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When we sit down to brainstorm a character, we think about possible qualities, flaws, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes that they might have. Then to dig deeper, we assemble their backstory, plotting out who influenced them, what experiences shaped them (both good and bad) and which emotional wounds pulse beneath the surface. All of these things help us gain a clearer sense of who our characters are, what motivates them, and ultimately, how they will behave in the story.
But how often do we think about our protagonist’s morality? It’s easy to just make the assumption that he or she is “good” and leave it at that.
And, for the most part, the protagonist is good–that’s why he or she is the star of the show. The protagonist’s moral code dictates which positive traits are the most prominent (attributes like loyalty, kindness, tolerance, being honorable or honest, to name a few) and how these will in turn influence every action and decision.
In real life, most people want to believe they know right from wrong, and that when push comes to shove, they’ll make the correct (moral) choice. People are generally good, and unless you’re a sociopath, no one wants to go through life hurting people. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but most try to add, not take away, from their interactions and relationships.
To feel fully fleshed, our characters should mimic real life, meaning they too have strong beliefs, and like us, think their moral code is unshakable. But while it might seem it, morality is not black and white. It exists in the mists of grey.
In the movie Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s plays Keller, a law-abiding, respectful man and loving father. But when his daughter is abducted and police are ineffective at questioning the person he believes to be responsible, he is forced into a moral struggle.
Keller needs answers, but to obtain them, he must be willing to do things he never believed himself capable of. Finally, to gain his daughter’s freedom, he kidnaps the suspect and tortures him repeatedly.
In each session, Keller battles with his own humanity, but his belief that this man knows where his daughter is outweighs his disgust for what he must do. It is not only Keller’s actions that makes the movie compelling, it is the constant moral war within the grey that glues us to the screen.
Extreme circumstances can cause morals to shift. What would it take for your “moral” protagonist to make an immoral choice?
Is your character deeply honest? What might push her to lie about something important?
Is your character honorable? What would force him to act dishonorably?
Is your character kind? How could life break her so that she does something maliciously hurtful?
When your protagonist is forced to enter a grey area that causes them to question what is right and wrong…this is where compelling conflict blooms!
YOUR TURN: Have you built in situations that force the hero to evaluate his morality? If not, what can you do within the scope of your story to push him into the grey where he must wrestle with his beliefs? What event might send him to the edge of himself, of who he is, and possibly force him to step across the line dividing right and wrong?
Tools to help you understand your character better:
The Reverse Backstory Tool: Hit all the highlights on your hero’s backstory reel, including his Emotional Wound & The Lie He Believes About Himself
As many of you know, Angela and I have been whipping The Setting Thesaurus manuscripts into shape so they can be released into the world in just a few months. (*squeal*) Each entry has a lot of good information, but one of the fields kept drawing my attention:
(PSSST! The books aren’t out yet, but I pulled this tidbit from One Stop For Writers, where all the settings can currently be found. Subscribers can access the entries in their entirety while registered users can see a sampling.)
As a writer, I’m constantly looking for sources of conflict for my stories. This is one of the reasons we included this field, because people are our greatest resource when it comes to conflict. So looking at the kinds of people typically found in a given setting can give you an idea for who might cause trouble for your hero.
But as I was brainstorming for this field, one thought kept coming back to me: But what about the friends?
Courtesy: Antoine K @ CreativeCommons
I’m not talking about the friends that your character thinks are friends but end up stabbing her in the back. I’m talking about real friends who cause real trouble, often unintentionally.
As we know, friends, family, and allies can cause conflict, too. And because of their close connection with the main character, trouble from a friend inherently equates to elevated emotions for the hero. Plus, friends are so accessible; you won’t typically have to orchestrate a meeting in order to make the sparks fly because the friends are already there.
So it makes sense to use those closest to the hero to add conflict. But what kind of trouble can a true friend cause? Here are a few possibilities:
Opposing Goals:Throughout your story, your hero should have something he’s trying to achieve. But at the scene level, he should also have goals—smaller micro-goals that move him toward getting what he wants overall. Conflict comes in the form of people, forces, things, etc. that block the character from getting what he wants. Oftentimes this comes in the form of the antagonist, who is actively working against the character. But what if the character with the opposing goal is his friend? Fireworks, that’s what happens, between the hero and the person he thought was on his side.
Shared Goals: Another form of conflict comes when two characters want the same thing. Again, the typical scenario is the character and the antagonist or a rival going after the same objective—getting the boy/girl, winning the game/court case/contest, getting a spot on the team, etc. But it gets a lot more complicated when the person competing with the character is a trusted ally.
Clashing Traits: Every person is different, and though our friends are often somewhat similar to us, they’re not carbon copies. The same is true with characters and their cronies. Each member of the cast has traits, both positive and negative, that don’t go well together. Imagine a responsible and rule-following hero combined with a reckless friend. A controlling hero and a rebellious friend. Hard-working vs. lazy. Sensitive vs. tactless. Friends with opposing traits are going to get on each others nerves. Remember this in the planning stages of your story and you’ll end up with built-in conflict that’s easy to access.
Moral Arguments: Though friends aren’t going to agree on everything, every person has certain moral lines they’re not willing to cross. And though they know that other people don’t necessarily share their values, they don’t like them to cross those lines, either. While friends are willing to compromise on certain things, it’s much harder for them to give ground when it comes to questions of right and wrong. Knowing what values your character holds dear can help you use those values against him when conflict is necessary.
Envy:No matter how gifted, successful, good-looking, or popular a person is, there’s always someone who’s MORE gifted, BETTER looking, etc. Envy is an ugly emotion, beginning with negative thoughts that often turn to negative behaviors. When envy manifests between friends, it becomes much more complex, with higher stakes.
Insecurities: Every character has insecurities that make them doubt themselves and skew their view of the world and others. These insecurities can lead to poor decisions that impact the people around them. For instance, someone who’s insecure about his popularity may crack jokes at a friend’s expense if it will get him a few laughs. A girl who is insecure about her looks might latch on to anyone who pays her attention—even if that person is her best friend’s ex. If you’re looking for conflict between friends, figure out what insecurities exist and see what you can do to manipulate them.
Weak Moments: Let’s face it: no one is perfect. No matter how strong a friendship is, every person has selfish moments where they just want to do what they want to do no matter how it might affect others. What might that look like? Canceling plans with a friend when a better opportunity comes along. Not standing up for someone. Kissing a friend’s sister. Poor decisions are easy to justify, and our characters might convince themselves that these choices are no big deal. But weak moments often lead to huge fallout, making for great conflict.
Growing apart: It’s an unfortunate truth of friendship, but sometimes people just grow apart. Interests change, new groups are joined, people move on from a relationship that is holding them back in other areas or is unhealthy in some way. This is natural, but it doesn’t happen all at once. Before people have fully moved on, there’s often a long process full of awkward moments and uncomfortable emotions like confusion, self-doubt, anger, hurt, and bitterness. This leads to lots of potential conflict as friends try to figure out what’s happening and come to grips with the new dynamic.
The list of conflict between friends could probably go on and on, but these are a few of the ways that true friends can cause problems for your main character. Do you have any to add? Please share them in the comments!
Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.
But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.
My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.
Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:
Take away something they love.
Give them something they want. Take it away.
Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
Give someone else the thing your character wants.
Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)
Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.
And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.
Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)
And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.
How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?
What should we make of Chancellor George Osborne’s recent claim that we need a “comprehensive plan” to address the burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis, a plan that addresses the “root causes” of this tragic upheaval? The UK government’s way of framing the issue is not unique. Many other governments as well as political pundits of various ideological stripes have been urging us to see the issue in precisely these terms.
There are many types of absence: voluntary, forced, temporary, perceived, sporadic, and permanent. Wherever there is absence, there is conflict. Let’s examine ways in which absences can be dramatic, frightening, thrilling, or funny.
The absence of a loved one can create pathos, longing, and sadness. When a loved one leaves temporarily or permanently, it leaves a vacuum that needs to be filled. It may not be filled with healthy endeavors, or the absence can open a door to new opportunities.
Absence can cause a momentary annoyance at scene level. Jane had plans to go somewhere with Sally or Dick, but had to cancel. Dick and Sally choose to go together without her. Jane is then wounded because she is so easily replaced. If Jane cancels frequently, then she is no longer considered trustworthy. Dick and Sally might exclude her from future plans and it will make Jane angry.
Voluntary absence from work creates headaches for coworkers. If Dick calls in sick, his work is not getting done. Someone else has to temporarily pick up the slack. He might go to extravagant lengths to hide the fact that he wasn’t really sick. If Jane sees him in town during her lunch hour, he will have to explain his absence. He will either tell the truth or lie. If Jane has it in for him, she will enjoy exposing him and Dick is forced to come up with a deterrent fast. He may agree to do something for Jane he does not want to do. He may take over an assignment for her. She might make him give up his parking spot.
It keeps the plot moving when a scene is resolved in a way that creates a new and more difficult goal. Once Dick has lied to Jane, he will have to maintain the lie. Lies lead to more lies. Dick might have called off to spend one last day with his dying mother. He might have called off to help someone track down a terrorist cell. He might have called off to go to a job interview for a new job. At the end of the day, he will either succeed at hiding his reason for calling off or admit that he was playing hooky. It could be comedic, thrilling or tragic. The reason he called off can be momentous, silly, or simply that he was tired and needed to recharge his mental battery. His absence can have profound consequences or barely make a ripple in the story overall, depending on what you need it to do.
At the scene level, Dick could leave the room and give Jane an opportunity to replace or remove something. When he returns, he can notice that his desk has been disturbed. He can either mention it or wait until Jane leaves to search his office. He might shrug his suspicion off, leaving the clue to raise its head later in the story. He might keep tearing his desk apart until he finds the bug or realizes an important file is missing.
Dick could leave the scene of an accident and create a story problem, or a complication to solving the story goal that comes back and bites him later. His reasons can be unthinking, an attempt to protect himself, or malicious.
Dick leaves a bad date at a restaurant because it was easier to disappear than tell the girl her laugh made him cringe. When he runs into his hapless date later, it will be awkward. If she turns out to be his boss’s daughter, it gets extremely awkward. If he has to work with her, it becomes horribly uncomfortable. If he finds out she is a werewolf, he is in danger.
A character can be voluntarily absent from a conversation, a room, a building, a job, or a planet. There are multiple outcomes to a voluntary absence, but at some point the person typically returns.
Jane jetting off to Aruba without Dick for a month in an attempt to “find herself” creates an overall story problem. When Jane reappears, Dick can be happy about it, unhappy about it or have mixed emotions. Jane’s return can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you want to play it and the genre of your story.
In a romance with the typical happy ending, Dick and Jane will overcome the conflicts her voluntary absence and subsequent return create and live happily ever after.
In a literary tale, Jane can return, find out nothing has changed and realize she should have stayed in Aruba with the cabana boy. Dick and Jane can desire to come together again, but realize they really don’t work as a couple, ending on a sad note.
In a mystery or thriller, Jane can return and Dick realizes he preferred life without her. He takes steps to make her absence permanent so he can keep Jane’s inheritance.
Let’s say Jane returned from Aruba after finishing a work assignment that lasted a month or a year. She can return to a spouse, a friend, a child, her parents, a house, a neighborhood, or a job. Her return will affect all of them. Life continued to move on while she was gone. Her return will force her to renegotiate all of her relationships. Friendships and alliances shift over time. Jane’s return can spark jealousy or ignite buried resentment. It can result in renewed love or friendships. The obstacles Jane faces are in trying to fit in again, to redefine her place in the lives she left behind. Jane might have to move back in with her parents or have her ailing parents move in with her. It can spark a battle of wit and wills. The situation could be comedic, tragic or a sweet literary story of acceptance. This makes a terrific overall story problem or personal dilemma for a protagonist.
Jane might find the balance of power in the company shifted in her absence. She will have to redefine her place in the pecking order. Her coworkers might not appreciate her return, or they might celebrate it because the person who took her place was a jerk.
There are many fun and poignant ways to play with absences.
For more information on using obstacles to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.
I’m currently in drafting mode, working on the sequel to my debut, IVORY AND BONE. I’m definitely a planner (as opposed to a pantser,) and I’m working from an *extensive* outline. But even the most thoroughly planned novel doesn’t always flow onto the page without a hitch. (Okay, let’s be realistic. No novel flows onto the page without a hitch!) Often, when I’m struggling to translate a scene I’ve held in my mind into prose on the page, and it’s just… lying there, devoid of life… I’ll discover that the problem is a lack of stakes. Either nothing’s at risk, or there’s a lot at risk, but no one really cares. I have found that if I fix the stakes, I can often fix the scene.
You’ve probably heard that, to keep your reader’s attention, you need to keep raising the stakes. This is sound advice, but it’s also pretty vague. What does it mean to keep raising the stakes? Should you start with dismally low stakes so you have somewhere to go? If you start with life-and-death stakes, do you have to end with save-the-world stakes?
Both of these assumptions seem reasonable if you only look at the superficial meaning of the adage to “keep raising the stakes.” Higher mountains! Bigger guns! I wish it were that simple, but I’ve learned by trial and error that there’s a lot more to it than that. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
There is always something important at stake, even at the opening of the story.
One of my favorite stories to use as an example is the original Star Wars, both because IT’S SO GOOD and because most people are familiar with it (because IT’S SO GOOD!) In that story, Luke learns about some high stakes that are at play when he sees the holographic message from the princess. “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,” implies some very high stakes, especially when the call for help has been hidden on a droid by a desperate prisoner of a ruthless empire. And yet, in response to that original plea, Luke Skywalker says No. The stakes are high, but not to him. Instead, the stakes that matter to Luke—the higher stakes in his world—are the needs of his family on the farm. But as soon as that family is taken from him by that same empire, he is ready to fight.
So the stakes for Luke at the opening of the story may seem small in the grand scheme of things—“help the family,” does not have the same magnitude as “rescue the princess.” Except it does to Luke, because it’s his own family at stake.
So don’t start with dismally low stakes, because no one wants to read about things that don’t matter. But you can start with stakes that matter intensely and fiercely, but on a smaller scale.
Here’s another example. At the opening of The Wizard of Oz, the stakes for Dorothy are that she must protect Toto. The life of a dog may seem like smaller stakes compared to some of the challenges Dorothy will face later in the story, but not to Dorothy at that moment. When Dorothy runs away from home to protect Toto, the stakes are very high for her. They will get higher—and in a lot of ways, they will get wider and broader—but she will never get away from her need to protect her dog.
Which leads me to…
No matter how big the stakes become—even when they grow to save-the-world level in size—the stakes need to stay focused on something “small” for the reader to care.
Let’s look at Star Wars again. When we meet Han Solo, his motives are all self-serving. He needs to save his own skin. Granted, these are life-and-death stakes—they are significant—but he’s not striving to save the galaxy from the evil empire. But later, after he’s achieved his goal and gotten his reward, he comes back into battle and helps to—quite literally—save the world (err… galaxy.) But he doesn’t do this because the stakes have escalated and he’s been sucked in by the bigger, world-saving stakes. He does it because of the smaller stakes—the need to save his friends. Specifically, when he returns he acts to save one life—Luke’s. The stakes have both grown and shrunk, but it’s the smaller stakes that make Han act.
Han even jokes at the end that he couldn’t leave and let the others get all the credit and all the reward! This joke works because those things really were at stake in the scene—someone will get the credit for destroying the Death Star—but we know these stakes didn’t play a part in what happened. Credit and reward once motivated Han, but they no longer do.
Which leads me to my final lesson learned about stakes…
Stakes are always going to depend on what matters most to your character.
Luke’s family, Dorothy’s dog, Han Solo’s friends. You can tell the most fascinating story with life-and-death, save-the-world stakes, but if the reader doesn’t feel that something matters to your character, she won’t care about your story.
I’ve learned this in a very hands-on way, by re-writing a scene over and over, frustrated by a lack of energy or excitement on the page. I’ve added more danger—higher heights to fall from, sharper blades to dodge. I’ve learned that a fight, no matter how fierce, is dull and boring if we don’t feel the weight of the thing the character is fighting for.
So yes—the adage to raise the stakes is a good one. This is what a writer should do. But it only works when the reader understands what matters. Then raise the stakes by putting that thing that matters at greater and greater risk.
The Wizard of Oz starts out with Dorothy trying to save her dog. Then the story raises the stakes. We are introduced to more characters and situations that matter to Dorothy, and those things—along with her dog—are put at greater and greater risk. In the end, she’s still trying to save Toto—plus a whole lot more—from a much more dangerous situation. And we care, because it all matters to Dorothy.
How do you feel about stakes? Do you find them to be a tricky part of writing? Do you have any methods or techniques to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!
Earliest man lived in small tribes. With fewer people, they relied on each other more. Such is the stuff of Historicals, Westerns, and Literary pioneer stories. When people died, especially in large numbers due to disease, famine, or drought, it preyed on the survivors' mortal fear of being alone. These stakes can heighten a story problem or create a scene conflict.
If the population of a planet is dying, Dick has an overall story problem.
If Jane feels alone in her marriage, she has a personal dilemma or overall story problem.
The situation in a dark, spooky mansion is heightened if Dick is alone, as would a perfectly normal forest. A planet would be terrifying if he was the only surviving astronaut.
The smaller the population, the higher the stakes of survival and the more claustrophobic the situation becomes. Put Dick in a city of a thousand people and he can easily get lost in the throng. That makes a good Mystery. Putting ten people in a space station makes a great Science Fiction story. Killing them off one by one makes a great Thriller or Horror story. Post apocalyptic stories explore our fear of being alone and the desire for survivors to find one another. Science Fiction stories explore our desire to not be alone in the universe.
On a personal level, most of us prefer to live with someone. A few thrive on the freedom of living alone.
How far is Jane willing to go to feel connected? Jane may marry someone she does not love, become friends with someone she wouldn’t otherwise, build a robot so she has a companion, join an organization she does not agree with, or draw a face on a football so she has someone to talk to on a deserted island.
How far is Dick willing to go to live alone? He might rent a cabin in the Dakota badlands or buy an island and find out he needs people after all.
Characters who are hurt by something or someone often withdraw from the people around them. Some do it for a week, others a month, at the most extreme end they withdraw from life entirely.
At the scene level Dick may need to be alone to accomplish something but all his well-meaning friends keep dropping by to chat.
Dick may momentarily find himself in an empty house, which creates the perfect opportunity for the ghost to visit.
Isolation adds an element of creepiness to any situation. It is a keystone of Horror stories. The characters must be trapped in a building, a city or on a planet from which there is no escape, so they must turn and face the horror instead of run away from it.
Isolation is critical in a Gothic novel for the same reason. The hapless governess cannot simply walk away from the creepy plantation house. She can’t board a bus or walk into a Starbucks. She can’t have a cell phone – not one that works anyway – or call a cab. She needs to be isolated so that she is forced to unravel the mystery or uncover the secret instead of running away at the first sign of trouble.
Isolation is also a key component of YA because so many teens feel isolated: from their family, their peers, their world. Isolation leads to depression and anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. The character can realize they aren’t alone after all. They can graduate high school and find their “soul mate” friends in college. They can leave their all-Caucasian neighborhood to live in a predominantly Hispanic one and find themselves at home, or find the new community has its share of issues to contend with.
In a Literary story, Sally might embrace her mid-life crisis by selling up and moving to a house in Italy only to realize the locals don’t want her there. All that high life and camaraderie she expected are denied her. The doors remain shut but the curtains are pulled to the side so they can spy on her. Sally sits in her wilting, rustic money pit an unscrupulous salesman talked her into and realizes she should have stayed at home. It was boring but people liked and accepted her there. If murders start happening, it could become a Mystery and Sally the sleuth forced to solve them. In a Thriller, someone could want her to leave their family home and she becomes the target.
In a Romance, the opposite could happen. Sally could feel isolated in her home town because all of her friends have moved away or moved on. Her family might not be supportive or emotionally connected. She kicks the traces and runs off to a charming seaside cottage in Ireland and finds the circle of friends she desperately needed and a lad with a charming brogue to keep her warm at night.
If Sally’s best friend is moving away, in a sense abandoning her, the situation can cause subtle conflict as Sally attempts to overcome the overall story problem or a momentary distraction at scene level.
You can use isolation to fuel any genre at any story level.
For more obstacles that create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.
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.
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.
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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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!
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.
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.
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.
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: