Holiday Food for Thought on Character Conflicts

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock for Jordan Dane’s use

This is my last post for 2018, but I got my inspiration from Jim’s post “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing” on Nov 25th. As always, the discussion comments were very interesting. Two comments stood out in my mind and I wanted to explore them. I thought they could combine into this post on character and conflict.

Marilynn Byerly said: “…Conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.”

Marilynn is so right. Great summary. There can be the external conflict of a global disaster or a killer on the loose, but if you add complications within the main character (a flaw or handicap that forces them out of their comfort zone to deal with the external conflict after facing their own demons), that’s good stuff.

AZAli said: “When I was starting out, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a scene about characters enjoying themselves.”

I could relate to AZAli’s comment here when I first started out. I didn’t want to waste a scene on the seemingly real life of the character, but in moderation, this can be insightful, especially if the internal demons of the character are at odds with what the plot will bring. In Michael Connelly books, The ups and downs of Bosch’s personal life are an intricate thread woven into the fabric of his stories, so tightly written and paced, that Bosch becomes real in the reader’s mind. It’s like you KNOW him over the series of books you’re reading. His failed relationships, the love he has for his daughter and complicated ex-wife, and his troubles on the job that arise because of his very uncompromising nature.

Be judicious, not to overdo diversions, but I would suggest that if you want to add depth to your character, give him or her a backstory that is integral to his/her internal conflicts and force your character to deal with those too, along with the plot. No scene is wasted if the reader is enthralled. It’s a balance, but one worth pursuing. (I love getting emails or social media comments from readers who ask about the personal life of my characters. They share their hopes for what might come next or ask about the service dog I have my Vigilante Justice series, Karl. You never know what will resonate with readers.)

I thought of a writing resource book by Deb Dixon called “Goals, Motivation & Conflict.” This little book (affectionately called the GMC book) has a lot of fans. It helped me add complications to my characters when I first started writing. It’s a good resource for new writers. I also attended one of Deb Dixon’s workshops and got a lot out of it. (Workshops are wonderful to learn new things and to network. I would encourage any author to attend a workshop, no matter what skill level you are. There’s bound to be something that will stick with you.)

I’m resorting to my memory on the matrix concept of the GMC book and the general idea that has stuck with me after reading it. My resources books are buried in my BOX ROOM after my last move. The idea of t he GMC book is to give your characters INTERNAL CONFLICTS and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS and maybe dare to have them conflict with each other.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Summary: With a little forethought and patience, you can craft a better book if you plan your characters’ conflicts and create a tough journey of discovery for them. And remember that one book could turn into a series if you create a large enough world with characters that can be sustained through a series. I even like to plant seeds of mystery for future books within the pages of a standalone. You never know what good fortune might happen.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you the best and have a great 2019, TKZers!

DISCUSSION:

For Writers: Tell us about the internal and external conflicts of the main character(s) in your current WIP, TKZers. How have you made your characters at odds with each other?

For Readers: Share novels that had a good balance of the internal and external conflicts of the main character. What did you like most about the journey of the book?

 

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A Criminal Obsession: Are You Guilty, Too?

I’m not sure what I was looking at the other day, but for some reason I suddenly realized (“suddenly realized” is a phrase I would warn you away from in your fiction) that my mind and life are consumed with the subject of crime.

I would make a lame criminal. While I’ve had my brushes with Johnny and Jane Law, I’ve only ever almost been arrested (juvenile offenses, and minor ones at that—let’s leave those to your imagination for now). I’m a terrible liar, meaning that I have a very hard time lying without immediately giving myself away. No poker face for me. I blush and stammer and can’t help but laugh nervously. I can feel my heart speed up and my blood pressure rise with the red in my face. Suffice it to say I would never bother to try to fool a polygraph. I’d like to say I can’t lie because of my ironclad moral code, but I suspect it’s more a lack of self-confidence.

Crime fascinates me. I know several people who have been victims of violent crimes, or have had loved ones injured or murdered. Crime is real, and I’m not a groupie of real crimes and criminals. But the stories that catch my attention first when I’m online or reading a newspaper are always crime stories: silly, sordid, violent, white-collar, rural, urban—they’re all fascinating. And I’ve never found the variety and true weirdness in fiction that I can find in the newspaper or online. (With the exception of Harry Crews, of course. Harry used to give me the vapors.)

I’m not sure when I stopped reading books that didn’t involve crime. Or watching non-crime television. Sure, I’ve read a few biographies or literary novels over the past decade, but they’ve been outnumbered by crime, suspense, and historical fiction by a factor of ten. That feels like a strange admission to come from a person who loves the classics and used to review books of all sorts for a living. (Well, even back then, it wasn’t exactly a living.)

Not long before I stopped reviewing professionally, I was a Best Novel judge for a major mystery fiction award. Talk about a baptism by crime fiction fire. I was given hundreds of mystery novels, and read a huge number of them. It felt like a whole new world to me. There were tropes and rules, and so many plots. Did I say I read them? In truth, I devoured them. In younger days, I’d read an Agatha Christie here and there, teethed on Poe, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson. And lord knows I watched Columbo, MacMillan and Wife, the Rockford Files, and David Suchet’s Poirot until my eyeballs dried out. But I never knew there was such variety in the form. So many crime/mystery niches. So much comfort and exercise for my brain in one genre.

Comfort and exercise. Now, there’s an odd combination.

I like to tell my workshops that all good works of fiction are essentially mysteries. The mystery is the unfolding of the story. Only the author is absolutely certain what will happen before the last page is turned (or in the case of a thriller, the why is more evident, and the how is the mystery). The reader is constantly imagining what might happen next, making up her own possible scenarios that might finish the story. A good book poses at least one question at its opening, and answers it by the end. The challenge for the reader is to try to get inside the writer’s head and know where she is going at least a heartbeat before the story takes her there. Why, why, why, why, why? The reader constantly asks. Every sentence has to have some kind of answer.

If you read enough mysteries or other crime novels, or if you watch mysteries on television, you will definitely be able to predict with some accuracy what the outcomes will be. That’s where the strange comfort comes in. There’s comfort in knowing a crime or mystery has been solved, or comfort in knowing it hasn’t, but that the truth rests with one of the characters we’ve met. Or that someone is punished. You can’t always get that kind of satisfaction in real life. Closure in real life can be protracted and painful, or non-existent.

Not long ago I gave an emerging writer a critique on a family drama novel. The writing was fine, and there was some decent tension in the story. But I found myself wanting to suggest heightened drama and perhaps the introduction of…a crime. Neither the writer nor her intended readers would have much liked that.

I fear I am ruined for everything but crime stories. I want high stakes. I want to live in the head of someone who looks at the world through a lens of twisted intensity. I want things to happen, frequently and with vigor and unintended consequences.

My husband has been teaching creative writing in various universities for three decades. If I were to crystalize his advice to his students, it would be: Don’t bore me.

That’s the thing about crime fiction. It’s rarely boring. If I want quiet intensity, I can read Louise Penny. Rhys Bowen and M.C. Beaton are available for deadly shenanigans. Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs are immersive. John Hart and John Connolly give us unforgettable characters. Reed Farrell Coleman and Cormac McCarthy are full of grit. Lindsay Faye and Susan Elia MacNeal offer historical secrets. I could go on all day.

Crime-centric television is my playground. In the past two years I’ve watched the entire Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis series. Also True Detective, The Fall, Vera, Worricker, Bosch, Blue Murder, Grantchester, Whitechapel, Touching Murder, Broadchurch, and a truly embarrassing amount of Nordic noir (not an exhaustive list).

We also watched The Detectorists (charming, not a crime series) and Galavant (musically charming), though I could barely sit through the Galavant songs. Almost no one dies!

I tell myself that all the combination death and destruction and darkness is a big part of my job. That living it and breathing it is okay as long as there are brief excursions into other realms. Realms I used to visit much more frequently. (On Thanksgiving we went to see Arrival, the new alien film. Meh.)

endo-silence

This coming year, I’m going to make a sincere effort to read more widely and watch with a mind open to non-crime possibilities. I thought I’d start with Silence by Shūsakū Endō. Martin Scorcese has directed a film adaptation of the novel, which is about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan to find their missing mentor. Christianity has been outlawed, and its adherents are persecuted and tortured. It sounds plenty intense, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But it at least can’t be categorized as crime fiction. Right?

What genres make up most of your reading and viewing? Are you single-minded, reading mostly in your chosen writing genres, or do you read and watch widely?

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart. It’s full of crime and suspense.

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