50+ Romance Novel Obstacles to True Love

This is yet another one of those blog entries that stems from a conversation with girlfriends.  Discussing the  particularly preposterous plot of a recent popular romance series (hint: time travel and kilts), it occurred to us that all romance plots are inherently a little preposterous, if only because of the necessity for manufacturing some obstacle to keep the lovers separated long enough to generate a plot.  After all, where’s the fun in lovers finding each other in the first chapter and living happily ever after?   Where’s the sexual tension, where’s the suspense, where’s the glorious release when love finally triumphs over all obstacles placed in its path?

In real life, obstacles to True Love tend to be, well, boring: personality conflicts, parental objections, money.  Fortunately, romance writers are much more creative – it’s hard to imagine a tragedy, complication, misunderstanding or act of villainy that they haven’t enlisted in the cause of thwarting the course of True Love.  Nor would we want it any other way.
Following is the list we whimsically initiated that day, with sample books/movies supplied when we could think of them.   If you’re a romance writer in search of inspiration for conflicts, help yourself.  Otherwise, enjoy the opportunity to celebrate the sheer scope, creativity, and venerable cheesiness of these familiar, beloved romance tropes:
 Separated by social forces/conventions
  1. Separated by religion.  Is there an easier way to torment your lovers than by having one of them come from a Catholic family, the other from a Protestant family?  Or doom one to be raised in an Amish community while the other is an avowed Outsider?  Might de Boise-Guilbert and Rebecca (Ivanhoe) have lived happily ever after if it hadn’t been for whole the “I’m a Christian crusader, you’re a Jew” objection? 
  2. Separated by economic status.  God help the rich man or woman who gives their heart to someone with a heart of gold but a purse of dust, for their relatives are sure to throw a hissy.  (Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion)
  3. Separated by social status.  Because everyone knows ogres can’t be permitted to fall in love with princesses (Shrek), businessmen can’t be allowed to fall in love with prostitutes (Pretty Woman), and girls of good family can’t go around lusting after brooding stableboys (Wuthering Heights).
  4. Separated by race/nationality.  Sadly, his may be the only one on the list that actually occurs more often in real life than in books, though it’s a reliable trope in Bollywood movies where dishy Indian protagonists are forever falling in love with unsuitable Westerners.
  5. Separated by age.  Can either take the form of protagonists too young to marry or a doomed May/December romance (Big, Lost in Translation, Harold and Maude, Moonrise Kingdom).
  6. Separated by business interests.  One’s a cop, one’s a famous jewel thief (To Catch a Thief); or, one’s the owner of the business, the other’s a secretary (Working Girl); or, one owns a conglomerate, the other owns an independent shop (You’ve Got Mail). Can True Love triumph over job conflicts?
  7. Separated by feuding families.  Romeo and Juliet.  That’s all we need to say about that.
  8. Separated by politics.  A standard conflict in historical romances, especially those that involve civil wars.
 Separated by intellectual/emotional differences
  1. Separated by ideas. He’s a liberal (environmentalist, activist, social worker), she’s a conservative (business executive, lawyer) – can they do a better job than Congress of overcoming their ideological differences? (The Way We Were)
  2.  Separated by emotions.  He’s brazen, she’s shy (Mansfield Park); he’s uptight, she’s quirky (basically anything starring Meg Ryan); she’s a brain, he’s a slacker (Say Anything).  Apparently opposites do attract – just not until the final chapter.
  3. They can’t live with each other, but it turns out they can’t live without each other either (His Girl Friday).
 Separated by circumstances
  1.  Separated by prior obligations.  “I cannot marry you as I have, alas, been promised to another!”  Especially common in historical romances, back when parents arranged their childrens’ marriages based on political, social, and business considerations (Sense & Sensibility, Shakespeare in Love).
  2. Separated by an inconvenient marriage.  Because nothing crushes budding love like a mad woman in the attic (Jane Eyre), a coma wife, or that rash decision made when you were still young and impressionable (Casablanca, Bridges of MadisonCounty).
  3. Falling in love with your best friend’s guy/gal.  How do you choose between friendship, loyalty, duty, and love? (My Best Friend’s Wedding; Lancelot & Guinevere in Le Morte de Arthur)
  4. One (or both) have jobs that constantly separate them (celebrities, athletes, musicians, interpreters, art restorers, foreign correspondents) and often involve romantic temptations.
  5. Lovers discover they are tragically related to each other – cousins, or a brother/sister separated at birth.
  6. One (or both) are entangled in a sham marriages (or engagements)  (While You Were Sleeping).
  7. The course of true love is interrupted by a crisis: war (Last of the Mohicans), plague, or the ever-popular captured by pirates (The Princess Bride).
  8. The course of true love is interrupted by a major life event or tragedy: a death in the family, a political setback, or a sudden change in economic circumstances (an inheritance or bankruptcy).
 Separated by deliberate interference
  1. The course of true love is interrupted by a jealous rival or other interested party (Antony & Cleopatra, Snow White).
  2. The course of true love is interrupted by friends/family members with their own agendas.  Because nothing’s as insidious as the manipulations of someone your characters erroneously trust but who is in fact motivated by greed, selfishness, and/or revenge (A Separate Peace, Othello).
  3. One lover must successfully complete a quest or deed to earn the attention and favor of their inamorata (Ivanhoe).
Separated by supernatural forces. 
  1. Separated by time.  The lovers somehow contrived to meet across time but are doomed forever to be parted by the eras that separate them (The Time-Traveller’s Wife, Outlander).
  2. Separated by mortality.  One lover’s a mortal, the other’s a ghost; a guaranteed tear-jerker of a conflict (Ghost, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir).
  3. Separated by species.  Because nothing’s quite so fraught with complications as falling in love with a creature of an entirely incompatible species – say, a vampire, werewolf, mermaid or fairy (Twilight series, Edward Scissorhands).
  4. Separated by destiny.   A superstition, omen, or prophecy keeps the lovers separated – you’ll find this one in medieval romances and some fantasy/sci fi.
Separated by noble sentiments
  1. One lover nobly eschews romance because they are secretly suffering from a wasting illness, a mental disorder, a drug addiction, or some other depressing malady.  Damn their scruples!
  2. One lover nobly eschews romance because they possess a Terrible Secret that will prevent them from having children (a genetic disorder; a previous trauma that prevents conception).
  3. One lover nobly eschews romance because they were Tragically Orphaned At Birth (or, alternatively, suffering amnesia) and don’t feel they can honorably enter into a marriage without knowing the full details of their own parentage/heritage.  An honorable old Dickensian trope.
  4. One lover nobly eschews romance because the object of their amour is obviously vulnerable, damaged, or for some other reason unable to rationally evaluate their decision to enter into a relationship.
  5. One lover adores the other so completely, they’re willing to sacrifice their happiness to help the other (City Lights).
Separated by insecurity
  1. One lover deliberately eschews the other because they don’t believe they’re worthy of love, possibly because they feel themselves too plain (Jane Eyre)  or too damaged (Moonstruck).
  2. One lover becomes jealous of the professional successes of the other (A Star is Born).
  3. Lovers fall in love in absentia – perhaps via mail, email, phone calls, letters in trees, or letters in bottles – then become afraid to meet lest their hopes be dashed.
Separated by vocation or calling
  1. One lover deliberately eschews love/marriage in order to pursue a vocation or calling (The Natural, It’s a Wonderful Life).
  2. One lover takes a vow of celibacy/chastity, either as part of a profession of faith or as a vow to god in exchange for some great favor (The Thorn Birds).
  3. One (or both) are trapped in careers where lovers and/or spouses could make things inconvenient  (Elizabeth the Queen, The American President).
Separated by unsuitability
  1. One of the lovers (or both) must modify some character defect in order to deserve the other (Mr. Darcy & Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice; Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; Han Solo in Star Wars).
  2. One of the lovers must free themselves from  an unsuitable entanglement (for example, that girlfriend/boyfriend who is only using them for their money/their influence/to make someone else jealous) in order to become available to the other.  (Jane Eyre)
  3. One of the lovers must overcome a preconceived prejudice against the other (Pride & Prejudice, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ms. Congeniality).
Separated by memories of love
  1. One lover deliberately throws obstacles in the path of romance because they’re not yet over a previous romance – even better if their first love died under sudden and tragic circumstances (Always, Sleepless in Seattle).
  2. One lover deliberately eschews romance because they still bear psychological scars from their last traumatic romantic entanglement (Rebecca).
Separated by blindness
  1. Friends fall gradually in love (Harry Potter).
  2. Enemies or rivals fall gradually in love (All’s Well That Ends Well, It Happened One Night, When Harry Met Sally).
  3. Unrequited love.  One minute he’s in your “friend zone,” the next moment you’re realizing he’s Mr. Right (Emma, Jerry Maguire, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kermit the Frog & Ms. Piggy).
Separated by deception
  1. One of the lovers is living a secret life - spy, fugitive, superhero - that they are not at liberty to disclose (Batman, Spiderman, Zorro).
  2. One lover is pretending to be someone they’re not.  This is one of Shakespeare’s favorite tropes; there’s almost always someone passing as someone else, and usually as someone of the opposite sex.
  1. And finally, the granddaddy of them all, the “Big Misunderstanding” – where one lover mistakenly believes the other lover has somehow let them down (White Christmas), or there’s an outside force preventing them from pledging themselves to another, but by the time the last chapter rolls around, all the misapprehensions have been dispelled, clearing the way for True Love to triumph.

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