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I’m in the process of outlining the sequel to my debut YA novel, Ivory and Bone, so I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict and the purpose it fills in a story.
“Joe went to the store and bought a dozen eggs,” is not much of a story, mainly because it doesn’t contain any conflict.
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. He picked up a second carton, but slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. He picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, Joe was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts.
That second example is a story (albeit a boring story,) because it has conflict. But it is boooooring. And at least part of the reason this story is boring is because the conflict doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t tell us anything about Joe, his character, or the choices he makes. It doesn’t make us care. It doesn’t resonate.
I’ve been thinking about these concepts as I consider the conflicts my own characters encounter. There are so many ways to put an obstacle in your character’s path, but they won’t all serve the story equally well.
Let’s go back to Joe. All of the obstacles he encountered to buying the eggs were impersonal and did little to develop or reveal Joe as a character or make us care about him (except, maybe, for his final decision to buy doughnuts instead of eggs!) They also held no hint of something interesting about Joe and his quest for eggs that was yet to be discovered.
But what if we revisit those obstacles and tweak them just a bit?
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. Looking up, Joe spotted a man running away down the frozen foods aisle. The man gave one quick glance over his shoulder, and Joe thought he looked like his grandfather, but that was impossible. His grandfather had died just last month of coronary heart disease complicated by uncontrolled high cholesterol, and Joe did not believe in ghosts.
Joe picked up a second carton, but he slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. As he lay sprawled on the floor, Joe noticed that a sign emblazoned “Caution-Wet Floor” had been folded and set to the side, where it wouldn’t be noticed. Had someone intentionally sabotaged the dairy aisle?
Joe picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. A strange chill ran over Joe’s skin, as he wondered if someone—or something—was determined to thwart his quest for eggs.
Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, he was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts, hoping he had put the trauma of the dairy aisle behind him.
Joe’s story is finally becoming a bit more interesting, because the conflict is beginning to take on some meaning. We know that Joe recently lost his grandfather. We know that eating eggs may have contributed to the cause of his grandfather’s death. We know that Joe’s obstacles may have been more than coincidences, since there are signs that the cart and the ice cream puddle may have been deliberately intended to thwart his progress.
To us as readers, Joe’s struggles become more interesting when we see the personal meaning behind them. The conflict now reveals a bit about his character. It raises questions in our minds about the source of the conflict and what may come next. We care more about Joe—we may even relate to him and root for him.
Consider the first book of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. The inciting incident occurs when the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is sent to the Games. It would have been enough if Katniss’s name had been pulled from the bowl at the reaping, triggering the main conflict of the story. But instead, the name of Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is pulled from the bowl, and Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place.
This is a fantastic example of conflict that resonates. If Katniss’s own name had been called, the story would have gone in the same direction. But because she volunteers, the conflict now tells us about her character, it makes the struggle she faces more personal, and gives us cause to relate to her and root for her. It’s a small choice that makes a huge difference.
What are your thoughts on conflict that resonates? Can you think of other examples from books or movies? Do you strive for meaningful conflict in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Just over a year ago, in March 2014, UNU-WIDER published a Report called: ‘What do we know about aid as we approach 2015?’ It notes the many successes of aid in a variety of sectors, and that in order to remain relevant and effective beyond 2015 it must learn to deal with, amongst other things, the new geography of poverty; the challenge of fragile states; and the provision of global public goods, including environmental protection.
If you’ve ever visited the DEPARTURES area of the airport, you probably know that it is not exactly an oasis of tranquility. There are cars trying to park; cars trying to double park, cars trying to squeeze out of where they’ve double-parked, orange cones, orange vests, whistles, and general chaos.
I was being dropped off at Burbank Bob Hope Airport by my mom and dad, 74 and 80 respectively, and wanted to debark as efficiently as possible so they could be on their way. Adjusting my new felt hat, I strapped my laptop bag across my chest, hauled out my suitcase, and hugged my parents a quick goodbye.
Approaching the Southwest counter, I reached for my purse.
And felt air.
My stomach dropped to my knees. I had made a big mistake. I left my purse in my parents’ car.
Stacey’s troublesome vessel of all things crucial, circa 2004, Anthropologie.
Frantically, I searched my laptop bag, hoping I had jammed it in without realizing. But, no. My purse was in the carpool lane of the Five freeway, headed down to the OC. How the heck was I getting on a plane without my ID?
I couldn’t make a phone call, as I didn’t have a cell phone. I couldn’t even use a pay phone, as I had no money. (And btw, the sudden absence of money tends to amplify one’s hunger pains).
I could ask someone to loan me change, but would they think I was a panhandler? And my hat, which I thought was stylish, suddenly cast a shadow of suspicion upon me. Suspicious people always wear hats.
I might have started to hyperventilate. My flight was leaving in an hour.
A petite Japanese security guard asked if everything was alright.
“I left my purse in my parents’ car!” I blubbered.
She tsked her tongue, but then fished out a dollar’s worth in coins so I could use a payphone. After profusely thanking her, I dropped two quarters into the first phone. A metallic crunching and gargling followed, which I believe was the sound of the phone eating my change.
Trying not to panic, I moved onto the next phone. This time, the call went through.
But no one picked up. Remember how I mentioned the age of my parents? Well, with old age comes certain …realities, such as, hearing loss. Mom’s voicemail answered, but that didn’t help me because even if she heard the ding of voicemail, she doesn’t know how to check it (another age-related reality). I tried calling my husband collect, like, a billion times. But it turns out, since his company pays for his cell phone, its collect call feature is disabled.
I explained my situation to Southwest. I must have looked honest, as they issued me the ticket, with the caution that security still might refuse me. Shame-faced, I stepped to the security counter and tried to explain why I wasn’t carrying my ID.
He frowned, and I grew smaller. “Where do you work?”
“At home. I mean, I’m self-employed.”
Another frown, another inch shorter. “Occupation?”
Another frown, this one with an upward flick of his pupils that says, isn’t everyone?
If only I had one of my books on me. I could show him my author picture.
Then it occurred to me, I could show him my author website.
After perusing the site, then conducting a thorough search of myself and my luggage, security finally did let me through.
Stephanie: When Stacey first told me this story, I felt horrible. But since I’m a teacher, I also thought this would make an awesome writing lesson.
The thing I loved about this story (from a writing perspective, because obviously I felt terrible that my friend went through so much stress) was that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. As Stacey said, everyone knows you can’t get on a plane without an ID. And this situation was so much worse because on top of not having her ID:
The hat of suspicion and lawlessness.
Stacey did not have her phone.
The only people who could help her (Stacey’s parents) were impaired, and therefore unable to come to her rescue.
She was hungry.
Her husband wasn’t answering the phone.
On top of not having an ID, she was also wearing a hat, which made her highly suspicious to airport personnel.
And the clock was rapidly ticking. Stacey only had one hour.
Now, imagine you’re writing a character and you’ve put them in this same situation. It could be really tempting to have another character (maybe the husband) make a miraculous appearance and save the day. Perhaps this husband calls in a favor with the head of security. And not only does your character get onto the plane, but they are upgraded to first class and handed a glass of champagne.
Unfortunately that did not happen to Stacey. But I believe what happened was even better. Stacey used her smarts to save herself, by directing the security to her author website, where her photo was able to confirm her identity.
Now if Stacey were a character, not only would readers think, wow this woman is smart! They would also know a little more about her character, because not only did this action save the day, it revealed more about her background, mainly, her profession.
People are always saying, put your characters in the worst situations possible, but then, too often, characters don’t use their intelligence to get out of those miserable scenarios. Because of this, writers often miss great opportunities to deepen their characters, and make their stories richer.
Think about whatever story you’re working on. Are there any scenes where you can pile on more conflicts? Are there scenes where you can show off your character’s strengths, instead of having someone else save the day?
Also, if any of you have stories similar to Stacey’s, we’d love to hear them:
For the next month, my writing goals for my work-in-progress novel trilogy are clear: conflict, emotion, surprise, enrich.
The trilogy is tentatively called, The Blue Planets, and is an early-teen or YA science fiction. Book 1, The Blue Marble, has a complete draft; for Books 2 and 3, I have complete outlines. I’m happy with all of it, but I know it needs to go much farther before anyone sees it. For the next month, I’ll work simultaneously on revising Book 1 and the outlines, trying to weave them into a more coherent whole.
4 Revision Goals
Conflict. The first goal in revising The Blue Planets is to up the conflict.
No conflict = no story, no readers.
Small conflict = small readership.
Big conflict = bigger readership.
Huge, gut-wrenching, moral-decison-making conflict = huge, engaged readership.
I’ll be looking at conflict globally and in each scene. Man v. nature is built into the story in powerful ways already. But I need to look at man v. man, both overall and in each scene. How can I put people at odds in more ways and in more interesting ways?
Emotion. Always my weakest point, I’ll go scene by scene and ask questions:
What emotional things happened just before this scene? What’s the attitude of each character coming in?
What is the worst thing–emotionally–that could happen to the main character? That’s what I must confront him with.
What is the emotional arc of the scene?
What else can I do to deepen the emotional impact?
Surprise. Readers read for entertainment. If they can predict exactly what happens in a story, they’re bored. I’ll go through–especially the outlines–and ask, “What does the reader expect here?” I’ll look for ways to twist that expectation to fulfill it, but with a twist.
Enrich. I’m excited about enriching the stories, because this part gets past the basic plotting and into fun stuff. Where can I add humor? Here are previous posts on 3 humor techniques and then 5 more. I’m hoping for a running gag, at least. I’ll be working to tie the three books together through scene, character, bits of dialogue, running gags, perhaps a bit of clothing, or a mug of triple-shot venti mocha–something. Enrichment might be adding bits of scientific information artfully, without doing an information dump. Making the characters quirkier and more fun to be around. Loosening up on dialogue.
By the middle to end of July, I expect the BLUES to be in shape to send out. I’m excited.
What are your goals for summer writing?
In Seville, Spain a vibrant and active 85-year-old duchess, who owns way more stuff than any human needs to, defied her six children and married a 60-year-old man. She had to sign over part of her vast estate to her little darlings to shut them up.
Most of us don’t have to worry about estates, entitlements, and trust funds, but I've seen this a lot with elderly parents and their kids (and second marriages). No matter the financial status, children will fight over ugly knick-knacks, and dad’s scruffy robe, and dog-chewed slippers. I’ve heard stories of children who have stolen things out of their sibling's car after a funeral because they wanted some inexpensive tchotchke that had sentimental value.
The death of a spouse or a divorce and remarriage raises questions of who gets the family jewels. This is juicy conflict for a writer. The thematic question has no easy, or clear-cut, answers. It will invoke emotionally charged responses in your readers.
Who gets to decide what is left to whom? Legally the answers are pretty clear: whatever Dick has legal ownership of can be disposed of in any way he likes in his will as long as what he owns isn’t tied up in a trust or must legally to go his spouse. Emotionally, it is a potential field of land mines. If there is no will, it can become a cat fight.
Do his children have a valid claim on Dick’s stuff? Is he obligated to leave them his stuff? Should he leave it to his second, third, or fourth wife? Why should Dick leave his entire album collection to a floozy with a tin ear instead of his darling children who grew up listening to, and loving, those albums? What if they already have all the songs loaded on their IPODs and will probably sell the albums at a flea market?
If there are multiple sets of children, should they all share equally or should Dick leave everything to his favorite charity to avoid conflict?
What if Duchess Jane does not like her children, or a specific child, does that change the level of obligation?
If Sally runs up outrageous debt before she dies, are the children responsible for paying it back? Legally, usually, no. Whatever Sally owed is deducted from what she owned. The rest of her creditors are out of luck. But that might not keep an unscrupulous fellow from coming after her children for it. Her children will be upset if they expected something (particularly a windfall) and find they are to receive nothing.
Kids tend to have an outrageous sense of entitlement to their parents stuff, especially when it is lots of money and half of a small country. If Dick’s children hand him a list of everything they think they should have on the night before his wedding to his new love, there is going to be perpetual conflict.
What if Sally asks her children to go around the house and put Post-Its on all the stuff they want when she dies? There will be intense emotional conflict. They may not want to think of their mother dying. They may not want to admit that they’ve always coveted the ceramic dog that reminds them of evenings spent watching Lassie. Fights are likely to ensue.
Should Jane’s children feel entitled to her stuff? Whatever the parents have worked to amass is surely theirs to do with as they please. We tell our children, "What we have worked for is ours. What you work for is yours." Do those rules change when the parents own half of the Hamptons?
What if Dick dies with no children? Who gets his stuff then? Who should he leave it to? Should it go to nieces and nephews? Siblings he didn’t like and has not spoken to in fifty years? If he does not write a will, it might.
Who has to take care of all the details when Dick dies? His ultra-responsible son or his flighty daughter? The grandchild he never spent time with or the sixth in a long string of wives? There will be conflict either way.
You can reveal a lot about your characters in terms of how they view and respond to this type of situation.
You can show change if Dick refuses to consider such a thing as what he might want when his father passes away. Then, when the event occurs, he finds he does care what happens with his father's tobacco pipe or vintage Rolls Royce. The opposite could be true. He always thought it mattered whether he got the car that took up space in a garage but no longer ran then when his father dies, he couldn't care less about it.
These thematic questions stir up controversy. There are equal arguments for each side. They cause massive conflict at any story level. They have been argued in every genre imaginable and are often the motive in a mystery.
For more on how to motivate your characters based on personality type, check out:
Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.
Screaming at the Ump will appeal to both boys and girls who are interested in sports (especially baseball), and journalism, coping with the transition to middle school, or dealing with family conflicts.
Money makes the world go around in the most delightful and not so delightful, ways.
Somewhere long ago and far away someone traded something of limited value (shell, bead, stone) for something of essential value (food, clothing, shelter). From that seed grew tribal chieftans, pharaohs, kings, queens, aristocracy, industry barons, and Wall Street tycoons.
If I had a time machine, I would go back and bump their heads together. What were they thinking?
Once humans formed communities large enough to support a parasitic structure, i.e. those who did not have to work or contribute to survive, there have always been those on the top of the pyramid living off of, and profiting from, those on the bottom. Why did humans ever agree to this system?
If you write Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Historical fiction, you could explore the thematic question: How does one gain control over the many? Why do people willingly offer up things they have worked for, things that have essential value, to people who offer nothing of essential value in return? Some might say protection was given in return. Since the people form the armies that protect themselves, the argument is questionable at best.
Gold, diamonds, and paper currency only have value because we assign them value. Someone, somewhere along the line, convinced us that this was a good idea. All kinds of nonsense followed. Why is gold of higher value than bone? Humans tend to value things that are rare, but when the first chunk of gold was found, people didn’t know it was rare, only that it was new. We believe we have found all of the gold, but have we?
Particularly when writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, it is important to decide what your characters value. How do they buy and sell things or trade things. Do they use money as we know it? What are their fiscal rules? What do they value in terms of thrift or extravagance? What happens if their rules are broken? What are the consequences or the cost? Do they have a Wall Street? Do they allow the people at the top to profit from those at the bottom? What is the cost to their society for doing so?
It is even more important in a Historical tale that you get the details right for the time and place. When was the currency put into circulation? What kind was it? If you write about a remote tribe in Borneo, how do they go about bartering? What do they barter? What kind of bartering infractions are there and what is the punishment?
Money is a perceived need. Dick might feel comfortable with a small savings account, or he may not feel comfortable without a very large one. He might cheat, steal, or kill to get what he considers enough. Sometimes there is never enough. Jane might be happy with a little. Put Dick and Jane in a relationship and you have massive conflict.
Some without money resent those who have it. Some with money look down on those who don’t. Some characters work for their money, some inherit it, some win it. Disparities in income cause conflict in schools, social groups, charitable organizations, neighborhoods, families, marriages, between countries, and between friends.
Who should have it? Why should they have it? Should Dick, who spends his days throwing a football, earn more than doctor Jane who spends her days saving lives? Should a pole-dancing Sally earn more than the guy that picks up the trash?
Money trouble is one of the top killers of marriages. It can create an imbalance of power between the one who earns the most or all of the money and the one who isn’t given equal control over it.
When money loans are made, the stakes are raised. You have intense conflict whether you are writing about mob money or the cash dad gave son to help him start a business. The game begins when it can’t be paid back.
For more on how to create believable conflict, check out:
Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.
There are several different methods characters rely on to make decisions when it is crunch time.
The way a character processes decisions can resolve an obstacle or create one. Let's look at ways temperament affects decision-making.
1) The Ponderer
If Dick prefers to think long and hard, he will examine the information in a detached way. He will choose the direction that makes the most sense logically, even if he encounters resistance. He will make a rational decision and follow the rules, regardless of the cost to others. He will reach a decision by evaluating all of the facts and by understanding how the pieces form the whole. This is his comfort zone. He wants facts to back up his decision.
His method creates a new set of conflicts if he is relying on information that is outdated or isn’t accurate or if he does not have time to think it through. It creates conflict when Dick is forced to do something that isn’t logical or goes against the rules.
2) The Feeler
Jane prefers an emotional approach. She will try to put herself in the other person’s shoes, testing the information to see if it “feels” right. She will make decisions that maintain harmony. She will look for consensus from others. She wants people to back up her decisions. She will consider the needs of the people involved regardless of whether it is logical or follows the rules.
Her method causes problems when she relies on people who aren’t accurate or people who don't deserve the consideration. It can cause problems when the decision violates rules. If you want to really torture your characters, force Dick and Jane to work in tandem
3) The Ditherer
Fuzzy Sally is incapable of making a decision. She worries about making the right one, so she hems and haws and avoids making one. She tries to force someone else to make the decision to avoid blame. She can make Dick or Jane crazy if they need her to decide something quickly. A more aggressive character might make the decision for her and create a bigger conflict. Sally might simply be a procrastinator. She might argue that if you procrastinate long enough, action becomes unnecessary. This tactic might work, or her delay can cause a small problem to grow large.
4) The Pacifer
Dick might prefer to make a decision that is “good enough” just to get it over with. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the best option is. He flips a coin and is willing to accept the outcome. All characters have to make judgment calls from time to time. Sometimes they don’t have time for in-depth analysis and are forced into swift judgment calls which can create further conflict.
5) The Obstructionist
If Jane is passive-aggressive, she will use the decision to not make a decision as a weapon. She holds the other person hostage until the decision is taken out of her hands. This can force the opposite party to make a rash decision that they end up regretting, which is exactly what the passive aggressive Jane wanted all along. Then if things go wrong, Jane can say, “Well, it wasn’t my decision.” If things go right, Jane usually changes her tune and says, “Well I would have done that if…” 6) The Despot Some characters are born to lead, or push, shove, and bully everyone else. Sally has no doubt that she is right and everyone else is wrong. She will not tolerate being questioned. Her beliefs are often based on vague assumptions with no backup or foundation whatsoever. It won't matter. She will take charge and steamroll the passive-aggressive, the ditherer, and the pacifier. She will fight to the death with the obstructionist and the ponderer.
Pair opposites in decision making and you have conflict. Put them in the cauldron of a marriage, a friendship, a workplace, or a family, and their opposing ways of making decisions make solving the overall story problem harder. Each will strongly defend their rationale for making or not making a decision.
Characters forced to make painful or life altering decisions can serve as an overall story problem or complicate it as part of their personal dilemma.
Small, difficult decisions can drive the story at scene level. If a decision appears easy, it can have unforeseen consequences. If a decision appears difficult, the repercussions might not be as bad as the character feared.
If you cut the green wire, does the bomb go off? If he chooses the wrong bachelorette, he can be in for a nasty surprise. If he pushes the button will the train kill one person or five?
Employing difficult decisions as conflict increases the emotional stakes in the story.
For more on how to motivate your characters based on personality type, check out:
Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and e-book.
World War Two was the most devastating conflict in recorded human history. It was both global in extent and total in character. It has understandably left a long and dark shadow across the decades. Yet it is three generations since hostilities formally ended in 1945 and the conflict is now a lived memory for only a few. And this growing distance in time has allowed historians to think differently about how to describe it, how to explain its course, and what subjects to focus on when considering the wartime experience.
Creative character descriptions are hard to master.
There are long debates about how much character description is enough and how much is too much. Some readers want to know hair and eye color, height and weight, etc. Some want to fill in their own details. Not enough detail and you have talking heads. Too much detail and you turn some readers off. The choice is yours. Write what you enjoy reading.
Either way, you have to define your character in a way that makes the reader care what happens to him. An important consideration when describing characters is the viewpoint lens filtering the information. Self-description is tricky and often results in narrator intrusion. 1. Dick can compare and contrast himself to someone else.
He was five-six maybe five seven, coming up to my shoulder. His hair was buzzed like mine, which used to indicate military but had become a recent fad. He could be bulked up from training like me or a gym membership. It was hard to tell these days.
2. Someone can insult or praise Dick's appearance.
“Your nose looks like you head-butted a rhino, your big brown eyes are bloodshot, and that dimple doesn’t make up for the weakness of your chin.”
3. The three-item list is a little on-the-nose, but employed often.
Dick was a thirty-five-year-old with a pot belly and no hair.
If this is in Dick's POV, it is narrator intrusion. Dick would not talk about himself that way. But a secondary POV character could describe him: Dick turned out to be a thirty-five year-old with a pot belly and no hair. His wide blue eyes and plump lips completed the resemblence to a man-sized toddler.
4. A unique voice makes descriptions pop.
He had the kind of face that would render him boyish well into old age: round blue eyes, fair wavy hair, freckled nose, and baby smooth skin, the kind of face that would age quickly overnight, as if a witch's spell had broken. The transition would be quick and painful.
5. Mirror gazing is considered cliché, but character self-description is done.
Rather than a list, add a little attitude.
Christ, I was getting old. My hair had more gray than brown and was receding faster than the ocean at low tide. The bags and sags on my face made it harder to shave. My eyebrows had taken on a life of their own. The guy in the mirror wasn't me. It was some old fart sitting in a park feeding pigeons.
6. Avoid narrator intrusion.
The following descriptions are narrator intrusion in anything other than omniscient POV.
1. Dick's blue eyes lit up when he saw Sally.
Sally could see his blue eyes light up. An omniscient narrator could say it. A first or third person narrator would not.
2. Dick stared at his handsome reflection in the dresser mirror. His eyes were blue. His nose was crooked. His chin was dimpled. This is you, the author, telling us what Dick looked like.
7. Sense of character trumps details.
You need to give your reader a firm idea of who they are dealing with more so than the color of his eyes, especially when you choose the vague description technique.
Is Dick harsh and judgmental, sweet and lazy, or coarse and fun-loving? The reader fills in whether she thinks that person is corpulent or thin, attractive or not, based on the way the character presents himself.
It creates dissonance when a character's physical description counters what the reader feels about him. This can be done accidentally or on purpose. 8. Make your characters authentic from the ground up.
As outlined in Story Building Blocks II and Story Building Blocks Build A Cast Workbook, it is useful to assign each main character a personality type. The traits propel them and affect the way other people see them. Temperament types are universal, but you can warp and shape them in hundreds of ways. This may sound like too much work, but it is well worth it to do the research. Personality types react to each other in different ways and your readers will not be the same temperament type.
We talk a lot about the importance of writing characters that readers like or can relate to—and by “we” I mean anyone who feels strongly about books, regardless of profession. It’s nice to know when the good guy is good and when the bad guy is bad. That’s what you expect from a story. You want a hero, right?
Nope. Not this reader.
I love unlikable characters. It’s fair to say that if there’s a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel in the lead, I am 100 percent on board. But it seems incongruous, doesn’t it, that a character who is wholly unappealing—repulsive, even—should be something readers might seek out. And one step further, it seems counterintuitive to recommend that you write characters that readers will rightfully dislike. And here, I think, is where unlikable and uninteresting are confused.
Be they bad apples or good eggs, a character needs to exhibit enough agency to earn a reader’s attention—regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative. And herein lies the key: You can make your protagonist as low-down and dirty or as mindful and generous as you please, but she has to be the engineer of her own conflict to earn readers’ interest. A character—good or bad—must be an active participant in her own story. And if you want a character with a built-in conflict machine, you should go low-down and dirty.
Some characters are difficult to connect to simply because they do little to engage a reader. A character who lets the world act upon her and doesn’t influence a change in her situation could be unlikable or lovable, but either way she’s uninteresting. She’s too passive to warrant concern. You can’t care about this character, and as a result you can’t care about her story. You’ll lay the book aside and tell your reader-friends that the character is unlikable. But a more accurate sentiment might be that the character isn’t interesting or compelling—all things that even a good-girl character needs to be if she wants readers to care about her enough to finish the story.
But the opposite—a character who sets himself up for conflict and consequences through the dastardliness of his doing—is surely unlikable, yes, but also magnetic. You want to watch him ruin his life. He repulses you in the same way a car accident is simultaneously disturbing and hard to look away from. This character is a train wreck, and it is glorious to behold. Every time he does something unwholesome, immoral, felonious or just, like, super-rude, he creates a conflict. The anticipation and delivery of that consequence is deeply satisfying for a reader, and by their very nature, not-nice characters create these conflicts almost constantly. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last.”
Think about this: You have an idea for a novel. You’ve been working on it for quite a while now, but something isn’t clicking. Your protagonist is a woman who’s down on her luck. She is now in a bind and needs some help. She’s lost everything: her boyfriend, her house, her job. Even her cat disappeared. Man, what a mess.
In Scenario A, your protagonist asks her parents for money, but they can’t give her that. So Instead, they let her stay in their home until she can get back on her feet. Maybe she doesn’t love living with her mother. Maybe she never finds a job. Maybe she’s camping out in the basement for so long that her parents leave and tell her to keep the house. Win-win, and your character is still a nice girl. That was easy, right? Yep, and honestly, pretty boring.
In Scenario B, no one can (or will) help her out. Your protagonist is living in her car and yet no one is there to lend a hand. Why not?, you’re asking. Good question. If she’s a good person and her circumstances truly are outside of her control, then surely someone can give this nice lady a hand. But lets pretend she’s not a nice lady. Maybe she kicks puppies on her lunch break. Cheats on her taxes. Kidnaps kids for ransom. Kills her boss in a fit of rage and frames her coworker (the nice guy, of course). What if we find out, for example, that her house and boyfriend and even her cat are gone because she’s a manipulative sociopath who tied the guy to the bed and then burned the place down so he couldn’t leave her? That is much more interesting than a girl who needs to sofa-surf at Mom’s until that next job interview.
The character from Scenario A may well be the sweetest, kindest woman who ever existed in print. In fact, I’d put money on it. Poor girl just had a bad week. But the protagonist from Scenario B is going to be infamous, and even if we hate her (and we will, that murderous wretch), we’ll still think about her after the book is back on the shelf. (Both Senarios were made up on the fly as I typed this; if they resemble actual works of fiction, my apologies. If not, those ideas are free to use.)
Let’s look at some fictional characters who are generally considered unlikable.
Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and its sequels, is a (slightly) less sadistic character who manages to ruin the lives of every woman he meets. And as often as he isn’t doing the hard work of being gainfully employed or staying faithful to his wife, Rabbit is no slouch when it comes to creating an avalanche of consequences for himself. He’s an aimless, unkind, jealous cheat, and watching him scramble to avoid the falling walls of his life is as entertaining as a story gets.
Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert is a monster by every definition, a “detestable, abominable, criminal fraud” according to his wife (and Dolores’ mother), and a “vain and cruel wretch” in Nabokov’s own words. The reader understands that he’s both human and inhumane, and because he chooses to give in to his baser instincts, he earns both the consequences of such and the dislike of readers.
Frank and April Wheeler, the lead characters in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road are unbearable, conniving snobs. Their shortcomings and pettiness and self-righteousness and backstabbing create every major plot point in the story. Yates’ debut novel remains among my favorite because I’d never want to know them, but it’s not very difficult to imagine the Wheelers living next door, driving each other insane.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl features two of the most despicable characters to ever grace the page. I stayed awake reading through the night to find out who I was supposed to be rooting for, and in the end I hated Nick and Amy Dunne equally and fully and I loved every word of it. Unlikable? Absolutely. Uninteresting? Not for a second. The novel could accurately be retitled Two Cats, One Bag.
The compelling unlikable character exists in every medium. Books, film, TV, plays, you name it. Add Joffrey Lannister (Game of Thrones), Javert (Les Miserables), Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Orange Is the New Black), Alonso Harris (Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day), Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), the Narrator in Fight Club (or more broadly, possibly every character in every Palahniuk novel), Holden Caulfield, Jack Torrance … there’s no end to this list.
But in every case, the unlikable character who earns our attention is generating problems that require resolution—problems that carry the plot forward in a logical, organic way. The unlikable character is a one-man plot-building machine, and I wholeheartedly encourage you all to try it at least once.
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine and a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @a_crezo.
Last week we talked about what tone is, and isn't. This week we'll try to define it with examples.
You are writing a Romance.
Let's say Dick, your narrator, is at a company picnic in a park. The sky is clear. The grill is smoking. His coworkers are drinking beer and it is mid afternoon. How does Dick feel about being there? If he is an extrovert and happy with his job, he is lightheartedly milling around, joking, laughing, and downing brews with the best of them. He has a great time, until he learns something that turns his happy place into a not so happy place. Like the fact that his rival, Ted, got the promotion instead of him. Dick worries that Ted’s promotion gives him a leg up with the girl of both men’s dreams. Dick leaves feeling determined. He rushes to call Sally before Ted can. The tone in this story should reflect Dick's upbeat point of view and competitive attitude toward the situation. If your romance is light and breezy, Dick views this obstacle as a fun challenge. He finds a way to woo Sally, no matter what comical lengths he must go to. There is tension, but it is a funny situation. If your romance is a tragedy, Dick views this scene as one more nail in his coffin. There is tension, but it is bleak, foreshadowing inevitable demise, and somber.
You are writing a Thriller.
Dick is at the company picnic in the park. The sky is overcast and threatening rain. The barbecue smoke makes his eyes water and nose run. He hates hotdogs. He hates his co-workers. He wishes he never had to see those drunken slobs ever again; but he grins and bears it until he can steal the research documents. So, he sips water. He smiles, nods, and bides his time. When he feels everyone is drunk enough, he goes back to the office and begins the search. In this example, Dick views the situation as dark and bleak. He focuses on the negative. The picnic is something to be endured to meet his goal. The overall tone of the story focuses on the tension, the hurry, the risk. There may be light moments, but there is no doubt that the situation is serious and the consequences are high.
You are writing a Literary novel.
Dick is at the company picnic in the park. He desperately needs the promotion. He has child support and outrageous alimony to pay. He can't afford to be unemployed. The sun burns. He sweats profusely. The smoke is suffocating and the stench of roasting steak makes his stomach churn. Dick circulates. He shakes hands and fake smiles at his coworkers until his jaws hurt. He finds out Ted got the promotion. In fact, Dick’s department is being cut. Dick is grateful when it starts raining so he can leave and drown his sorrows in a bottle of Scotch. In this example, the tone could be comic or tragic. The reader walks away, wryly acknowledging that bad things happen to good people, or walks away ruminating on the evils of cruel corporations. There is tension. It is either released by continual humor, or you emphasize the pathos of modern living along the way.
As you read through your manuscript, consider the narrator's tone. Can you identify it? Do you want the story to be breezy, syrupy, gripping, horrifying, or funny?
What is your genre? Does the tone correlate?
Look at your descriptions and setting. How does the point of view character view the situation? Is it consistent with the tone you have adopted?
Do the details that your character focuses on and the words he uses to relate them support the tone?
Is your tone consistent? Do you find yourself handling the material as dramatic in one scene and slapstick in another?
For these and other tips on revision, pick up a copy of:
Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest Wednesday Writing Workouton creating tension in fiction from award-winning author Maureen McQuerry. Before I tell you about Maureen, a quick reminder that it's not too late to enter for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (CWIM) edited by Chuck Sambuchino and published by Writer's Digest Books. See the link at the end of today's post.
Now, about Maureen McQuerry: I was recently introduced to Maureen (via email) through a mutual friend. Her first YA novel, The Peculiars (Abrams/Amulet) was an ALA Best Book for Young Adult Readers 2013, Bank Street and Horn Book recommended book, and a winner of the Westchester Award. Her most recent novel Beyond the Door (Abrams/Amulet), has been named a Booklist top Ten Fantasy/SciFi for Youth. The second book in the series, The Telling Stone, releases May 2015. Maureen has taught writing to children and adults and loves giving author talks in schools and at conferences.
Before I share Maureen's WWW on tension, here's a little about her newest novel, Beyond the Door:
Between his love of learning and his passion for Scrabble, Timothy James has always felt like an outsider. The only person who really understands him is his older sister, Sarah, and he’s also fairly certain nothing interesting will ever happen to him. But one dark spring night, everything changes. A mystery of unparalleled proportions begins to unfold, revealing Timothy's role in an ancient prophecy and an age-old battle of Light against Dark. Together with Sarah and the school bully, Jessica, Timothy must embark on a quest to prevent the Dark from controlling the future—and changing the past. Can the trio work together in order to fight the ancient evil that threatens our world? The first book in the Time Out of Time series, Beyond the Door, is a fast-paced adventure that combines Celtic myth, shapeshifters, and a secret code in a coming of age story.
VOYA described the novel as "jam-packed with twists and turns," a sure sign that Maureen knows a thing or two about creating tension. Here's her Wednesday Writing Workouton the topic:
Wednesday Writing Workout: The Stakes Should Always Be Death by Maureen McQuerry
Story isn't about plot. It isn't about character or setting or a great idea. It's about how events change people. We keep reading because we want to find out how a character navigates all the struggles that come her way. In fact the most critical component in reader satisfaction is the protagonist's arc. And notice I used the word struggle, because struggle is what changes characters. It's what changes us.
Struggle implies conflict and tension. Tension keeps us turning the pages. But how do you add conflict and tension to a story without an explosion or battle scene on every page, maybe without explosions or battles in your book at all? Tension begins with the stakes. If you've ever been told your novel is too quiet, it may be that your stakes aren't high enough. The greater the stakes, the greater the risk, the greater the tension and the more pages turned.
What do I mean by stakes? Stakes are what your protagonist has on the line. In a dystopian world like Hunger Games, the stakes are personal survival, survival of people you love, of a community, of the world. But not every story will or should be dystopian or apocalyptic. The stakes may be the risk of emotional death. In my MG novel Beyond the Door, Timothy finds himself in physical danger, the type of danger that might result in death, but he fears failing to complete his challenge almost as much. He believes it's his one chance to prove himself in the eyes of his friends. His self-worth is on the line.
For the reader to be concerned, risk has to be real and the protagonists' motivation worthy. Worthy motivations involve noble concepts like: forgiveness, love, redemption, self-worth. For example, a character who wants a part in the school play engages us when the stakes are based on a motivation that is worthy. She wants a part in the play because she sees it as a way to connect with her estranged father who was once an actor, but has rejected her or because she's never once fit in anywhere, been bullied or is handicapped and it's her one chance to find a community. If she fails here, she may never try again. Hope and worry for the protagonist create tension.
A good beginning question to ask is what are the stakes for my protagonist? What is at risk? What will die?
Because a story is about how events change characters, you must have a clear idea of your character's arcs. In Beyond the Door, Timothy needed to evolve from an insecure observer to a confident leader.
Ask: What is my protagonist like at the start of this adventure? What do I want her to be like at the end of the story?
What will it take to get her there? What kind of gut-wrenching decisions, public humiliations, dark nights of the soul? What antagonists will she have to face?
Does each turning point create change? That's what moving a story forward means.
Below are some considerations for assessing your story for tension. Assessing the risk in your story:
The risk of failure must be real and must be devastating—big consequences.
Conflict must be external and internal—your protagonist must struggle in her mind and heart and with external forces.
Tension must be relentless.
A clear antagonist strengthens the conflict.
The solution must require everything the protagonist has—the greater the risk, the more we worry.
The solution should be inevitable, but surprising (Aristotle).
A few time honored techniques to increase tension, such as those below, will keep readers turning the pages.
Techniques to increase tension:
Increase the stakes—as mentioned above
Withhold info from protagonist—mystery novels are a great example of how one missing piece of information can put your protagonist at risk.
Introduce doubt—Who can she trust? Were her assumptions faulty?
Limit time—the ticking clock.
Give and take away—just as your protagonist has everything she needs, the bottom falls out.
Whatever struggles your character faces, remember they are the engines of transformation and tension is the fuel.
Thanks for this, Maureen. I've already used your questions to assess (and up!) the level of risk in my current work-in-progress. Readers, if you try any of these techniques, let us know how they work for you.
Everybody has an agenda. We all have desires, hopes, and dreams. We all have principles. We all have goals, whether we formalize them or not. We all have a background and a historical perspective that shapes our actions and our outlook. In our interaction with others, we are at least somewhat aware that the person we are interacting has views and goals that may or may not be the same as ours.
Even the people we love, the people we support, and the people we usually agree with are individuals with their own way of thinking. Every interaction we have is colored by the perspectives and viewpoints of all people involved.
How often have you argued with somebody or watched two people argue when both sides are saying basically the same thing? That happens because we are all individuals and we each have our own agenda, and to some extent, we recognize that our agendas don't always agree, even when the points we are trying to make are the same.
So why should the characters in our stories be any different?
If you want your characters to ring true, they must each have their own world view, their own wants and needs, and their own goals. Their own agendas.
Characters on the same side take that position for their own reasons. Characters on opposite do the same thing. Your protagonist and antagonist might seem like enemies, and since your story is told from the POV of the protagonist (probably), the antagonist may seem evil. But from his point of view, he's probably taking his position as a matter of conscience, because he thinks it's the right thing to do. From the antagonist's point of view, and that of his followers, the protagonist is the bad guy.
But agendas are not limited to main characters. Every time a character appears in our story, even in the most minor of roles, we need to consider what that character wants. Maybe we don't need to create a detailed character analysis of our most minor characters, but we do need to know what each character hopes to achieve. Each character has a life outside the story, even if we don't know anything about it.
Too often, we write a character out of convenience, to fill a story need, without thinking about that character as a real person with hopes and dreams of her own. Usually, when we read and come across a character like that, we're unsatisfied. But still we write them.
Each person in your story world is there for a reason. Not just your reason, to fulfill a story need, but a reason of his or her own. Each character wants something out of his interaction with your other characters or your setting, or whatever he is there for. Even if the character is there solely to offer support to another character, he is offering support for his own, usually selfish, reasons. Even two characters who agree can have agendas that create conflict, and conflict creates story.
So remember that as you write. Every time a character is in a scene, consider why that character is there and what he or she hopes to get out of it. This is one of the most effective ways to turn characters into people.
Even before I had finished reading Bubble Trouble by Tom Percival to the kids I knew this was a book we were going to have LOTS of fun with.
Have you ever had great fun playing with a friend but discovered things have got out of control when you try to out-do each other? That what was a shared and enjoyable activity became something competitive and a little threatening?
Bubble Trouble explores exactly this scenario, with two best friends who like nothing more than blowing bubbles together. In their desire to blow the biggest bubble, they become very inventive but some skulduggery also sneaks in. Will their friendship survive their determination to outplay each other?
Percival’s lovely book thoughtfully and playfully explores the up- and downsides of competition and the value of teamwork. It also acknowledges that we don’t always learn from our mistakes straight away, something I haven’t seen often acknowledged in picture books. The “big issues” are hidden carefully in lots of delightfulness; the illustrations are soft and sweet, and there are lots and lots of flaps to play with. Percival has worked wonders with capturing that magic sheen of bubbles without resorting to foil or silver but rather just clever use of pastels and white.
A good-natured and honest exploration of some of the trials and tribulations of friendship, Bubble Trouble offers lots of room for discussion and a great excuse to play.
So yes, having shared Bubble Trouble lots of playing with bubbles was called for. We thought we’d try something different and so I taught the girls how to breath out bubbles, big and beautiful bubbles. Who wants to breath fire when you can breathe out bubbles?
We used this recipe to make our bubble mixture:
1.5 litres of tap water
250ml of Fairy washing up detergent
250ml of cornflour (yes, corn flour isn’t a liquid, but we used our measuring jug and filled it to the 250ml mark with the corn flour)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp glycerine (easily found in Boots/a chemist’s, probably in the sore throat section)
Once the bubble mixture was all stirred together, we left it for 24 hours. Everything I’ve read says that this stage is really important (though we haven’t checked what difference it makes ourselves).
To breathe out bubbles here’s what you need to do:
1. Dip your hands into a bowl of tap water.
2. Dip your hands into your bowl of bubble mixture. (The corn flour will probably have settled at the bottom of your mixture. This didn’t seem to be a problem)
3. Rub your palms together smoothly and slowly a couple of times.
4. Open out your hands to form a rough circle: Your fingertips and wrists/bottom of thumbs will remain touching each other, and you should see a film of bubble mixture form between your two hands.
5. Gently blow through the opening between your two hands…..
6. Gasp at your bubble blowing abilities!
You can also use this mixture to blow bubbles through a circle made using just your first finger and thumb (first make a fist, then slowly open out your finger/thumb before blowing), and also to make ENORMOUS bubbles using a home made bubble wand.
For the homemade bubble wand you’ll need two lengths of dowelling. Screw an eye screw into each end and then put a large loop of string between the two eyes. It’s helpful to add a small weight such as a threaded button or a washer onto on side of your string loop.
Dip your string into your bubble mixture (all the way, up to the start of the wooden rods), lift gently out and move the rods apart. You’ll see a film appear between the strings and then if you wave them from one side to the other you’ll create amazing bubble tunnels.
Without conflict, there is no story. As you develop a plot, it’s helpful to think about what is the worst thing that could happen and then figure out if you can make that even worse?
The absolute worst thing–the thing your character fears most of all–MUST happen in the climax of the story. That’s good plotting and storytelling. Building up to that point, you should have a series of conflicts that deepen, that reach out into every aspect of your character’s life, that affects friends, family, or even the survival of the planet or the human species. The series should have a logical progression from bad to worse to worst.
Up the stakes. On way to escalate the conflict is to up the stakes by answering the “So-What?” question. This bad thing is going to happen. So what? Who cares? Who will it affect? How badly will it affect them? When the answer is that the worst thing will affect the most people, you have the stakes well in hand.
Up the emotions. However, even for stories with the fate of the world in the balance are boring if the reader doesn’t care. This means you must provide a wide range of emotions for your characters from the most ardent love to the deepest sorrow. How can I make my character laugh? What would wrench his/her heart? What is the deepest emotion possible in your story? Create that emotional impact. Then take it one level deeper.
Sacrifice. Characters who stupidly volunteer for kitchen duty aren’t sympathetic; they are stupid. However, a reluctant hero who only volunteers to save a loved one–that creates empathy. In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss volunteers to join the Hunger Games so that her younger sister won’t have to. This willingness to sacrifice herself for a loved one elevates here–and the ensuing conflict to new heights.
Jeopardy. When a character is in jeopardy–danger is looming and drawing nearer by the second–readers are on the edge of their seats. Violence, just for the sake of violence, does little to create the emotions needed. Instead, a character must be in danger and must stay in danger for a long time. When I first watched the movie, ALIEN, my stomach hurt because I was so scared. That’s jeopardy. The aliens were coming–and the movie drew out that suspense and jeopardy forever!
There seems to be an international day for almost every issue these days, and today, 20 June, is the turn of refugees.
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) releases its annual statistics on refugees today, these are likely to make for gloomy reading. They will show that there are more refugees today than any previous year during the 21st century, well over 16 million. They will demonstrate how in three years Syria has become the single largest origin for refugees worldwide – around one in seven Syrians has now fled their country, including one million children.
The statistics will also show that solutions for refugees are becoming harder to achieve. Fewer refugees are able to return home. Palestinian refugees still do not have a home; there are still almost three million Afghan refugees, many of whom have been outside their country for generations. The number of refugees who are resettled to richer countries remains stable but small, while the number offered the chance to integrate permanently in host countries is dwindling.
The risk of World Refugee Day, like other international days, is that it will raise awareness of these and other challenges for a few days, before the media cycle and public attention moves on. But there are at least three ways that even passing interest can make a lasting difference.
First, a global overview provides the opportunity to place national concerns in a wider context. Many people and countries fear that they are under siege; that there are more asylum seekers, fewer of whom are recognised as refugees, who pose challenges to the welfare system, education and housing, and even national security. What the statistics invariably show, however, is that the large majority of refugees worldwide are hosted by poorer countries. Iran and Pakistan have hosted over one million Afghan refugees for over 30 years; there are millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It is in these countries that refugees may have a real impact, on the environment or labour market or health services, for example, yet by and large these poorer countries and their citizens continue to extend hospitality to refugees.
Second, World Refugee Day should be the day not just to take stock of refugee numbers, but also to ask why their numbers are rising. Refugees are a symptom of failures in the international system. There is no end in sight for the current conflict in Syria. The withdrawal of most international troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is likely to make the country more insecure and generate a further exodus. Persistent and recurrent conflicts in Somalia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to generate refugees. In all these countries poverty and inequality intersect with insecurity to drive people from their homes. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these effects.
In an effort to bring forth the latest research and make this World Refugee Day count, Oxford University Press has gathered a collection of noteworthy journal articles addressing the latest policies, trends and issues faced by refugees around the globe and made them freely available to you. Simply explore the map above for links to these free articles.
Third, World Refugee Day brings research to the fore. The statistics needs to be analysed and trends explained. The stories behind the statistics need to be explored. Why are so many asylum seekers risking their lives to travel long distances? What are the actual impacts – positive and negative – of asylum seekers and refugees? Researchers can also leverage passing media interest by providing evidence to correct misperceptions where they exist.
This is what I see as the purpose of the Journal of Refugee Studies: to publish cutting edge research on refugees; to correct public debate; to inform policy; and to maintain attention on one of the most pressing global issues of our time. Refugees deserve more than one day in the spotlight.
Dr. Khalid Koser is Deputy Director and Academic Dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies. He was also recently appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
Journal of Refugee Studies aims to publish cutting edge research on refugees; to correct public debate; to inform policy; and to maintain attention on one of the most pressing global issues of our time. The Journal covers all categories of forcibly displaced people. Contributions that develop theoretical understandings of forced migration, or advance knowledge of concepts, policies and practice are welcomed from both academics and practitioners. Journal of Refugee Studies is a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal, and is published in association with the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.
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The eyes are the windows to the soul. They are one of the most expressive features of the face.
Humans are not the only animal that finds eye contact important. Staring at a cat conveys aggression. A slow blink conveys love. All the posturing male animals perform is a waste of time unless they have an audience watching their moves.
Especially on first meeting, good eye contact conveys that you are confident, trustworthy, and in control. It can express admiration if accompanied with a smile. Good eye contact is a general indicator of self-esteem. Though, lowering one's eyes can be a sign of respect in some parts of the world.
Eye contact during conversation conveys interest and connection. Engaging in eye contact shows that you are truly interested. Breaking eye contact can signal it is someone else's turn to talk.
A gaze can tantalize, mesmerize, and hypnotize.
Refusing eye contact can mean yourr character is angry, sad, guilty, or embarrassed. Keeping one's head down or averting a gaze can be a signal of insecurity, deceit, or low self-esteem. Widened eyes or narrowed eys convey shock, disbelief, and anger. People blink more when they are uncomfortable.
A person covers his eyes when he does not want to see something or is afraid that someone will see an emotion he does not want to reveal.
Eye blinks, winks, fluttered lashes, etc.can be a flirting game. He looks at her. She looks at him. They both look away. He chances a longer look. Does she look back and hold contact? Should he approach? The answer often lies in this exchange of glances.
Fast blinking can indicate agitation. Slow blinks can indicate shock or exhaustion.
The first part of the body a character looks at can reveal a lot about them. Do a male character's eyes always focus on a woman's chest? Does a female character always look at a man's ring finger?
Staring is generally considered rude or stalker creepy, but could signal surprise, startle, disbelief, trying to remember where you saw someone, or noting something out of place.
If someone's gaze flits around the room, they are either looking for someone specific, or could be a spy, or cop on the job. Sherlock Holmes is the master of noticing small details others miss. A trained observer can tell a lot about another person with a single glance.
Gazes can convey entire conversations and serve as signals.
Public speakers and performers are taught to look out into the audience, picking specific people or cues, moving from one side of the room to another to make everyone feel included.
Eye contact can become a battle of aggression. He who looks away first, loses.
Normal eye contact for one culture could be considered rude to another. In Muslim countries, eye contact with women is discouraged. Intense eye contact between people of the same sex can mean the person is sincere and telling the truth.
In the hierarchy of Asian cultures, subordinates should not make eye contact with superiors. Lowered eyes can be a sign of respect.
In some African cultures, prolonged eye contact is considered aggressive.
Utilize gestures appropriately, particularly when writing about specific geographic locations. Do your research. If you are making up a completely new word, decide what the normal parameters are and keep it consistent.
The eye roll, while it is physically impossible, is a term that is generally accepted in American culture. Technically the orbit rotates within the eye socket. However, that is akward. Most people don't care if it is technically correct. They know what it means. Just don't use eye rolls in every chapter.
Eyes close, fill with tears, open wide, blink, wink, and scrunch. Eyes cannot travel, roll, graze, skewer, etc. It is one's gaze that moves. Make sure you do a search and kill for the word eye and replace it with gaze when appropriate. Make sure the eye movement is essential to the scene and is not overused.
One of the big rules we always hear about writing is that there must be conflict! Without conflict you have no tension, no stakes, and the story doesn’t go anywhere. Some say “without conflict you have no story” at all! Therefore we should always be on the look-out for the conflict in a scene and use it to make our stories more intense, emotional, and keep the boring-police away!
But, I have an admission. I’ve always had a problem with the idea that story revolves around conflict. I get nervous about how it limits what our stories can be about.
Don’t misread that comment. Conflict can be an important and useful storytelling tool, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. But… do we sometimes create conflict simply because we think we are supposed to? Are our lives defined by our conflicts? Is it all Man vs. Man, Man vs. Environment, Man vs. God, Good vs. Evil? Is it always about desire and obstacles and the conflicts that stand in our character’s way?
Is there not room for more?
This emphasis on conflict has always made me think of the fabulous quote in Diane Lefer’s essay, Breaking the Rules of Story Structure, where she says:
“The traditional story revolves around conflict – a requirement Ursula K. Le Guin disparages as the ‘gladatorial view of fiction.’ When we’re taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, we seem to choose by default to base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable” (63).
Janet Burroway adds to this discussion noting that “seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis, of enemies and warring factions, not only constricts the possibilities of literature… [it] also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (Writing Fiction, 255).
These quotes have always resonated with me. I find I’m not an action-and-conflict writer. But at the same time, I didn’t have any other guidepost to lead me. So, if it’s possible for stories to revolve around something other than conflict, what would that “something else” be?
In Writing Fiction, Burroway goes on to discuss a narrative engine built on the human need for connection, rather than the clash of opposing forces. She says:
“A narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect. Over the course of a story, and within the smaller scale of a scene, characters make and break emotional bonds of trust, love, understanding, or compassion with one another. A connection may be as obvious as a kiss or as subtle as a glimpse; a connection may be broken with an action as obvious as a slap or as subtle as an arched eyebrow” (255).
This is an idea I can get behind!
A pattern of connection and disconnection is a narrative guideline that feels rooted in truth, human desire, and hope. It’s a guideline that – if you need it to – can lead to conflict, should that be where you want your story to go. For me, the need for connection, and the movement between connecting and disconnecting, exists in a deeper space than conflict alone. Good vs. Evil sits on the surface. Connection and disconnection is the pulse beneath the skin that motivates our characters. Can good or evil exist without it? This question excites me! The possibility of small actions energizing a story excites me!
I believe in the little moments.
I believe in the impact of an arched eyebrows and a subtle glimpse, may they have the power to grip our readers with as much intensity as a fight to the death.
When I was a child, I loved watching the Andy Griffith show. It was a sweet situation comedy about a small town sheriff keeping the peace in rural North Carolina. The setting was bucolic. The cast was full of benign well-meaning people occasionally beset by antagonists passing through or creating problems for each other.
Let’s take a look at the functions of the different characters. The protagonist was the widowed Sheriff Andy Taylor. He had a shrewd mind hidden behind a good-old-boy smile. That was his secret weapon. The antagonists always underestimated him. His role was that of caretaker to a town full of people too innocent to protect themselves. His weakness was that he was too nice, bordering on enabling.
This was apparent when dealing with his sidekick, Barney Fife. Bumbling Barney meant well, but was often more of a hindrance than a help. He occasionally redeemed himself by luck rather than skill.
Andy’s Aunt Bee acted as the sweet voice of reason, but she occasionally got it wrong and this offered mild interpersonal conflict.
Otis, the town drunk, was usually a hindrance or complication to solving the story problem.
Floyd, the Barber, was the town gossip with feathers for brains. His tidbits of information sometimes helped and sometimes hindered.
Opie was Andy’s son and often posed important thematic questions. He occasionally got into trouble.
Goober and Gomer Pyle were goofy gas station attendants who innocently interfered. Their station was the portal to the town.
Andy was occasionally given a love interest who offered interpersonal conflict based on the occasional jealous pang or misunderstanding.
The antagonists were a series of moonshiners and petty criminals passing through. Once in a while they dealt with a real criminal (bank robber).
The characters not only offered local color, they were the source of interpersonal conflict. They aided or impeded and sometimes brought trouble to their door.
Andy’s genuine love for them kept him motivated to save them from their own folly and the bad guys who passed through.
There were no special effects, no guns blazing, no brutal murders. Sheriff Taylor was a loving but firm disciplinarian with Opie (and the rest of the town). Mayberry was a sweet place to pass a summer’s evening full of genuine love and kindness.
I doubt storytelling will ever return to that level of innocence, but the world could use a little country comfort these days.
There was a point in a work I was critiquing where a character completely changed her stance on the solution to the story problem without intervening scenes showing how or why. This is not the kind of plot twist you want to offer your reader. A good plot twist is set up long before it happens. Let’s take a stroll back to beginning composition class to figure out how to illustrate a convincing change in character motivation.
When we first learned to write a paper, we had to come up with a thematic statement. We then came up with an outline listing key points to support or refute the thematic statement. Under each key point, we used paragraphs to expand each point.
How can you apply this to your plot?
Decide what the matter to be determined between two characters is. Perhaps Dick wants world peace and thinks if people worked together we could achieve it. Ted wants world destruction. He thinks the only way to achieve peace is to eliminate the majority of humankind and start over.
The scenes between Dick and Ted should reflect, in word or deed, skirmishes over this deep divide. Don't beat a dead horse. Every encounter should contribute another point to the argument. This is true whether you are writing a Romance or a Thriller. In a romance, every encounter between protagonist or love interest should reflect something that brings them together or drives them apart.
In once scene Dick makes a point. In another scene Ted makes his counter point. Each encounter they have is an attempt to sway or force each other to adopt the opposite way of thinking. A different point is driven home each time.
This does not mean they make blatant clumsy pronouncements on a soapbox. Rather, everything they do and say in those scenes is motivated by their need to prove and enforce their point. Dick may believe that Ted can be swayed. Conversely, he may know that Ted cannot be swayed but must be stopped so Ted does not sway more people to his side of the argument or take action, such as nuclear annihilation, to achieve his goal.
Ted's scenes illustrate why he wants humankind destroyed. Ted may think Dick is a hopeless dreamer. Dick may drive home a few points that make Ted reconsider.
Dick's scenes address the reasons humanity should be saved. A few scenes could show him questioning his stance. Yet, it is Dick’s belief in the innate goodness of mankind that eventually gives him the tools or the access to stop Ted’s nefarious plan.
In scenes that follow them individually engaging with secondary characters should also support or refute the thematic argument. Secondary characters should have a stance on the topic and their behavior should illustrate the goodness or evil of humankind.
Ted may be surrounded by like minds, but perhaps one or two characters are on the fence. One of these characters could end up working against him. Perhaps Sally’s shenanigans reinforce Ted’s argument that humans are innately evil. She could be his poster child for why the world needs to end.
There will be friends that fight alongside Dick to save mankind. There may be a secondary character that is on the fence. Perhaps he or she encounters Sally and wonders if Dick is fatally naive. Jane could have a perilous dilemma of her own and her self-sacrifice illustrates Dick’s point that humanity is worth saving.
A secondary character’s arc could reflect one side or the other as they interact with tertiary characters.
The audience is satisfied when the hero wins and the antagonist fails. However, an ending could come down on either side of the thematic argument, creating an up or down ending. An ambiguous ending could reflect that there are shades of gray or no correct answer to the thematic question.
Whatever the outcome, stories with underlying thematic arguments are satisfying reads. When every character has a stake in the story, the reader cares what happens next. When each scene ties in to the thematic argument, you have a tight story.
Your characters enter a scene. Something happens, preferably conflict. Now, stop and ask yourself, "What primed the pump?"
Hopefully one conflict scene leads to another conflict scene, but what if you are moving from one POV character to another or a great deal of time has elapsed in between scenes?
After you write a scene, take another look at it and consider what primed the pump. No one enters a situation as a blank canvas.
1) What was Dick doing or feeling immediately prior?
It may be obvious if Dick is moving between consecutive scenes. Whatever happened in Scene 3 primes Scene 4. A plot hole occurs when something happens in scene 3 and is never addressed again. You don’t have to waste a lot of page time explaining what happened in between if it isn’t essential. However, if Dick was upset in Scene 3 and is perfectly calm when we see him again in Scene 7, then something happened to diffuse his mood. You should probably reference it with a line of dialogue or interiority during the opening transition paragraph of the new scene.
2) What is each character’s mindset as the scene progresses?
Every character entering a scene has thoughts and feelings. Are they having a good day or bad day? It affects their receptiveness. Whatever happened in prior scenes could have bearing on the current scene. Conflicting emotions and situations prime the conflict pump. If Jane is happy and Dick is angry, they could trade moods quickly.
3) Has your scene been properly set up?
Have you brought up an important point that you let lapse? Are the characters conflicted over something that makes no sense because you forgot to mention it in a previous scene? You may have cause and effect plot holes. If so, you have some revision to do. Beta readers or critique partners can be invaluable in catching these. My groups calls it the "read the book in my head, not the one on paper" syndrome.
4) Where does your scene take place? Why?
Settings are often bland and add nothing. You add value when you set the scene in a place that heightens tension. It has to be logical and organic. Don’t do it because “the script called for it.” If your couple is having an argument at home in the kitchen, it is realistic but is it interesting? Is the kitchen the best place for the argument? Can you make the setting more awkward for them? Say, a PTA meeting or on a crowded bus ride home?
5) Who is present?
You can have intense dialogue between two characters while they are alone. You add tension when they are striving to not be overheard or are wearing forced smiles at a formal function surrounded by family or coworkers. When two people are focused on each other, the crowd has a way of disappearing. They sometimes forget that other ears are listening. Being overheard can create future conflict. Having to behave decorously can force them to resume the conversation at another time, thus priming the pump for a future scene.
Consider not only the timeline of your story but how the timeline of the conflicts prime the pump. What happens immediately before can be as important as what happens during and immediately after.
Just in time for NaNoWriMo: How well do you know your characters? By now you might be familiar with their physical features, their taste in evening clothes, and what they like to eat for breakfast, but what about their personality quirks and motivations? One of my favorite writing how-to books to help uncover more about my characters' inner worlds and psyches is one by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders:
Originally written for screenwriters, The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines, Sixteen Master Archetypes is a great tool for all writers, poets too, I can imagine! Based on the idea that there are 16 character "types" common to all fiction and mythology, the book is a great one to read just for fun as well as for research. The other day I thought it would be interesting to re-examine where and how the three heroines from my published novels fit into the various categories. I also used the templates to evaluate the Pinterest boards I had created for these books: What kind of pins could I add to each? I started with:
The Great Scarab Scam is my Egyptian mystery for young readers 8-12 years, so obviously there isn't the conventional male-female interaction you might find in a book for older readers. However, my main character, eleven-year-old Lydia Hartley, definitely falls into the category of "The Spunky Kid," and not just because of her age. Her other traits and story difficulties include:
She's stuck between two brothers--one a little bit older and one quite a bit younger. Although neither of her brothers are particularly "heroic"
She's a reader--and even enjoys doing homework!
She's fiercely loyal to her father, a university professor and archaeologist.
Loves history, especially ancient Egyptian history.
She's curious about the world around her, but can be shy in social situations.
She's brave, but a little reckless too.
And she's very motivated when it comes to helping others.
Prone to envy, especially when she continually has to make do with second best
And she has a serious crush on an unconventional "bad boy."
And although Elizabeth does manage to find her true north and come to grips with real life in the course of the story, she does so with all the handicaps of a victim and lost child.
Overtaken See the Overtaken Pinterest Board! Written for an adult audience, Overtaken includes some of my most complex characters, especially my heroine of Sara Bergsen. I had a bit of trouble discerning exactly which archetype she truly was, but in the end I decided she was "The Librarian."
She's essentially a loner.
Her chosen career as a portrait artist reflects her powers of observation and love of order. Abstract painting doesn't interest her in the least.
Her wardrobe, at least in the beginning of the book, consists of practical pieces in black and gray--great for work!
And this girl does loves work. She's disciplined and dedicated to deadlines.
At the same time she takes risks because she is confident in her own ability to succeed.
She's a reader--which has also led her to believe in the possibility of a happy ending.
One of Sara's main challenges is to confront and understand the three men in her life: a Warrior, a Lost Soul, and a Charmer.
Tip of the Day: The Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines is an excellent reference for any stage of your manuscript, even your published stories. For your WIP's see where your characters match up to the suggested archetypes, and pay particular attention to the sections on how they all work (or don't work) together. For your published manuscripts, you can still use the book to help describe your characters in your marketing material. You may be surprised at what you find! Add a Comment
Cuddling, kissing, and hugging are often signs of affection. They could be signs of aggression if the character receiving the affection doesn't want it. There are situations in which a character must control involuntary responses, especially if Dick is a spy, a cop, or pretending to be someone he isn’t. If faced with an angry mugger or screaming toddler, Dick's initial primordial response might be recoil. His body might tense to strike. If it is a mugger, he lets the punch fly, unless the mugger is holding a gun pointed at his head. If it is a toddler, Dick overrides the urge to strike and deals with it another way, unless he has poor self-control or the child is demon-possessed.
Every character has a different idea of how close is close enough when speaking to other people. We call it personal space. It's uncomfortable when someone stands too close. It is crossing a psychological boundary. Some characters are touchy-feely types. An extrovert is more likely to be a hands-on kind of guy. An introvert hates being touched by people he doesn't know very well. A character who has been abused may not want anyone to touch him, no matter the reason, loving or otherwise. Some families and cultures are big on physical displays of affection, others aren't. A character might hug every one he has ever met upon seeing them again. Others prefer a handshake or a bow. The reasons can be personality, culture, or life experience.
Touch denotes a degree of intimacy. Someone touching Dick's shoulder could mean multiple things: desire, anger, or compassion. Little kids touch more than adults. A toddler is not self-conscious about where his hands land or where his head rests. The elderly can crave touch as much as toddlers. It may be decades since someone has hugged them or held their hand.
Jane might not mind being touched by a lover or best friend. She might object to being handled by a stranger at a party. Friends and family touch Jane to greet her, tease her, get her attention, help her, or hinder her. How comfortable she is with them makes a difference in how well she tolerates it.
Jane may normally love being touched by her husband until she is angry with him. How your character feels affects how she processes the touch and the person touching her.
There are times when someone we don't know very well needs to touch us: massage therapists, hairdressers, doctors, nurses, medical personnel, rescue personnel, etc. A teacher may have to touch a child to direct him. A guard may have to touch Jane to direct her. It may make the character very uncomfortable. Children involved in sports are used to being tackled, patted, or punched by teammates. Others aren't.
Characters that are deceptive, don't like themselves, or are ashamed of something may avoid touch. They are uncomfortable when someone approaches them, pats them on the back, or moves in for a hug. Pedophiles touch inappropriately.
When a person touches Jane and it feels off, it sends a frisson of alarm through her system. Depending on the circumstances, Jane may subconsciously recoil, but consciously blow it off and make excuses for it. However, her subconscious remains on high alert until the danger has passed.
When describing touch in your fiction, make sure it is appropriate for the circumstances.
Make sure you tell the reader how the character feels about being touched. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
What kind of caress, hug, or handshake was it?
Is Jane’s instinctive response to pull away when she knows she has to endure the hug?
These small conflicts illustrate character, reveal relationships, and make characters very uncomfortable at scene level.
Touch ignites an involuntary response, followed by a voluntary response, followed by a recovery. Illustrate the beats during critical encounters. The how and why are important. Was the touch appropriate or inappropriate? Tolerated or defended? Welcome or unwelcome?
Britain’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan and France’s recent dispatch of troops to the troubled Central African Republic are but the latest indicators of a long-standing pattern. Since 1945 most British and French overseas security operations have taken place in places with current or past empire connections. Most of these actions occurred in the context of the contested end of imperial rule – or decolonization. Some were extraordinarily violent; others, far less so. Historians, investigative journalists and leading intellectuals, especially in France, have pointed to extra-judicial killing, systematic torture, mass internment and other abuses as evidence of just how dirty decolonization’s wars could be. Some have gone further, blaming the dismal human rights records of numerous post-colonial states on their former imperial rulers. Others have pinned responsibility on the nature of decolonization itself by suggesting that hasty, violent or shambolic colonial withdrawals left a power vacuum filled by one-party regimes hostile to democratic inclusion. Whatever their accuracy, the extent to which these accusations have altered French and British public engagement with their recent imperial past remains difficult to assess. The readiness of government and society in both countries to acknowledge the extent of colonial violence indicates a mixed record. In Britain, media interest in such events as the systematic torture of Mau Mau suspects in 1950s Kenya sits uncomfortably with the enduring image of the British imperial soldier as hot, bothered, but restrained. Recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office releases of tens of thousands of decolonization-related documents, apparently ‘lost’ hitherto, may present the opportunity for a more balanced evaluation of Britain’s colonial record.
In France, by contrast, the media furores and public debates have been more heated. In June 2000 Le Monde’spublished the searing account by a young Algerian nationalist fighter, Louisette Ighilahriz, of her three months of physical, sexual and psychological torture at the hands of Jacques Massu’s 10th Parachutist Division in Algiers at the height of Algeria’s war of independence from France. Ighilahriz’s harrowing story helped trigger years of intense controversy over the need to acknowledge the wrongs of the Algerian War. After years in which difficult Algerian memories were either interiorized or swept under capacious official carpets, big questions were at last being asked. Should there be a formal state apology? Should decolonization feature in the school curriculum? Should the war’s victims be memorialized? If so, which victims? Although the soul-searching ran deep, official responses could still be troubling. On 5 December 2002 French President Jacques Chirac, himself a veteran of France’s bitterest colonial war, unveiled a national memorial to the Algerian conflict and the concurrent ‘Combats’ (using the word ‘war’ remained intensely problematic) in former French Morocco and Tunisia. France’s first computerized military monument, the names of some 23,000 French soldiers and Algerian auxiliaries who died fighting for France scrolled down vertical screens running the length of the memorial columns.
Paris monument to Algerian War dead: author’s own photograph.
No mention of the war’s Algerian victims, but at least a start. Yet, seven months later, on 5 July 2003, another unveiling took place. This one, in Marignane on Marseilles’ outer fringe, was less official to be sure. A plaque to four activists of the pro-empire terror group, the Organisation de l’Armée secrète (OAS), carries the inscription ‘fighters who fell so that French Algeria might live’. Among those commemorated were two of the most notorious members of the OAS. One was Roger Degueldre, leader of the ‘delta commandos’, who, among other killings, murdered six school inspectors in Algeria days before the war’s final ceasefire. The other was Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, organizer of two near-miss assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle, first President of France’s Fifth Republic. Equally troubling, it took the threat of an academic boycott in 2005 before France’s Council of State advised President Chirac to withdraw a planned stipulation that French schoolchildren must be taught the ‘positive role of the French colonial presence, notably in North Africa’.
One explanation for the intensity of these history wars is that few France and Britain’s colonial fights since the Second World War were definitively won or lost at identifiable places and times. The fall of the French fortress complex at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the climax of an eight-year colonial war over Vietnam’s independence from France, was the exception, not the rule. Not surprisingly, its anniversary has been regularly celebrated by the Vietnamese Communist authorities since then.
Elsewhere it was harder for people to process victory or defeat as a specific event, as a clean break offering new beginnings, rather than as an inconclusive process that settled nothing. Officials in British Kenya reported that the Mau Mau rebellion, rooted among the colony’s Kikuyu majority, was ‘all but over’ by the end of 1955. Yet emergency rule continued almost five years more. To the East, in British Malaya, a larger and more long-standing Communist insurgency was in almost incessant retreat from 1952. Surrender terms were laid down in September 1955. Two years later British aircraft peppered the Malayan jungle, not with bombs but with thirty-four million leaflets offering an amnesty-for-surrender deal to the few hundred guerrillas who remained at large. Even so Malaya’s ‘Emergency’ was not finally lifted until 1960.
In the two decades that followed, the Cold War migrated ever southwards, acquiring a more strongly African and Asian dimension. The contest between liberal capitalism and diverse models of state socialism became a battle increasingly waged in regions adjusting to a post-colonial future. Some of the bitterest conflicts of the 1960s to the 1990s originated in fights for decolonization that morphed into intractable proxy wars in which civilians often counted amongst the principal victims. In the late twentieth century France and Britain avoided the worst of all this. Should we, then, celebrate the fact that most of the hard work of ending the British and French empires was done by the dawn of the 1960s? I would suggest otherwise. For every instance of violence avoided, there were instances of conflict chosen, even positively embraced. Often these choices were made in the light of lessons drawn from other places and other empires. Just as the errors made sometimes caused worst entanglements, so their original commission reflected entangled colonial pasts. Often messy, always interlocked, these histories remind us that Britain and France travelled their difficult roads from empire together.