Tag Archives: character

Writing Tip Wednesday: The Nature of Conflict

When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.

One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.

Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.

I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.

And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.

Right? Right.

Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.

And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.

Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.

The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”

No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.

Keep writing!

Struggle

Writing is fits and starts. It is slog and glide. It is by turns frustrating and exhilarating and frustrating yet again. This is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is doing you a disservice.

Earlier this week, I found myself struggling with my work-in-progress. The story had been moving along well until, without any warning, my momentum stalled. I had turned to a new section, switching point of view characters, and my new narrator was grappling with self-doubt, churning through emotions that required exploration. They were as difficult for me to describe as they were for her to process.

Yesterday, as she finally achieved a bit of clarity, so did my writing. I regained the momentum I had lost, and she moved forward again, emotionally and physically.

Now, I suppose it’s not super revelatory that as our characters struggle, we often do, too, and that clarity for them can carry with it clearer storytelling for us. But it does go to the heart of an essential truth about the creative process: Writing is not a linear act, any more than any other artistic venture. In this case, my character struggled, and I struggled along with her. She had to go through that period of self-doubt. The epiphany that came to her couldn’t have arrived earlier. She had to earn it. And so in this case, it was okay that I lost some momentum. That was what had to happen for both of us to move on.

Sometimes that’s not the case. My struggles don’t always coincide with those of my narrators. Sometimes I just scuffle. And that’s part of writing as well. Again, this is not a uniformly linear process.

Writing is fits and starts. It is slog and glide. It is by turns frustrating and exhilarating and frustrating yet again. This is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is doing you a disservice. But the rewards, in my experience, are always worth the pain. It’s a cliché, but one that is worth repeating: If writing were easy, if the challenges were less daunting, the successes would be less sweet.

Embrace the struggle. It is endemic to the creative act.

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Emotion and Narrative

So how do we imbue our prose with emotion? Well, we DON’T do it with a sledge hammer. I am not telling you to bludgeon your readers with paragraphs-long explorations of your characters’ emotions. That would be no better than a data dump. Sometimes all we need is a gesture or moment’s expression — the twitch of a lip, a nervous gesture with the hands, the refusal to look someone in the eye. Delving into emotion doesn’t mean eschewing subtlety.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words, and it’s about imbuing our writing with emotion. To my mind, few things are more important for effective story telling. Read more here. Enjoy, and keep writing!

Quick-Tip Tuesday Is Back, with Ro Laren!

But simply adding a character isn’t always enough. Sure, a love interest can spice things up, or a new villain can ratchet up the tension. But sometimes what a story needs is both more subtle than those options, and also more dramatic.

This week’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words. Today we’re talking about adding characters to our stories to shake things up a bit and infuse energy into our narratives. The piece was inspired by watching an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. It’s called “Quick-Tip Tuesday: What We Can Learn From Ro Laren.” I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Giving Secrets to Your Characters

Giving secrets to our characters sets up plot points for our stories. But secrets do more than that. They add dimension and richness to our characters.  Those secrets become the source of our characters’ vulnerabilities, and often their strengths as well. They get in the way of relationships; or they enhance them. They can put the lives of our characters in danger; and they can enable our characters to escape those perils.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words grows out of a course I’m teaching for Odyssey Online. The course is called “Point of View: The Intersection of Character and Plot,” and I’m having a great time teaching it.

The post that went up this morning is on giving secrets to our characters as a way of making them deeper, richer, and more interesting. I hope you find it helpful and interesting. You can find the post here.

Today on the Blog Tour: Nemesis and Protagonist

One of the things that the first book did not do — because it wasn’t necessary to the plot — was to set up a nemesis for Jay Fearsson who would outlast the narrative of this particular novel. I mean someone like Leo Pellisier in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock novels, or Sephira Pryce in the Thieftaker Chronicles, or the rival powers in C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator series: a character who represents both danger and opportunity for the protagonist, someone who challenges my hero, who threatens him, but who also relates to his darker side.

As I say, there was no room in the first book for such a character. But in the second there is. His name is Jacinto Amaya . . . .

The 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour resumes today, after a brief hiatus, with a post at the Magical Words blog site. The post is about creating a long-term nemesis for our protagonist and what that can to infuse energy into our stories. I use His Father’s Eyes, the second volume in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, as a case study for this. I hope you find it helpful. You can find the post here.

POV and Q&A, Today on the Blog Tour!

As writers we should be deliberate in choosing the proper voice for each story. We shouldn’t choose third person simply because the market might prefer it, as once it did, nor should we automatically gravitate toward first person just because that voice is in vogue right now. Rather, we need to consider several factors in choosing the right POV voice and, for that matter, the correct point of view character.

Today’s installments of the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour take me to the blogs of two dear friends.

Lucienne Diver is not only a wonderful writer, she is also a fantastic agent, and I should know, because she has represented me for about fifteen years now. I am at her blog today with a post about point of view, and its uses as a narrative tool. Using the examples of Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth Thieftaker novel, which came out a couple of weeks ago, and His Father’s Eyes, the second volume in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I discuss how I choose the correct voice for a novel. You can read the post here; I hope you find it helpful.

Brandy Schillace, author, academic, blogger, reviewer, friend extraordinaire, has been kind enough to host me again on her Fiction Reboot. Today, I answer questions about the Thieftaker books, writing, history, and magic. You can find the interview here.

Enjoy!

A Better Day

First off, my deepest thanks to all who left comments of support and encouragement and advice in response to yesterday’s post. Your words helped. Your good wishes helped. I knew already that I was not alone in feeling those things; the universality of those struggles I cataloged was one of the reasons I wrote the post in the first place. But hearing from so many of you that you understood from personal experience what I was going through, made it just a little easier. So again, thank you all.

And I’m happy to say that today was easier. There was no bursting of the dam, no comprehensive epiphany, but I didn’t expect either. Figuring out this new project is going to take some time. Today I made progress on my worldbuilding and some character work. I have something I can point at and say, “I did that today. I’m closer to where I want to be.”  And tomorrow, I’ll get closer still.

Feeling better.

 

A Very Special Interview

Today on the unofficial Winter 2014-15 Spell Blind Blog Tour I have a very special post up at the website of Lucienne Diver, writer, agent, friend. The post is an interview with Namid’skemu, a character from Spell Blind and the other volumes of The Case Files of Justis Fearsson.

Namid, as he is known, is a runemyste, the spirit of a Zuni shaman and weremyste who was sacrificed centuries ago by the runeclave and imbued after his death with enormous magical powers. He is now a guardian of magic in our world and he is Justis “Jay” Fearsson’s mentor in all matters relating to spellcraft.

He is not the most effusive of beings and getting him to sit down for an interview was not easy at all. So I hope you enjoy this. You can find the interview here.

Writing About Character at Magical Words

Today, I am back at Magical Words with a post about character and character relationships in Spell Blind, the first book in The Case Files of Justis Fearsson. The post is part of my continuing unofficial Spell Blind Winter 2014-15 Blog Tour. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.