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Ten Obstacles for Characters in Love

Your characters meet, fall in love, and decide to face the rest of the novel’s adventures hand-in-hand, where nothing ever comes between them. Sweet, right?


You can certainly pull this off and add tension in other ways, but romance can be a source of conflict that keeps your readers' turning pages. Sweet is nice, but it's not always the best choice for your story. There’s a reason so many stories drag out the "will they/won't they" until the end of a series.


In fiction, there's often something that keeps your lovestruck characters apart, and this is true for all genres, though I’m obviously going to focus on sci-fi and fantasy as examples here. If the romance has a tragic ending, the obstacle succeeds at separating them. If it has a happy ending, the lovers overcome the obstacle.


Below are ten reasons your characters might be parted.

Screenshot of Aragorn and Arwen from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

1. Duty


In The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn doesn’t want Arwen to suffer by marrying a mortal man. Arwen is supposed to leave Middle-earth with the rest of her elven kin, and Aragorn has his own path to follow. Their love seems doomed, which makes it extra special when Arwen shows up at the end of Return of the King, having stayed behind in the hopes that Sauron would be defeated, Aragorn would survive, and their love would prevail.


This trope is often tied to characters' careers or positions of power, but sometimes romance just gets in the way of a goal.


Other Examples: Siuan and Moiraine (Wheel of Time), Ead and Sabran (The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon), Jack and Sam (Stargate: SG-1), Keyleth and Vax (Vox Machina), Vin and Elend (Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson)


2. Stubbornness or Fear


This is one of my favourite tropes. There’s just something amusing (and frustrating) about watching characters who love each other but refuse to get together. Most often, the reason behind their stubbornness is a deep-seated fear about commitment or about being hurt.


In Firefly, Mal and Inara obviously have feelings for each other, but neither makes a move because they don’t like complications (and they’re both afraid of being rejected and hurt by the other). The tension between them builds over each of their scenes together and their dialogue is always spicy.


Other Examples: Kaz and Inej (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo), Starbuck and Apollo (Battlestar Galactica), Han and Leia (Star Wars), Lucifer and Chloe (Lucifer), Geralt and Yennifer (The Witcher)


3. Death


Sometimes the death is permanent, but in sci-fi and fantasy, sometimes it's not! There are so many opportunities for tension and emotionality as a character deals with the death of their loved one. Sometimes, these arcs culminate in a resurrection where the character comes back wrong; rarely the resurrection is successful and everyone is happy.


WandaVision takes place after Vision dies in Avengers: Infinity War, and Wanda is grieving. Vision seems to be alive, stuck in an idyllic life of sitcom television with Wanda, but he's not real—he's been created by Wanda’s memories and magic. Watching her have to face his death again is heartbreaking.


Other Examples: Hercules and Meg (Hercules), Wander and Mono (Shadow of the Colossus), Imhotep and Anck-su-Namun (The Mummy), Regina and Daniel (Once Upon a Time), Locke and Rachel (Final Fantasy VI)


4. Hatred or Enmity


Enemies to lovers! Who doesn’t like this trope? Come at me.


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 to survive. They are technically enemies, so everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the rules change in the middle of the Games, and they’re permitted to become allies.


Other Examples: Eris and Safire (The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli), Clarke and Lexa (The 100), Adora and Catra (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power), Shepard and Jack (Mass Effect 2), Daniel and Vala (Stargate: SG-1)

Screenshot of Steve, Jonathan, and Nancy from Stranger Things.

5. Relationship Status


Drama and inner turmoil escalate when a character is in love with someone who’s already involved. In Season One of Stranger Things, Nancy is dating Steve when sparks fly between her and Jonathan. It's hard to know who to root for, because Steve is a jerk in Season One, but Jonathan is a creep (I’m sorry, why are you hiding in the bushes photographing your classmates while they’re hanging out in a pool?).


Of course, now that Steve’s awesome, I’m Team Steve. Or maybe Team Robin. Scratch that; Team Robin all the way.


Other Examples: Harry and Ginny (Harry Potter), Jack and Allison (Eureka), Wolverine and Jean Grey (X-Men), Eowyn and Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings), Sokka and Yue (Avatar: The Last Airbender)


6. Obliviousness


Sometimes, this trope just ends in unrequited love, where one character rejects the other. Other times, both characters end up falling in love with each other. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s a bit of both. At first, Buffy is shocked and disgusted by Spike’s feelings for her, but she eventually falls for him because he is loyal and understands her (plus a bunch of trauma and the belief that she doesn’t deserve better).


Other Examples: Mal and Alina (Shadow and Bone), Bill and Frank (The Last of Us), Howl and Sophie (Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones), Tristan and Yvaine (Stardust), Aang and Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender)


7. Circumstances Beyond Their Control


Ironically, the magic of romance can be killed by literal magic. Particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, the galaxy’s the limit with these obstacles. Your characters could be stuck in different times, on different planets, in a magical coma, separated by parallel universes, magically enslaved, wormholed, befuddled, charmed, cursed—you name it.


Other Examples: Buffy and Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Rose and the Doctor (Doctor Who), Stamets and Dr. Culber (Star Trek: Discovery), Nora and Nathan (Upload), Zelda and Link (The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom)


8. Unrequited Love


One of my favourite moments in Stranger Things is when Steve admits he might have feelings for Robin, and she tells him she doesn’t swing that way. Instead of reacting in anger or disappointment, Steve responds with friendship, and their relationship henceforth is amazing. Stranger Things proves that people don’t have to get together to have a happy ending, though most unrequited love stories are bittersweet.


Other Examples: Kvothe and Denna (The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss), Thor and Sif (Thor), Eren and Mikasa (Attack on Titan), Raven and Xavier (X-Men: First Class), Littlefinger and Catelyn (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)


9. Betrayal


The romance might be legit, but one character does something horrible. Or, the romance is a farce all along, where one character is manipulating the other.


The relationship between Alina and the Darkling in Shadow and Bone is riveting because we’re not sure of the Darkling’s motives. He’s definitely hot, but is he good? Time will tell.


Other Examples: Sam and Ruby (Supernatural), Sky and Ward (Agents of SHIELD), Littlefinger and Sansa (Game of Thrones), Anakin and Padme (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), Angel and Cordelia (Angel)


10. Outside Interference


Someone, usually the villain, doesn’t want these people together and has done everything to stop their union.


In Eureka, Jason Anderson steals Kim and Henry’s memories of falling in love together so he can marry her instead. This is a useful obstacle to make your villain more villainous—they not only want to do whatever other evil things they’re doing, but they want to interfere with your characters’ happiness! The nerve!


Other Examples: Buttercup and Westley, (The Princess Bride), Kirito and Asuna (Sword Art Online), Peach and Mario (Super Mario), Mal and Alina (Shadow and Bone), Jasmine and Aladdin (Aladdin)

The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

The Worldbuilders Tavern podcast cover, featuring an inn against a purple sky.

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