Sunday, November 09, 2008

Swimming Practice: Characters and Conflict

How many times have you dived into the water and written a scene, believing that you’d captured the character and the central conflict of your story, only to emerge from that dream-world to find the scene flat, the conflict non-existent, still hidden?

It happens to me all the time, just as I suspect it happens to many writers.

But why does it happen?

I suspect it’s the result of diving into our stories too soon, before we truly know our characters or the situations in which they might find themselves.

Sometimes I find it helpful to spend time simply “dreaming” the story, putting down my pen and visualizing the setting and the characters, and watching (as if through a hidden window) what the characters are doing.

Another helpful method that you might consider using to gain deeper insights into your characters is to interview them.

All that you need to do is make a list of questions, such as: What does your character like to eat for breakfast? What’s his favorite snack? Her favorite color? What does he secretly desire or fear the most? Who does she have a crush on? What is his or her greatest weakness?

Each character is unique, and the answers to these kinds of questions can help bring a character to life in your imagination, even if you don’t use the information in the story.

Try starting with a minimum of ten questions. (Some writers, not satisfied with ten questions, make lists and lists of questions.) Then take the time to sit down with your characters and pose the questions to them... and write down their responses.

After you’ve finished the interviews, you’ll find yourself better equipped to determine the conflict in your story and, indeed, better able to see if your story has any conflict at all.

To determine if your story has conflict, ask yourself this question:

What are the opposing forces standing in the way of what my character wants?

If there are no opposing forces, or if you can’t identify them, then you don’t yet have a story.

Remember that somebody must want something, even if it’s a desire not to do something, and somebody else–or something–must keep your character from getting what she wants (or force her to do what she doesn’t want to do).

To better understand the forces which create conflict, consider the following situations, and think about what ingredients you might add to to stir up conflict:

a) a girl doesn’t want to go to a party, but....
b) a boy wants to go fishing, but....
c) a girl wants to leave the castle and explore forest, but...
d) a boy doesn’t want to do homework, but...

Come up with five more situations that reveal conflict.

Then turn to your characters–who you’ve spent time interviewing and whose secrets you know–and place them in a situation with potential conflict and see how they respond.

Try to create at least two situations.

In the first situation, show your character wanting something, and something--or someone-- standing in his or her way.

In the second situation, show your character not wanting to do something, and something--or someone--is forcing them to do it.

By developing these different situations, you may discover:

a) Characters who want something encounter conflict when they meet an opposing force-- something or someone--that keeps them from getting what they want. (The scene or story is about them figuring out how to get past the opposition. It’s a bit like hitting a wall and needing to find a way around it.)

b) Characters who don’t want to do something, but encounter an opposing force (something or someone) that insists that they do it, are involved in a different conflict, a kind of tug-of-war. (The challenge in such a situation is for them to figure out how to avoid being pulled over the line... and how to pull in the direction that they want to go in.)

So, if you’re ready to start this exercise, put down your pen and spend a few minutes visualizing your character in a specific situation.

Can you see the full picture–the dreamscape of setting and the character? Can you feel what he or she is feeling? (Only when you feel what your character is feeling should you pick up your pen and start writing.)

After you finish this exercise and climb out of the water, let us know if the exercise worked. Anything to add? Anything that didn’t work?

Good luck as you explore your characters and the conflicts that drive their stories.

For more on characters and conflict, visit:


Jack said...

Amen, to your theme on finding the conflict that will engage a reader in a story. It's easy to be seduced into enjoying the setting and characters in writing a story, but in my more lucid moments I have to agree that without a conflict and its tensions, the reader may not stay around long enough to enjoy the other elements with you.

I hadn't realized you were doing your draft writing with pen and paper? Something else for me to wonder about trying.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Hard to get at that underlying conflict, but it's there... and we avoid it at our peril (and the reader's, too).