March 3rd, 2011


In Which We Conflict

Or, The Importance of Headology


When I was a wee Writer Monkey, I had an English teach in the eighth grade who taught me many important things about Literature. I only had her for a semester, and I was very sad to leave, and I will never, ever forget her. Her name was Mrs. Richardson, she taught me the elements of fiction. Not only was she the architect of Plot Mountain (which also, er, showed us the effectiveness of the well-worn adage of showing, not telling), but she also drilled into our little eighth-grade underdeveloped brain pans the importance of conflict.

She did this by making sure we understood the different types of conflict, to whit:

Character vs Character

Character vs Self

Character vs Nature (or God, or The Powers That Be).

There’s been a lot query letter chatter out there from agent-y type blogs about conflict. Apparently, there’s a dearth of muddied slush from writers not telling the agent what the book is actually about, even though they think they are. What agents and editors are looking for, what makes a book salable (i.e. what makes a customer pick up your book in the first place) is conflict. 

Think about it: why do people tune in to the Jerry Springer Show? For the salient The Issues of Today? Or the sheer Olympic level of chair flinging, swearing, and general mob rule? When you have security guards on camera at least three times every episode, you’ve got conflict. Conflict comes from character interactions, dirty little secrets, past loves and rivalries, and outside obstacles. Usually these outside obstacles trigger internal conflicts that cause characters to say and do the things they do. As Granny Weatherwax would say, that’s headology.

So what I like to do for my protagonist, as recommended by TWN, is make a list of Wants. Wants, desires and dreams are what drive people to do a lot of what they do, so a list of character wantings makes sense. I like to take it a couple steps further, though, and for each Wanting, I like to add a Conflict followed by a possible Resolution the protag can use to try to alleviate said Conflict to clear the way for the striving once again. 

For instance, let’s take FK’s initial conflict at the time Our Story opens:

Want: To make a fresh start on his life. In order to do this, he needs money to buy a ship. The most expedient source of money he can get is hands on is his inheritance.

Conflict: FK is a fallen knight, but dear old dad is the keeper of the family chest and he’s the epitome of knighthood, not to mention the Knight-Guardian of his hometown (i.e. he’s in charge). He’s not keen on coughing up the dough until FK can prove that he’s still a knight at heart despite his past behavior (i.e. disappearing for several years without a trace).

Resolution: Write DOD off as a bad job and pursue other, probably shadier, options even though he is trying to leave that sort of life behind. To do this he needs to make his way to the nearest large port city to see what his prospects might be.

Here we have a nice combination (if I do say so myself) of conflict. Character vs Character is FK versus the moral sensibilities of DOD, who’s not giving up the coin to help out his son, mainly cuz he’s royally pissed said son disappeared for several years without so much as a post card. Character vs Self is the actions FK displays in response to this denial, based on the guilt he feels about his past that he doesn’t want to clue DOD in on (guilt and shame qualify as internal conflict). Character vs Nature comes when he nears his destination only to find it destroyed (character versus Cruel Fate, to revealed later as Character, and neatly giving me an Inciting Incident at the 10% mark).

The conflict dynamic of Character vs Self gives us a wealth of opportunity to show rather than tell. It also comes from Back Story, which is the next stop on our TWN journey. It drives action and motivation and gives us a deep, dark well from which to draw the information we need to inform said action and dialogue.

What we've started here is the all-important Chain of Events, built on the steps of want-conflict-possible resolution, which in turn builds story. 

Next Time: Back Story