Developing Characters Part Two: Conflict and Plot

For Part One of Developing Characters, go here.

I'm sorry for the delay on part two, I've been learning a new Day Job and that's been a bit of a time suck.

But anyway, now we have our characters, we need to have our characters do something–there is a story they're involved in, a story we want to tell.

We call this story thing plot. There is a lot of great discussion on plot in the world, so I won't take the time to go over it now, but basically a story begins when conflict is either created or recognized as something to act on, an the conflict worsens and continues to increase pressure on our characters until the main conflict is resolved. Even if the ending isn't a happy one, there is a sense of resolution to it.

In a nutshell, plot is about change.

Conflict is an important part of any story; if plot is about change, then conflict is that drives the changes, and thus the plot, forward.

Once we have our characters formed and know what their comfortable (or at least normal) lives look like, then we can start to introduce conflict. We have to get them to move, to change. We introduce a love interest, a new job, a world conflict, a new bad guy, and we see what they do to react.

Then, just when they start to feel safe again, we pull a rug out from under them. Their love interest is the son of an arch enemy, or the wrong religion, or race, or might not be such a good guy after all (or maybe shouldn't be a guy). Their new job is actually working for the Devil, or goes against their morals, or requests them to move away from everything they know. The new bad guy knows a secret, has resources beyond our protagonist's knowledge, or holds some powerful weapon.

The list goes on. Plot keeps moving as long as we keep the conflict going, our main characters always on their toes, taking them away from what they think they want.

Writing instruction tells us that there are basic versions of conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Themselves, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Fate.

These are all neat and tidy, very good for diagramming and categorizing books being read, very good places for coffee and cigarette debates about what Camus's Stranger actually was fighting against. And that's great.

But rarely has this kind of thing helped me as a writer.

I try to put a person against fate, but come up with the big question: Why? Why is this person fighting against fate? It's fate–just go with it. The same happens with every other conflict – what is it that makes them conflicted? Why not just marry the handsome prince, why not just let life take it's course?

Every character has an option: just give in and stop fighting. To give in is easy, it's usually painless, or at least without the most heartache,

So again, we come to: Why? Why not just give in?

I believe that all conflict is at its core internal, or Person vs. Themselves.

Without a character's sense of what ought to be, what is right and wrong, what limits they will not cross and what lengths they will go to to protect these morals. Without these limits their lives would be much easier, but the story not as compelling.

It's the people who do not give in to conformity that the stories are written about, no matter how painful being different becomes. It is the dissonance, the cognitive pain of wanting two differnt things – the desire to go back and the need to move forward – that is the true conflict in any story.

It's important to find a character who can carry this conflict within themselves.

A woman in a brutally oppressive marriage falls in love with someone else. We all know she could leave at any time – even if the crazy ex might chase her down, she could go to the police, flee the country, kill the husband.

But she can't do those things until she herself is free in her mind. The importance of this story isn't about her falling in love with another person, but about how she responds to it. The lover is a new conflict, she has become free enough to let in love, a crack in her life appears and begins to widen, and she cannot go back.

We want to know why she stayed in her marriage, why she married the man to begin with. We want to know the shape of her bonds so we can read along and help her untie them.

She cannot leave her husband until she is not longer in her own cage. Sometimes this is impossible for our hero and she takes the only exit she can on a railroad track. But eventually she is free, and in some way so are we. The conflict is resolved.

But of course, a story is rarely just about one character and their inner demons driving them forward. It involves other characters who work with and against our protagonist. There are societal issues and past baggage that interplays between characters, and they work to make the plot move on its own to the inevitable if not obvious conclusion.

If we have done our ground work and made real people as our characters, this happens more easily.

But I'll have to get to that in my next installment. I still have The Novel to work on this night.

Happy writing.



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