On the one hand, you have a distinct advantage when it comes to romance: we all know how it’s going to end. That’s also the chief disadvantage: how do you keep the reader guessing, doubting that everything can work out okay? Mostly you do it by throwing roadblocks between the protagonists, keeping them from being happy at last for as long as you can manage it without actually resorting to torture — well, unless you’re writing something like a spy novel. The difference between a potboiler and a classic, however, comes from the source of those impediments. They should be believable to the world you’ve created, suitable to the characters you’ve drawn and revealing truths about both that have your readers nodding their heads rather than shaking them in disbelief. The difficulties your characters face not only keep the plot lively; they also reveal their capabilities — the root of their true selves. As Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”
I’m going to use as my example Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though the same lessons will apply to same sex couples or menages. While gender norms are fairly restrictive at the time she writes, the conflicts don’t really arise from gender, though the restrictions on their responses do. Yes, there will be spoilers a-plenty, so if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this immediately and go read that novel because it is a work of genius. Not just as a romance — for some reason, people seem to think that genre limits it somehow. A more contained palette does not mean the genius is any less: think Picasso’s blue period. It’s a deliberate choice. Austen had true insight into character and write about with precise and melodic language. Her books weren’t about the pelisses and breeches that too often obsess modern writers of historical romance: they’re about universal truths about the human condition that can be laid bare in the parlour as easily as on the battlefield.
While it’s hard to find a more delightful protagonist than Elizabeth Bennet, we do have to admit she has some faults, like all humans. As a young woman of clear mind and bright wit, she’s a bit marooned without a real equal. Being a lot smarter than most of the people around her, Elizabeth has a weakness of pride in her own ability, which is immediately deflated by Darcy’s easy dismissal of her. He’s got his own weaknesses: in some ways, he’s in the same situation, albeit in an entirely different set of economic circumstances. But he’s been fawned over and while bright and capable, he lacks sympathy — and more importantly, empathy. So we have two people who are going to be attracted to each other, but already have a lot of personal traits that will make the road bumpy.
Then there are the circumstances: both are very loyal to the ones they love. For Elizabeth, this means taking umbrage when Darcy parts her sister Jane from his best friend Bingley, though he believes himself to be doing a good turn, as he thinks it only a scheme of the girls’ mother to get Jane wedded. Jane’s too retiring to make her feelings known, but Elizabeth finds all the fault on the other side.
She’s loyal to her new friend Wickham, and because she got off on the wrong foot with Darcy, Elizabeth believes his concocted story about the wrong that’s been done to him. Darcy, meanwhile, feels put off by her loyalty to someone he knows to be untrustworthy, but won’t say anything out of loyalty to his sister. It’s a lot of good qualities — loyalty, friendship — but because of the circumstances, they’re read wrongly. The plot complications arise from the characters’ personalities, so they feel natural.
Take the first proposal: you know it’s going to go badly, just as you know eventually they’ll get together. But it seems impossible at this point. Elizabeth’s sympathies are all with the suffering of her friend Wickham. Darcy has been overwhelmed by his infatuation for her though he remains exasperated by her truly embarrassing family. He’s not used to feeling powerless. Epic proposal fail!
Retire to neutral corners to rethink: Darcy decides he needs to disclose the truth about Wickham, even though it embarrasses him and exposes the fact that his sister nearly ruined her reputation. Elizabeth acknowledges that Darcy’s distaste for her family isn’t simply a matter of class snobbery: they’re truly mortifying at times. But just when the course of true love begins to run a little more smoothly, Lydia runs off with Wickham. The ruin will reflect on the whole family, Elizabeth knows. And Darcy knows that if he’d told people about the rogue sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.
Just when things seem at their worst, we find the final pieces are falling into place. Elizabeth and Darcy begin to understand each other and their circumstances better and with that mending begins. Because he knows that Lydia, however foolish a girl, deserves better than to be ruined, Darcy persuades Wickham with enough cash to do “the right thing” because he knows it will matter to Elizabeth. Not that he intends her to know about his having a hand in it; it’s a true gesture of love and humble therefore.
Elizabeth, for her part, has had ample time to know that she was foolish about Wickham — because he flattered her — and penitent, fearing that the man she grudgingly came to admire will shun her now that her family has lived down to his expectations. The next big plot turn comes from Lady Catherine, who has both noticed Elizabeth’s personal superiority and rightly assessed her as a threat to her own schemes. We’ve no doubt about Lady Catherine’s opinion and it fits the moment to have her appear in order to quiz Elizabeth about the rumoured engagement to her nephew. We know Elizabeth’s stubbornness — being told she cannot possibly do something makes her obstinately determined to do it. More than that it awakens what she has had a hard time admitting: she has come to love him just as much as he loves her.
Plots don’t need artificial inserts of unkind fate (though they can be exciting to explore); when you have rich characters who hold strong opinions they’re bound to come into conflict. When you have people with something to hide, those omissions can lead to problems and misunderstandings. Mistaken impressions and inadvertent miscommunications can snowball and before you know it, there’s a huge tangle to sort out — but that’s what makes your story gripping, because untangling usually involves making more tangles before you’re through. When your reader gets to the end, you want them to sigh happily, sorry to part from such a well told tale.