One of the things I learned in the earliest days of my writer’s journey was that CONFLICT IS KING. Without conflict, there is no story. My fellow Outside-the-liners have outdone themselves this month with helpful posts on the topic. Be sure to make the rounds and check them out! I learn something new every time I read anything from these entertaining, brilliant, and informative authors.
Patty Blount did an especially good job outlining the types of conflict that make for a compelling story, and Dean Gloster wrote an amazing post on Scene Goals and Disasters, Scene and Sequel, and Conflict/Character-driven stories, to name just two! I'm in awe of the talented folks here who make writing conflict look easy.
But as a writer myself, and someone who naturally shies away from conflict, I’m often challenged to make life hard for my characters. How much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?
I have no problem starting with a defined goal, motivation, and conflict—the meat and potatoes of every good story—but to keep moving the plot forward, there need to be escalations…an upping of the stakes, so to speak. Which usually means we need to put roadblocks and catastrophes in the way of our fictional “children”.
This is where it gets complicated for me. How do I up the stakes, create new conflicts, and keep my character growing without jumping the shark and heaping too much onto them? Conversely, how do I stay focused on the main conflict without beating it to death by story’s end and have the plot ultimately be boring, predictable, and anti-climactic?
Those of you who know me know I’m a huge Outlander fan. Diana Gabaldon is a master of creating conflict and torturing her poor characters. In chapter after chapter, she manages to find a new way to expose the strengths and weaknesses of poor Jamie and Claire and thrust them into chaos at every turn. I often think, “What else could possible befall these people?” And then I turn the page and keep reading, lol. Partly because the writing is so good! But it’s also because I want to see what happens next and what the characters will do. How will they escape this disaster? Will they survive? Will they find their way back to each other? Will Claire open her big mouth and get herself in trouble again? Will Jamie let his temper get the better of him and do something he'll regret? The unanswered questions are the ones that keep me reading breathlessly to find the answers.
I don’t know how Ms. Gabaldon does it, but my answer to how much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?
As much as is needed to create characters worth rooting for and who become worthy of their hopefully ever after. Their trials and tribulations need to make sense for the story, but from beginning to end, characters must prove themselves again and again. They need to face challenges and fail. When they are beaten down to that point of “all is lost”, they must pick themselves up one more time. It sounds harsh and I don’t enjoy dragging my “babies” through the mud, but I consider it tough love and necessary for their personal growth.
The protagonist’s reactions to the roadblocks placed in their way will ultimately show you who they are and what they are made of. Their actions must be authentic, true to their nature, and in step with their underlying goal and motivation (what do they want and why do they want it above all else), and in service to overcoming the main conflict (what’s standing in their way). The choices they make in reaction to whatever obstacle is before them will dictate where the story goes next as they deal with the fallout of those actions, good or bad. That’s a lot of moving parts to keep track of but trusting the characters to lead me on their journey has worked for me so far.
And whenever I’m tempted to let my characters off easy, I remember the lessons of Outlander…no amount of conflict is too much conflict if it’s necessary for character growth, is well-written, and it keeps readers asking, “what happens next” as they turn the pages. That means, as writers, we need to be willing to torture and challenge our characters right up until that moment when they face their nemesis and win the day. The more they have endured to achieve victory, the bigger the pay-off and sense of satisfaction readers will enjoy.
In real life, I like to keep conflict on the page. I'm at the point where drama-free doesn't have to mean boring, and adventures don't have to lead to catastrophe to make for a great story. I've already earned my HEA...
Peace and blessings,