that leads them on some getting-to-know-you adventures (Dorothy has to go to Oz to consult the Wizard about getting home, and gets to know the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion along the way) BEFORE they can attempt the final goal of getting Jonal's heritage back.
Of course you all know that in the end they succeed, and that Jonal and Clare have fallen in love along the way, so at the end she will have to home she yearned to settle down in, while Robyn and Niko, her fellow mercenaries, can still exercise their love of adventure as leaders in Jonal's army. The reason none of this fits together yet is that I do not have the primary CONFLICT between the two main characters. Once I figure that out, the rest will fall right into place. You have no idea how easy Ambrov Keon was to write, because the junct/householder conflict was so clear and led to everything else.
I hope this description of something missing will help to clarify the concept of conflict.