If you want to write a good story (or read a good story), there always has to be tension. Specifically, there needs to be tension between the main characters, not just tension in the plot. This frisson can morph, grow or shrink, but it remains until the end of the story. Without tension, of course, there is no story.
I know this to the marrow of my bones, and yet, my reader mind says this axiom is wrong. The novels I loved the best, and those with the most intense love stories, didn’t have a couple pitted against each other. They had couples that worked together toward common goals.
Isn’t memory a crafty thing? I skimmed back through my favorite novels and realized I’d fallen under the spell of the authors. The great love stories of Jacqueline Carey, Karen Marie Moning, William Goldman—every one of them hold true to the rule: The tension was a tight string between the protagonists throughout the entire novel/series until the final happily ever after moment.
Okay, so with romance novels, this made sense. Without the tension between the lead woman and man, what would be the point? Even when the lovers work together to solve another mystery, such as in Jayne Ann Krentz’s bestsellers, the characters still maintained a tension between them—a secret one can’t share with the other, a trust issue that needs time and experience to be dissolved, a guilt of expectations holding one or the other back from fully committing themselves. Until the third act, this tension rides the story, steers it, cuts short those happy moments and pushes the characters back into action.
But what of fantasy? In fantasy, there’s an outer villain that needs conquering. Two people, even those who are allies and not potential love interests, can battle side by side against this foe without needing tension between them. Can’t they? I sifted through my favorite novels. Ilona Andrews, Kim Harrison, Robert Jordan, Naomi Novik. The external foe is there, the quest is laid out before the main character, but the tension between the protagonists remains a driving force in them all, especially in those that I remember so fondly as binding tales of love. The happily ever after tricked my memory; the fantasy I created for these characters after the novel ended was as strong in my mind as all the struggles they overcame in the novels.
Many young writers fall in the same trap, their reader brain taking over their writer brain. They want to make the lives of their characters good ones. After all, these people you create become real to you, and you (typically) really like them. You want good things for them.
Forget that. Do nice things for strangers. Make life easier for your loved ones (and yourself). Learn how to communicate and diffuse tension among your various relationships. Live a long and bliss-filled life following your passion, and if you’re truly blessed, you’ll find a path that’s rewarding and devoid of demons and villains.
But for characters, make them work for it. Steal their moments of joy. Whittle away their hope. Push their dreams and goals to the farthest, most unattainable hidey-holes of their galaxy. Then give them indomitable spirits or irrefutable motivation, and make them sweat and bleed for their happily ever after.
Now that’s a tale people will want to read.
Rebecca Chastain is the author of A Fistful of Evil, an urban fantasy novel set in her home town in northern California but sold around the world, including at Amazon, Bookworld, and Angus & Robertson. She spends her days torturing people she creates (there’s some evil giggling involved), all while plotting to give them happy endings . . . eventually. To contact or chat with Rebecca, visit her website or Facebook page.