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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To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

Scarlett210. Characters are how  readers connect to story

I’ve read books about the history of eras, and while interesting, they are nothing compared to a good biography (I’m currently reading H. W. Brands’ biography of Andrew Jackson). Why? Because we are more fascinated with people than epochs. (I once heard history described as “biography on a timeline.”)

We all love twisty turny plots, chases, love, hate, fights, freefalls––all of that. But unless readers connect to character first, none of that matters.

9. On the other hand, character without plot is a blob of glup

Contrary to what some believe, a novel is not “all about character.” To prove the point, let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara. Do you want 400 pages of Scarlett sitting on her front porch, flirting? Going to parties and throwing hissy fits? I didn’t think so. What is it that makes us keep watching Scarlett? A little thing called the Civil War.

A novel is not a story until a character is forced to show strength of will against the complications of plot. Plot brings out true character, rips off the mask, and that’s what readers really want to see.

“Blob of glup,” by the way, is a term I remember from my mom reading me The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. I always thought it quite descriptive.

8. Lead characters don’t have to be morally good, just good at something

Two of the most popular books in our language are about negative characters. I define a negative character as one who is doing things that the community (theirs, and ours) do not approve of, that harm other people. A Christmas Carol has Scrooge, and Gone With the Wind has Scarlett. Why would a reader want to follow them?

Two reasons: They want to see them redeemed, or they want to see them get their “just desserts.”

The trick to rendering a negative Lead is to show, early, a capacity for change. When Scrooge is taken back to his boyhood, we see in him, for the first time, some compassionate emotion. Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all!

Or show that the negative character has strength, which could be an asset if put to good use. Scarlett has grit and determination (fueled by her selfishness) and just dang well gets things done. We admire that, and hope by the end of the book she’ll turn it to something that actually helps those in her world. She does, but by then it’s too late. Rhett just doesn’t give a damn.

7. Characters need backstory before readers do

Yes, you have to know your character’s biography, at least the high points. One question I like to ask is what happened to the character at sixteen? That’s a pivotal, shaping year (unless your character actually is sixteen, in which case I’d go to age eight).

But you don’t have to reveal all the key information to readers up front. In fact, it’s good to withhold it, especially a secret or a wound. Show the character behaving in a way that hints at something from the past, currents below the surface. Why does Rick in Casablanca stick his neck out for nobody? Why does he play chess alone? Why doesn’t he protect Ugarte? Why doesn’t he love Paris? We see him act in accord with these mysteries, and don’t get answers until well into the film.

6. But readers want to know a little something about the character they’re following

Against the advice that you should have absolutely zero backstory in the first fifty pages, I say do what Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly and most every bestselling novelist does: sprinkle in bits of backstory in the opening pages. But only what is necessary to help readers bond to character.

A rule of thumb I give in my workshops is this: In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all together or spaced out. This will force you to examine closely what you include, saving the rest for later, and letting the story get cracking.

5. Memorable characters create cross-currents of emotion in the reader

We all know about inner conflict. A character is unsure about what he’s about to do, and there’s an argument in his heart and soul, giving him reasons both for and against the action. That’s good stuff, and one way to get there is to identify the fear a character feels in each scene.

But to create even greater cross-currents of emotion in the reader, consider having the character do something the absolute reverse of what the reader expects. Brainstorm ideas for this, and you’ll often find a great one down the list, beyond your predictability meter. Put that action in. Write it. Have other characters react to it.   

Only then find a way to justify the behavior, and work that into your material.

It was E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, who defined “round” (as opposed to “flat”) characters as those who are “capable of surprising us in a convincing way.”

4. Great villains are justified, at least to themselves

The antagonist (or as I like to put it, the Opponent) is someone who is dedicated to stopping the Lead. It does not have to be a villain, or “bad guy.” It just has to be someone on the other side of one definition of plot: two dogs and one bone.

When you do have a bad guy opponent, don’t fall into the trap of painting him with only one color. The pure-evil villain is boring and manipulative, and readers won’t fall for it. You’re also robbing them of a deeper reading experience (for which they’ll thank you by looking for your next book).

One exercise I give in workshops is the opponent’s closing argument. Pretend they have to address a jury and justify their actions. They are not going to argue, “Because I’m just a bad guy. I’m a psycho. I was born this way!” No bad guy thinks he’s bad. He thinks he’s right.

Make that argument. Weave the results into your book.

3. Don’t waste your minor characters

One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is putting stock characters into minor roles: The burly bartender, wiping glasses behind the bar; the boot-wearing, cowboy-hat-sporting, redneck truck driver; the saucy, wise-cracking waitress.

Instead, give each minor character something to set him or her apart from the stereotype. Think of:

• Going against type (a female truck driver, for example)

• An odd tick or quirk

• A distinct speaking style

Use minor characters as allies or irritants. Even those who have only one scene. A doorman, for example. Instead of his opening the door for your Lead, have him give the Lead a hard time. Or have your Lead in a hurry but the cab driver is lethargic and chatty.

A little time spent on spicing up minor characters will add mounds of reading pleasure to your readers.

2. Great characters delight us

When I ask people to name their favorite books or movies, and then ask why, it’s invariably because of one great character. As good as Harrison Ford is in The Fugitive, people always mention Tommy Lee Jones, and even his famous line, “I don’t care!”

The Silence of the Lambs? Two great characters. The absolutely unforgettable Hannibal Lecter, and the insecure but dogged trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter delights us (because we are all a little twisted) with his wit, deviousness, and dietary habits. Clarice delights us because she’s the classic underdog who fights both professional and personal demons.

1. Great characters elevate us

Truly enduring characters end up teaching us something about humanity and, therefore, about ourselves. They elevate us. And that is true even if the character is tragic. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, the tragic character creates catharsis, a purging of the tragic flaw, thus making us better by subtraction.

On the positive side, I think of Harry Bosch and Atticus Finch, both on a seemingly impossible quest for justice. I’m the better for reading about them, and those are the kinds of books I always read more than once.

On the negative side, I think of the aforementioned Scarlett O’Hara. We are pulling for her to do the right thing, to get with it, to join the community of the good. Then she goes off an marries some other guy she doesn’t love and uses him mercilessly. When she finally suffers the consequences of her actions we, too, are duly warned.

So, TKZers, when you think of an unforgettable character, who comes to mind? What is it about this character that moves you? Elevates you? Makes you want more of the same?

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