Blog Post on a Craft Book that helped solve a writing challenge, Book Review, and a short essay on Conflict all rolled into one.
The call for this blog post was to talk about a craft book that helped solve a writing challenge. It attracted my attention because recently I was preparing a presentation on the idea that characterization is different from character, and character is all about conflict. I say this knowing that some experts use the terms interchangeably, and others define characterization the way I am going to address the term character.
In preparing my presentation, I read a few old books and found a new one.
I revisited Robert McKee’s Story. According to McKee, “Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes—all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization … but it is not character.
“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature. Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. As he chooses, he is. Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.”
I reread John Gardener, who agreed. “The character must for some reason feel compelled to act, effecting some change, and he must be shown to be a character capable of action. This means, in effect, that in the relationship between character and situation there must be some conflict: Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces, both within and outside, must exert strong pressure against that course of action. Both pressures must come not only from outside the character but also from within him, because otherwise the conflict involves no doubt, no moral choice, and as a result can have no profound meaning. (All meaning, in the best fiction, comes from—as Faulkner said—the heart in conflict with itself. All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.)
I revisited John Truby, who said conflict is necessary not merely for the establishment of character, but for character growth. “Once you set up a hero and an opponent competing for the same goal, you must build the conflict steadily until the final battle. Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change. The way you build conflict and put pressure on your hero depends primarily on how you distribute the attacks on the hero. In average or simple stories, the hero comes into conflict with only one opponent. This standard opposition has the virtue of clarity, but it doesn’t let you develop a deep or powerful sequence of conflicts, and it doesn’t allow the audience to see a hero acting within a larger society. KEY POINT: A simplistic opposition between two characters kills any chance at depth, complexity, or the reality of human life in your story. For that, you need a web of oppositions.
Then I found a next text: UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT (And What It Really Means) by Janice Hardy. (2017)
A blurb on the back cover of UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT states that it, “helps writers weed out common myths about conflict that have perpetually returned them back to the drawing board with their fiction. Discussions on how tension does not equal conflict, and how creating obstacles for your character does not necessarily mean you’ve generated conflict, help make this definitive guide as to what conflict is, what it is not, and how to create it in your stories.”
Inside the book, it promises, “an in-depth study and analysis of what conflict really means and how to use it in your writing. It will help you understand the different layers of conflict and how they work together to create the problems and goals in your story, as well as explore the elements of writing that affect conflict, such as stakes and character motivations. It will discuss the common problems that result from a lack of conflict, and offer suggestions and tips on how to strengthen conflict in your story.”
To begin, Hardy thoroughly discusses what conflict really means and illustrates the differences between conflict of the plot and conflict of the character. For example, she shows how if you introduce a plot obstacle, your character’s attempts at grappling with that obstacle will not necessarily add to the establishment of his character.
Example: ‘If the protagonist must sneak into a building and steal the plans, if she can disable the security, then she can break into the building (protagonist vs security), and steal the plans. It’s a “something to do” challenge.’ If she is an experienced sleuth or burglar, she figures it out and it’s done. Conflict resolved without her character being altered. On the other hand, ‘if she has to use her thieving skills she’s been trying to keep a secret from her new boyfriend (she can’t both get the plans and keep the secret, so she has to choose which is more important to her) then there is an emotional struggle that develops and reveals character regardless of how she decides.
Hardy goes on to point out that conflict and the character arc are not the same thing. While in many books the character changes by undergoing conflict situations, in some stories such as thrillers or police procedurals, or novels in a series, there are no character arcs. “While the protagonist usually faces internal conflicts, there’s no change or growth from the beginning to the end of the story.”
The book also offers reasons and examples of why writers struggle with conflict (it isn’t one size fits all or using the wrong conflict); motivations and reasons for conflict, stakes, and the different levels of conflict, such as core conflicts, person to person conflict, person versus self conflict, person versus nature conflict, person versus society conflict, and so on.
One chapter near the end of the book reads like an addendum to a rejection letter. It explains common reasons for weak or no conflict: The conflict doesn’t drive the plot, there are no goals, there is only one major goal, there are too many goals, the readers don’t care about the conflict, there are no choices, there is no point to the conflict, everything is too easy to overcome, the conflicts are contrived, the protagonist is incredibly lucky, there are no motivations to act, things feel too convenient, the conflict is just a delay tactic.
Ever heard any of these before? Well, Hardy does a nice job of describing what they look like in a manuscript and in the final chapter offers “Ways to Create Conflict in Your Manuscript.” It’s meaty and filled with excellent suggestions. I’m not going to give away all of the goodies. For Hardy’s benefit, I’m going to encourage you to get the book. I will repeat her last note to the reader, which is choice. She says, “Go Cause Trouble.”
The book makes a sizeable promise, yet one that it delivers on. It’s a book that is enlightening to the trained writer as well as the beginner, it both awakens and deepens understanding of conflict in a significant way.
It’s not expensive–$9.99. It contains practical examples and can usefully be consulted on a spot basis. I pronounce it to be one of the more thoughtful, practical, and accessible books on the subject. Highly recommended.
Cynthia M. Surrisi is a 2014 VCFA grad and Gold Moonbeam Award winner. She lives in Asheville, NC and teaches writing for children and young adults at UNCA, but will soon move to Minnesota. A member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and SCBWI, you can connect with her at https://cmsurrisi.com, @csurrisi, or on her FB author page C. M. Surrisi. Her books are THE MAYPOP KIDNAPPING, VAMPIRES ON THE RUN, A SIDE OF SABOTAGE, and THE BEST MOTHER.