Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Feeling Conflicted

The title of this post is meant to be a clever play on my topic today, why conflict matters in a story. It has nothing to do with "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" and certain feelings I have toward a certain character. I'm not all that conflicted, actually. I want him dead. But it's a Whedon production, so I have a lot of pain to get through before anything like that can happen.

Anyway, conflict. I started my last class of college, a class on writing YA/MG novels. Everyone in the class has to lead a pedagogy exercise. The first one was about conflict and why it's important in telling a powerful story.

This was interesting to me, especially as a genre writer. I've read some criticism of genre that it focuses too much on plot and conflict and not enough on character, and that's a fair point. However, I think that conflict and character go hand in hand. This may be my way of rationalizing conflict in with my overriding philosophy that without good characters, a story won't work as it should.

I do think that a story needs good characters. If the reader's going to spend so much time with them, they have to like them, sympathize with them, relate with them, or just root for them for some reason. I've read books where I either hated the character or felt nothing for them, and I finish the book feeling either meh or cheated, depending. But if we have a character people can root for, they, of course, have to be struggling against something. You don't root for the guy who's doing nothing and has everything going well in his life; you root for the person who has one heck of a battle ahead of him.

Could be to drop the One Ring in Mt. Doom, could be to finally get a new job. But it's got to be hard, relatively speaking, for the character. The best conflicts I've seen have been ones where the conflict seems like just a little (or a lot) more than the protagonist can handle. This may be action (12 men against 1), or it could be mental or emotional. Maybe it takes everything your protagonist has to tell her boyfriend she loves him. Depends on character, depends on what they need to grow and their weaknesses. I've read that the best way to hurt your characters is to hit them where they're weakest. Conflict can come from there, too.

The girl who taught the class on memorable, meaningful conflict asked us to think of stories that had conflict we liked and some that we didn't. The Fault in Our Stars was a top favorite, along with The Lord of the Rings and The Giver. These stories have conflict that is compelling to the reader (think, ouch) and are meaningful in how they impact the reader and the characters (more ouch, but personalized). Stories that didn't make it were Nicholas Sparks romances and action movies, where there's a lot of action but no real feeling of urgency.

She ended with a list of questions for writers to keep in mind when writing conflict, and I'm going to list them here. They were really good and help to think about conflict and characters and how the two interplay to create a compelling story.

1. Why do you (yes, you, the author) care about the conflict?
2. Why should your reader care about the conflict?
3. What does the character want? Can she get it easily? What stands in her way? Should there be more adversity in order for the conflict to feel important?
4. What will she give up in order to obtain her desire? Are these things internal or external?
5. How will getting what she wants affect those around her? Will it hurt them? Help them?
6. What's at risk? How high are the stakes? What will happen if she doesn't get what she wants?
7. Are there issues of time/placement/back story/character clashing that can make this "the perfect storm" (without feeling contrived)?
8. What information does the reader need to see/know in order to understand the weight of the conflict?
9. What failures need to happen before the climax? Successes?
10. What does the character need to learn/become in order to get what she wants? Are there people she needs to meet? Skills she needs to learn? Character flaws she needs to embrace or overcome?

These questions were really useful for me, helping me see some additional pain I could put my character through to heighten the conflict in his story. More conflict, more pain, leads to a more interesting story when it's done well. I guess I can't fault Whedon too much.

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