Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

Conflict

The shape of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: I’ve already talked a bit about this (see Part I). What makes things personal for your protagonist? Whatever drives the character and invests him or her in the outcome will invest the reader as well. Maybe there’s a killer after your hero or heroine. Maybe the killer is after someone they love. Maybe they’ve been accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, something has to make the hero or heroine cares very deeply about events so that when we experience the story through their lens, we care as well.

External conflict: What is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

So, what internal and external conflicts are driving your plot? What’s keeping those pages turning? Where’s your sense of urgency?

Whether you’re writing a romance and the primary tension is whether the hero and heroine will get together or a science fiction epic about the overthrow of an evil empire, a good novel needs three things. The reader must:

  1. fear that the protagonists might fail
  2. understand the very real danger of that failure
  3. care deeply about the outcome

In order for the reader to do any of these things, of course, the author must plot out:

  1. what’s at stake
  2. what form their adversity will take
  3. what face evil will wear

There’s rarely a one-word answer for what’s at stake, since there will need to be tension throughout the book, and a single note will start falling on deaf ears. Let’s take a pretty straightforward plot for example—a hostage story. The main goal will be to get the hostages out alive. The consequences of that failure are obvious, and if the author makes the readers care about the characters, they’re emotional invested in the outcome. However, things need to happen during the story to make us believe in this danger—not just “If not this, then that,” as in “If we don’t get the money, we start killing.” Obstacles need to be thrown in the way of the this which threaten to precipitate the that. For example, legalities will prohibit actually giving the hostage-takers what they want. So people will try to go about things another way. They’ll call a negotiator. Maybe that negotiator is having a bad day, and personal issues threaten the negotiation. Maybe he or she doesn’t make it to the scene or the baddies refuse to communicate or they’re all really just playing for time. Maybe the negotiation is going well, but one of the hostage takers is less stable than the others. Or maybe one of the hostages is a hotshot and wants to play hero (or maybe =is= the hero). The important thing is that things go wrong.

If everything goes well, according to plan, there’s not much tension, there’s no suspense and the ending is a foregone conclusion.   And what about the victims? Is one in need of medication? In danger of doing something stupid that might get the others killed? In league with the baddies? Any of these wrinkles will add character to the face of adversity. You don’t want to end up with a featureless, forgettable face, but one with character, stamped with tragedy and triumphs.

Because you must also have triumphs. Just as things have to go wrong, sometimes things have to go right. A piece of the puzzle falls into place or a battle is won on the way to winning the war. Things have to go more and more wrong, tensions have to rise, but not so continuously that there’s no relief. Just as we have to believe that the good guys could fail, we need to have hope that they will win. They must have the means to fight back, otherwise the inequality of power will make any end triumph unconvincing.

Okay, so you’ve got your characters and conflicts and you’ve written the most amazing novel. Now you’re ready for the publishing process, which I’ll post tomorrow as Part III.

2017-06-15 WW Lucienne Diver Last night I gave a talk at the Hart Memorial Central Library in Kissimmee, FL on Characters, Conflict and Publishing, which put a smile on my face, because my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hart, was the one I credit with sparking my love of writing and with teaching me about butt in chair and other lessons I apply to this day. The attendees were a lovely bunch of people with great questions. As always, the ad-libbing and elaboration that comes from an in-person talk goes missing from the formal, on-paper speech, but since I promised, I’ll be recreating it here on the blog in parts. (Note: if you’ve followed along on my other posts and articles, some of what’s said here will already be familiar to you.)

Part I

For some, novels begin with a concept. For others with a character or characters talking in their heads. Either way, the best thing an author can be is as contrary as possible.

If your concept starts with a conflict, think “Who would be most thrown for a loop in a situation like this? Who would be most discombobulated and out of their element?”

If it starts with a character, think “What would really challenge this person? What’s his/her own personal version of hell?”

Then, I kid you not, put them through it. Characters and conflict are at the heart of every story, inextricably intertwined.

Characters

Let’s begin with characters. Who is your protagonist? What is his or her background? What does he care about and what’s at stake for him or her in the story? This is always ALL important. There must be stakes — something the character wants or needs but that obstacles may prevent or something the protagonist desperately fears that might come to pass if events aren’t thwarted. In the best of all possible worlds, both of these things are true. We’re all bundles of hopes and fears. Your characters should be no less. The difference is that for us, hopefully, there is no opposing force (a villain or a killer, say) battling against us.

When creating characters, be unique and be creative. Do not create stereotypes, but living and breathing characters. How do you do this? Here are a few things to think about:

Background: characters should be products of their cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, in fantasy werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. People need to eat and drink, sleep, etc. Werewolves might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for red meat. Vampires aren’t really vampires without the need for blood (or energy in the case of pranic vampires). How your particular character deals with these urges and with others inside or outside their group will largely be informed by their personal, familial and societal history.

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader and may fit an archetype (hero, villain, caregiver, visionary) he or she should also be unique. Remember that even villains have a story. They may be doing the wrong things for the right reasons or responding to pains in their past or viewing everything through a lens of sociopathy, but in their minds they are likely doing what’s right or necessary. They probably don’t see themselves as evil. The same goes for your hero or heroine – most don’t see themselves that way. They’re not good or noble all the time. Think of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, who is heroic in standing up for her sister, but doesn’t set out to lead anything for the greater good, and when she takes on that role, realizes that it’s not black or white, but gray. People will die for believing in her and the symbolic role she plays.

Strength and Weaknesses: what are your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and how does the conflict challenge them to be better. Characters should not remain stagnant from the beginning of a book to the end, they should grow and change, the conflicts the wringer they must go through to achieve their final shape.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral. Give us something with which to identify.

I’ve started with character, because that’s how stories often start for me. With the Vamped series, I first had my fashionista character talking in my head, and I absolutely had to get her out. I thought to myself, “How can I torture this girl?” (Authors have to have a little of the sadist about them and then write it out in their fiction so that they can be perfectly lovely people in real life.) The answer was to make her a vampire – take away her reflection so that she’d have no way to fix her hair and make-up, take away her tanning options and make her dig her own way out of the grave, totally ruining her manicure. Have her discover that the parents buried her in that dress she literally wouldn’t be caught dead in. And then, give her a bigger, badder, even more fashionable foe to fight against.

Which brings us to conflict, which will be Part II.

Viewpoint Characters
Background: a character should be a product of the sum of his cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. Werewolves, for example might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for rarer meat or any number of things depending on the rules you establish for your world. How your particular character deals with these urges or with others inside or outside the group or life in general will largely be informed by their personal and familial history.

Because urban fantasy is so hot and snarky, sassy characters are in, I see far too many submissions in which the heroine, say, is all punchy and prickly for no particular reason. What makes your character the way she is?

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader, he or she should also be unique. Even if you’ve chosen something that’s fairly common…let’s use a vampire here…it should not be your standard vampire. While I don’t necessarily want my vampires to sparkle in the sunlight, Stephenie Meyer took the idea of vampires as the ultimate preditors with everything meant to draw prey to them and ran with it. Try to give your hero or heroine a different twist.

Strength, Weaknesses and Quirks: a real character, like a real person, will have all these things. They’ll have fears, loves, dislikes, passions, quirks, etc. No character should be a type. No person is entirely consistent or sweet or evil or any one single thing. Everybody has something about themselves that it would surprise others to know.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral, although this can sometimes make a novel stand out. I’m thinking here of Jaye Wells’ assassin heroine in Red-Headed Stepchild, in which the voice carries you through. Example, an excerpt from the opening:

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

He said nothing, just stood off behind a thicket of trees waiting for me to acknowledge him. Despite his silence, I could feel hot waves of disapproval flying in my direction.


At last, the final scoop of earth fell onto the grave. Stalling, I leaned on the shovel handle and restored order to my hair. Next I brushed flecks of dirt from my cashmere sweater. Not the first choice of digging attire for some, but I always believed manual labor was no excuse for sloppiness. Besides, the sweater was black, so it went well with the haphazard funerary rites.

Choosing a POV Character
I’ve avoided saying “hero” or “heroine” here because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first. Here are some things to consider:

Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world & or is the reader becoming aware along with them? Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that they begin at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader. Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series. Her main character is more or less an everyman. Everywoman anyway. She’s a graduate student. Exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress…until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete the change. In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead. It’s political and practically feudal in its code…learnable in a multi-volume Canon to which she does not subject her readers…only her poor character. However, it’s also intriguing simply to launch your reader into the world, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, right from the first line, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.” Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional. This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented. The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. It’s fascinating, because you’re constantly analyzing what’s said to try to get at the true person behind the narrative. In fact, to me the true brilliance of the book is the psychology behind it.

Is this someone you can torture: I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience. Part of the reason that you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate. I’m completely serious here. If your character is too much like you or too beloved, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict. You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build. I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options. No reflection, now way to fix her hair and make up…her own personal version of hell. Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well. But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….

Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person. In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance. They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day. Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice.

What POV will best suit your character’s voice. There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers. That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived. It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.

The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular, especially in urban fantasy these days. It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives. Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader. A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves. Also, one person can’t ever truly know what another is thinking, so while you can give us cues in dialogue, expression and body language, you don’t get to put us into someone else’s head.

Third person is perhaps the most commonly used. This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break. There are caveats here too. If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following. Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.
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Populating your world
Antagonists: Peter Watts’s Blindsight, which I referenced earlier, proves that there doesn’t necessarily have to be an antagonist, although there does have to be a threat. In his novel, it’s our own complete inability to even conceive of the alien species we encounter and discover how to safely interact. However, most novels need an antagonist, a visible, fightable enemy and someone who’s more than a match for the hero or heroine so that we truly believe the danger and are kept on the edge of our seats over the outcome of all conflicts. The antagonist should not be a cartoon personification of evil, but should have real motivations, whether they be selfish, sociopathic, misguided, vengeful or whathaveyou. Often, the most intriguing characters are those who are at war with themselves and the most interesting novels are those that make the reader really think about their perceptions and preconceived notions. Carol Berg plays around quite a bit with the perceptions of good and evil in her worlds.

Secondary characters: Your secondary characters should have personas and voices all their own, not just live and breathe to ask questions that allow exposition to be delivered in dialogue. But be careful that they don’t run away with the story, which is especially likely when it comes to the comic relief. Secondary characters come in all shapes and sizes from love interests, to friends to family and pint-sized piskies. Whatever shape they come in should not resemble cardboard.

Creatures: Be certain to make your creatures your own, even if you draw on an established mythos. If an elf, a human and a dwarf walk into a bar, chances are you have a D&D adventure and not a truly unique novel on your hands…unless you’ve done something particularly tricky with your world. For example, Rob Thurman’s “elves” are so far from our conception of the Fair Folk that there’s no recognizing them. In fact, Cal Leandros, the hero of her bestselling series, is half auphe or, as he’s labeled himself, “half-human, half-monster, all attitude” and while she has trolls and vampires and one unabashedly Pan-sexual Robin Goodfellow, she’s fleshed them out to the point where they’re truly original.

Something else to think about: you obviously can’t use all creatures from all traditions or gods from each pantheon…what a crowded novel that would be! How do you explain those you bring in without seeming to shun all the others? I can’t answer that for each author, but in my upcoming novel, Bad Blood, I used my knowledge of comparative religion to add in little things here and there letting readers know that my Greek gods have also been other things to other people. For example, Hermes correlates not only to Mercury in the Roman pantheon, but to Iemisch from South America, Loki of Norse mythology, Coyote and Spider from Native American cultures and all the other trickster gods.

I enjoy using myth and legend, but it’s often tricky, because readers will have certain expectations based on the versions of stories that they’ve read. For the old myths, which weren’t written down until long after the ancient world had played its version of telephone with them, there are multiple variations. The good news is that you can choose the one which works best for your purposes. The bad news is that not everyone will like your interpretation.

Now, I’ve harped on unique and original, and you can, of course, create your own creatures out of whole cloth. The trick will then be in building the image without making reference to any known animal living or dead and still making it as vivid for the reader as something they can readily envision.
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Conflict
The balance of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: what makes it personal for your protagonists? What invests the characters invest the reader. Maybe it’s danger to themselves or a loved one or the need to clear someone’s name. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes the hero or heroine, and thus the reader, who’s approaching things from that perspective, care very deeply.

Edmund R. Schubert in Writing Magical Words writes about the importance of having your character want something. He says “the difference between good, publishable fiction, and pretty, wandering words that no one cares about is determined by whether or not the writer can create a sense of expectations in the reader and then meet those expectations. “Wanting” is just the simplest way of setting that sense of expectation in motion. Part of your conflict in a story, at the personal level, is that something is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving what it is that he or she wants.

External: what is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

As you can all see, I’ve gone a bit beyond worldbuilding with this whole workshop, but everything ties together like a tightly woven tapestry to give you a beautiful finished product.

Kalayna Price had me at “hello.”  Seriously, the opening of the Alex Craft series is like a textbook example of how to hook readers right out of the gate.  Check it:

The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him.  As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five a tthe time, so he eventually forgave me.  Some days I wished he hadn’t—particularly when we crossed paths on the job.  — from GRAVE WITCH

Since then she’s continued to impress me with her voice, her characters and, yes, her wicked streak.  I hope you’ll enjoy her guest blog and that you’ll leave a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of one of her books.  The latest, GRAVE MEMORY, will release on Tuesday, July 3rd!

                                                           

Okay, but it’s going to cost you.

In life most of us avoid conflict. We don’t necessarily take the easy path, but we’d rather avoid the old Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The smoother ride is preferred.

In fiction, the opposite is true.

Characters are put through the wringer and given two bad paths to choose from. Why? Not because the writers are evil overloads who wish to torture their unsuspecting characters, but because conflict creates interest and forces character growth. A story in which everything went well for the character and around each turn something even better happened would be like sitting down and tackling an entire triple chocolate cheesecake. The first couple bites might be decadent, but it would get sickening fast. No fun.

So we make it hard for our characters. We give them no good place to turn. We make every action count and each one come at a cost.  This cost may be major or minor and might be physical or emotional, but it has to hold a proportional amount of weight in comparison with what is at stake. It also has to affect to story, not just be thrown in there to create false conflict. If the cost is easily sidestepped or has no bearing on the story, it isn’t good conflict, and the reader probably won’t care.

How do you find this cost? Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen in the situation you are dealing with (or make a list of worse-case scenarios) and then find a compelling reason why the character has no other choice but take that route. Note the words “compelling” and “no other choice.” If the reader is sitting in their seat thinking, “Why didn’t the character just . . . “ the writer hasn’t done their job well and the suspension of belief is broken.

Of course, all these hard choices and agonizing decisions pay off in the end. They force the character grow so that in the final challenge, they can succeed—at least partially.  Depending on your genre, boy might get girl, the killer found, the bad guy foiled, and/or the world saved. For now.

Hey, we all like our cake at the end, right?

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Check out Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft novels (GRAVE WITCH, GRAVE DANCE and GRAVE MEMORY) and Haven series on her website.  Follow her on Twitter.

Tension

Posted: November 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I hope that everyone had a glorious Thanksgiving!  I did something I almost never do…went nearly off the grid.  While I did a lot of work (reading, writing…), I mostly spent the long weekend in realtime with family and friends, so social media fell a bit by the wayside.  In the immortal words of Madeleine Kahn from Blazing Saddles, “I feel refreshed.”

So, I’m back.  I can promise anyone who ever told me to get stuffed that I have taken their advice, and I’m over at Magical Words today with a post chock full of tension and suspense.