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Emotion and Conflict – What’s Enough?

The idea for this post has been percolating in my brain for a while and I recently read a blog post by author Janice Hardy which sparked me to want to write it now. Her post is about stakes for the characters in a novel. I’m a little torn about what she says. I agree that you have to make readers care about your characters. You have to have something at stake. The hero and heroine have to have something personal at risk.

For me, this is where it gets sticky. I agree that characters have to have something personal at stake. In many books I’ve read lately, that personal stake is letting go of the past and the personal baggage that is mucking up life. Ms. Hardy says, “Stakes make the reader care, and stakes are about personal loss…If you feel it, then the characters will feel it. If the characters feel it, the reader will feel it.”

I agree with all of this and I’ve read a ton of books that drew me in emotionally as a reader because this is done well. My question then goes to conflict. Many writers will argue that you can’t have good conflict without an antagonist, a bad guy. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a serial killer or terrorist; it just needs to be someone that stops the protagonist (hero) from getting what he wants.

Kristen Lamb wrote about it here. I agree with what she says, especially when she says that the antagonist is the hardest concept to understand. Bob Mayer writes about it here. I’m sure if I spent some more time searching, I’d have a million more examples.

While I agree with the concept, I’ve begun to wonder if it matters to readers, specifically readers of contemporary romance. Of course, this interests me because this is the genre I write, but it’s also the genre I read. I’ve read quite a few books over the last year that have been light on the antagonist.

And I didn’t care.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me talking about Ruthie Knox’s book, Ride With Me. This is a great read. It’s about two people riding their bikes across America and they fall in love. I suppose at a stretch, you could call the hero’s sister an antagonist because she pushes him from his comfort zone and makes him interact with people. She’s the one who tricks him into having a riding partner. Ruthie does such a good job of making me care about the characters, that it didn’t matter to me that there was no antagonist. The conflict revolved around each if them getting over their own issues.

A few months ago, I wrote about one of my favorite books from last year, Inez Kelley’s Sweet as Sin. I adore this book. It’s dark and emotional and totally sucked me in. Now, it’s been a long time since I read it, but I can’t remember any antagonist. If there was one, it was unimportant to me.

Shannon Stacey has a trilogy that I read last year about the Kowalski family. The first and last book of the trilogy do have antagonists, but they read like antagonist-lite. In the first book, the antagonist would be the heroine’s boss, who is forcing her to get an interview with a famous writer, the heroine’s ex-boyfriend. In the last book, the heroine’s grandmother would be the antagonist because she wants her granddaughter to be married so she’s not alone. In the second book, there was no external antagonist that I can recall.

All of these books were published by the digital division of big publishers. Ride With Me is a Loveswept book (Random House), Sweet as Sin and the Yours trilogy are both from Carina Press (Harlequin). These books have found an audience.

It bears repeating. These books found an audience even without strong antagonists. Shannon Stacey hit best seller lists with her books and Harlequin decided to publish print editions.

In addition to these authors, many self-published authors are also finding success. Both Marie Force and Bella Andre have published with New York houses and are currently self-publishing their books. While I haven’t read everything they’ve put out, I have read at least a couple of books from each their contemporary romance series. The stories have been enjoyable, but from a craft standpoint, light on the conflict because of a lack of antagonist. I say this not as a criticism, but as an observation.

These authors are enjoying great success. Readers are gobbling up their books. If they don’t have strong external conflict and no antagonist, shouldn’t their stories be lacking? Experts might say yes, but I don’t think the readers agree. The emotional pull of the characters keeps us glued to the page.

As a reader, do you notice if the book has an antagonist? Is the emotional journey of the characters enough to sustain the novel for you?

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About Shannyn Schroeder

Mom of 3, editor, and contemporary romance writer

16 responses »

  1. I do notice NOW. Because I’ve read some of the same things trying to learn that you have. But there are books I like without antagonists, also. And I’ve heard it argued that sometimes the protagonist is her own antagonist. I can certainly see how that would work as the phrase – you’re your own worst enemy – has been true of me many times in my life.
    Of the writers you mention, Bella Andre is the only one I know. I love her work even without an antagonist. One of my favorite writers is Erin McCarthy. Highly popular. I don’t see clear antagonists in her work, either.
    Food for thought. Thanks for this.

    Reply
    • I have an Erin McCarthy sitting on my shelf that I haven’t read. Maybe I’ll check into it. I’ve heard the argument about the heroine being her own antagonist, but purists will argue that that is not conflict, it’s therapy 🙂

      Reply
  2. Interesting question. I think it depends on the genre. I read a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance…in which case, yet. But in contemp romance or chicklit or those sorts of books, I think the protagonist is often her own worst antagonist…and that’s okay with me. (And kinda real, too, if you look at your own life!)

    Reply
    • Like I said to Judy, some people (cough*Jenny Crusie*cough) think it’s a copout to say your heroine’s antagonist is herself. Lani Diane Rich, on the other hand, says it’s okay. I think it does make it real, and if it’s done well, we’re drawn into the story no matter what. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  3. Hmmmmm. I don’t write romance, so maybe I’m missing the nuance here? Perhaps the glitch is on how we define the antagonist in a story? For instance, some say there are only three basic conflicts. In a man v. nature story, the antagonist is usually the tornado/hurricane/flood/tidal wave, etc. our hero/heroine is battling. In a man v. man story, one’s the hero and one’s the villain. But what you’re maybe describing here as a story lacking an antagonist is a man v. himself story? It’s harder to dramatize a man v. himself story because the antagonist has no physical form. That makes it harder to show (instead of telling) the conflict. Sounds like many of these writers you’ve listed have done that well, though. But I’m guessing that in a great romance, there’s the conflict between the hero (say Rhett Butler) and the heroine (Scarlett O’Hara), and the antagonist is????

    Reply
  4. Mm….It depends. I recently read a book (romance) in which there was really NO reason for the people to not get together. I think before I learned as much about writing, I would have just been annoyed by it; something seemed missing. Now, I actually knew WHY I was annoyed and it will probably never be a “reread” for me.

    I don’t mind an internal conflict, but there has to be SOMETHING or I don’t care.

    Reply
    • I think that often the SOMETHING ends up being so contrived and not quite believable that I’d rather it not be there. I don’t tend to get annoyed if something’s missing, especially if the writing is good and the characters draw me in. I might take note of the missing thing, but it doesn’t necessarily bother me. Now, if the writing is off, that’s a different story.

      Reply
  5. As a reader and writer of romance , I don’t mind if the antagonist is internal instead of external as long as it is written well. I can get just as invested in the characters without a super villain as long as there is some sort of obstacle to over come. I read and write both kinds of romance.

    Reply
    • Thanks for stopping by. I think that as a reader, I’m with you. The problem I have is with the “rules” of storytelling that say I have to have a bad guy. I think for me, the bad guy too often starts to stray toward romantic suspense instead of straight contemporary romance.

      Reply
  6. I think often in romance the hero and heroine are set up as antagonists for each other, but in a more positive way. They challenge each other to grow and to overcome issues that they’ve had since forever and grow out of childish ways of thinking. For me, that’s the heart of romance- flawed characters who force each other to grow and they grow together.

    Reply
  7. The funny thing here is, of the 27 books I have published, the two best sellers have no real antagonist. I was honestly unsure about offering them to the readers. Sure glad I did. 🙂

    Reply
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