Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Characters: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict

Character Series
Part 06: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict

Your story needs more conflict. That conflict then needs to be maintained properly, escalated and finally resolved in a manner that has the strongest impact on the character and reader.

This conflict post for the character development series was originally going to cover conflict, stakes & motivation and Escalation & Resolution.  It was so long, however, it has been broken up into three separate blog posts.

So welcome back to the character development series!

What is Conflict?

Once I instructed a fellow writer that every scene needed to have some sort of conflict, mystery or development. A week later she came to me and said 'I've been trying to do what you said, but it's really difficult to make the characters argue in every scene.'

I was floored--partly by her misunderstanding of the term 'conflict', but also that she would attempt to follow such blatantly ludicrous advice. I asked if her favourite book had an argument in every scene and why she would attempt to follow my advice when it was clearly inaccurate. She wasn't sure, but when pressed she couldn't identify any conflicts, in any scenes, other than arguments between characters.

So what is a conflict? defines it as:
1. A state of open, often prolonged fighting; a battle or war.
2. A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or interests; a clash.
3. Psychology A psychic struggle, often unconscious, resulting from the opposition or simultaneous functioning of mutually exclusive impulses, desires, or tendencies.
4. Opposition between characters or forces in a work of drama or fiction, especially opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot.

A conflict could be inside the character--guilt, shame, fear. It could be an external force the character is fighting against--a fire, a storm, the cold, an earthquake. It could be another character--the love interest, the villain, a misunderstanding, direct insult, physical altercations, verbal altercations or simply emotional tensions.

And yes, you should try and have conflict in every scene. Just don't always make that conflict an argument.

Three Types Of Conflict

Inner conflict is usually an emotion, thought or belief that has a detrimental effect on a characters choices and actions. Maybe they want to be brave and do the right thing, but fear stops them. Maybe they believe they can’t do something, so they never try.

A good inner conflict is seeded throughout a novel, then comes to a head in a critical scene, giving characters a choice that allows them to overcome their conflict, or fail. Often, depending on the emotional arc of the book, they will fail on their first attempt, then succeed later.

EG:  A man is deeply resentful of his ex wife. So much so, he wishes she was dead. He arrives at her house to pick up their children and sees the children are huddled on the lawn and the house is burning. She is still inside. He can overcome his hostilities and run in and save her... or he can fail and let her die.

Addictions, mental illness, trauma and deeply ingrained cultural or religious beliefs can also be inner conflicts—though often more difficult for people to overcome. EG: a man choosing between heroin or his children, or a war veteran trying to trust her brother when he promises her the hallucinations aren’t real.

Interpersonal conflict occurs between people. Romance novels often rely heavily on the interpersonal conflict between the hero and heroine as their relationship develops. There needs to be a lot of tension between them to make their romance compelling to the reader. The relationship between the hero and villain is also an interpersonal conflict and these are often the most powerful, intense relationships we get to see in fiction. EG: Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, John McClane and Hans Gruber.

Interpersonal conflict can be a central conflict in a novel, sustained from beginning to end, or it can be short. A disagreement between two characters for a single scene. Conflict and tension between characters is one of the best ways to engage and sustain reader interest.

Consider ‘The Hunger Games’ where every single relationship Katniss has, even with her allies, is fraught with tension and conflict. And every time she does open up and trust someone, they are wrenched away from her. Which usually then changes the conflict between her and President Snow, or one of the other villains. I would argue The Hunger Games nonstop conflict, without any room to breathe, is what made it so successful and interpersonal conflict was the lion’s share of that.

Environmental conflicts are difficulties and dangers arising from the surroundings. EG: Rain causing a laptop to die, a bushfire threatening lives and homes, a hurricane knocking out power, a snake bite on a hiking trail, a snow storm trapping tourists in a remote cabin. While all of the dangers in The Hunger Games are controlled by man, the things within the arena were environmental conflicts that Katniss had to overcome. The movie Cube (1997) the characters are trying to survive the maze (environmental) and each other (interpersonal).

The primary conflict in a story can be environmental. Any catastrophic event is usually enough to base a whole story around—though you would expect there to be inner conflict and perhaps some interpersonal conflict as well. A good environmental conflict feels like an interpersonal conflict. The environment feels like a hostile force. It’s not a static backdrop. It breathes and hunts and devastates. We all sometimes feel like it rained just because we hung out washing. Environments can be malicious.

Generally speaking, you expect to find all three types of conflict in longer works. It’s difficult, in a well written story, to leave one out. That is because we all experience all three of these conflicts on an almost daily basis, just in minor forms. Trip and bash your toe? Environmental conflict. Children won’t eat their dinner? Interpersonal conflict. Choosing between a salad or burger for lunch? Inner conflict.

Mysteries and Hooks

What is a hook?

Imagine you are a fisher and the reader is a fish. You are at the end of the book and they are at the start. Your goal is to draw them through the story to you. The hook is what pulls them through the water/story. It is the element that keeps them reading.

The type of hooks you will use will vary greatly depending on the genre and target audience.  Often, hooks are promises the writer has made to the reader in the blurb and the book’s cover. That is the first hook. However you then need to have a fantastic hook in the first chapter, preferably in the first line too. Something that will keep the reader turning the page to see what happens next.

Next time you pick up a new book and enjoy it, stop and ask yourself why you want to read more. Your answer will probably start with the phrase: ‘I want to know X’ or ‘I want to see X’. For you, that is the hook at this part in the story. Different readers will be hooked in by different elements—which are again, generally about genre and target audience.

However a good hook will general involve a compelling character, a compelling conflict of some kind and a question or mystery the reader wants the answer to.

Drawing the Reader Through The Story

Once you have a reader's attention, you have to keep it. That means raising the stakes and creating new hooks as the plot progresses. I think Karin Slaughter is the master of this. Her crime thrillers draw you through, from start to finish, very easily.  She is very good at jerking you backwards and forwards, leading you to one conclusion, then providing fresh information that forces you to look at the situation in a new light and question your earlier conclusions.

She is also great at ending chapters on cliff-hangers, so you feel compelled to start the next chapter, just so you can find out what happens before you put the book down. Her books are fast paced and intense. It's no wonder I usually read through them in a single day.

Karin Slaughter's novels are told from multiple POVs too. Which allows some characters to have information other character's need. Sometimes characters keep information from the reader too. Which allows her to build massive anticipation because we know a character is walking into danger when the character doesn't. Or we know a problem could be solved if two characters could just meet and share information. Or we know that the hero was only a few feet shy of finding the unconscious victim... but missed them and gave up the search moments too soon.

These all come back to raising the stakes in your story. Which begs the question:

What are stakes? Come back next week to find out!

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:

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