Updated 20 February 2024
Using forced proximity tropes like the roommates trope is one of the best ways to create tension in a romance novel and raise its stakes.
But what is tension in a romance novel, exactly?
Tension is created by conflict in a romance novel. In most romance novels, the conflict is the emotional struggle a main character goes through as they deal with their love interest, their emotional wound, and, if applicable, their goal, and their motivation. Tension is created as the character responds to that emotional struggle and tries to juggle what their heart is telling them, vs. what their head is saying.
Why is writing conflict in romance so important?
Not all romance novels need a lot of conflict, and the amount of conflict you include in your romance depends on your sub-genre/niche. Different sub-genre readerships have different preferences as far as conflict goes. And there's a growing contingent of readers across sub-genres that want low-conflict—or, as it's often referred to, low-angst—romance. But if you prefer the more traditional romance story structure, often referred to as romance beats, then conflict is what drives your romance forward.
Conflict is also what hooks readers into a story and gets them invested in your characters and seeing how they handle the challenges you throw at them.
How does the roommates trope create conflict?
When two or more people with feelings for each other are forced to live together, they can't hide their emotional struggle from their love interest the way they might if they lived apart. Romance, no matter what type you write, is all about emotional wounds and connection. Your characters have emotional wounds that make them gun-shy when it comes to love, and as they're thrust together time and time again, they're forced to decide if reopening that wound and making it worse is worth it for love.
Put your main characters in the same living space, and you make that decision process much harder. Ever tried to make a tough decision on a time crunch, or with a captive audience? It's a lot harder. The attention makes your mind jumbled, the anticipation makes you nervous, and you start to worry that no matter what you decide, it'll be wrong. That's what you're doing to your characters. Amplifying the tension as they try to decide whether they should risk it for love.
And what about the stakes?
A romance novel's stakes are what the characters will have to give up to be together—i.e., what they might lose. Roommates who have feelings for each other aren't just jeopardizing a friendship or close connection when they pursue a relationship. They're also putting their home in danger. If things don't work out, they won't just lose someone they care about; they might lose their house. And if your characters live somewhere real estate is outrageously competitive like London, Dublin, or New York City, that increases the stakes even more, because once they lose their shared living situation, they aren't guaranteed to find another.
What's a good book to read to see the roommates trope in action?
My Roommate Is a Vampire by Jenna Lavine is an excellent example of how the roommates trope can cause conflict, increase tension, and make for a super satisfying happily ever after. The heroine develops feelings for her roommate, which is awkward enough. But that roommate is also the landlord of the only house she can afford to rent, which makes jeoparizing their relationship even more complicated. And being in such close quarters exposes her roommate's secret identity (gasp; he's a vampire!), which puts her roommate's way of life in danger and adds another level of complexity to the question of whether they should get together, because they aren't just roommates, friends, or landlord and tenant; they're also two different species, one of which is known for its bloodthirst.