Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I have another question to answer - or rather two questions, both from Johanna. But as they're really both parts of the same question and the answers tangle together, I'm going to deal with them together -

Johanna says:

We're told to 'raise the stakes' and create really strong conflicts for our characters, but do you ever worry that they might not be able to overcome their problems in order to find a HEA? (I ask this from the stance of someone who's dug herself into several holes that she couldn't get out of!)

Oh yes I worry that my characters might not overcome their problems and I might not get them out of that hole easily - often- but I really believe that that's when you have created a real 'dig deeper' gut twisting, soul wrenching conflict for yourself - and your characters. One that can create a dynamite story. And one then that can be sustained right through the book, changing, developing, adding more complications until you resolve it at the end. For me that is often the start of a book - and the challenge in writing it - the fact of digging a hole for my characters and chucking them into it and then seeing how the heck I get them out of there.
But you asked about the resolution and that 'how the heck I get them out of there' is very important - vital here.

You see it depends how they got in that hole. Did you decide just to put them in there - or did they dig the hole for themselves?

If that hole your characters are in is purely a plot device - you as the author put them in there because it seems like a great idea. It will make a great scene, create a great conflict, then it may well prove impossible to resolve that particular conflict because it is one that hasn't grown organically from your characters. It hasn't developed from who they are, what they believe in and why they are feeling the way they are right now. But it it's a hole that that they've dug for themselves, by the things they've said, the way they've acted through the story then looking (again) at why they've behaved as they do, asking them questions, how are they feeling, why have they reacted in that way, what could make it worse, what could make it better will usually find a way out of it.

I think that a lot of the answer to this question comes with the answer to another one you asked: after reading a comment Lynn Raye Harris had written on the Pink Heart Society blog, you quoted:

"What the editors had done for me on the continuity was think very long and hard about the internal conflicts of the characters. They gave me a roadmap of events that needed to occur, of course, but the internal conflict was so strong there could be little doubt how my characters would behave when confronted by the external events."

and said : This made me wonder, could you maybe list a few examples of good strong inner conflicts? to help us differentiate between a strong one and a weak one. (Asking this feels a bit like asking you to come up with an idea for a book, so maybe it's too much to ask!) But it was just an idea I had, because I often come up with story ideas, then find halfway through the book that they're too weak on their own, not strong enough to fill a whole book.

I'm not actually going to list what I think are 'good strong inner conflicts' - not because I'm mean or because I don't have the time (I don't really but that's another matter!) but because I want you to look at this problem from a different angle. I'm going to say that if an inner conflict peters out halfway through a book, if it's 'not strong enough to fill a whole book' then probably the problem lies, as it usually does in most conflicts that go wrong, with not knowing your characters enough.

Because the truth is that a conflict that is important enough to your hero or heroine, one that goes deep into their character, their beliefs, their values, is one that they re not going to give up one, concede on very easily.

Take a look again at what I said and then what Anne McAllister says about The Virgin's Proposition in an earlier post: There is the basic conflict that I looked at, Anne's additions - what complicates that orginal conflict and then changes it as her hero and heroine get to know each other - and then there is this important line -

It usually comes down to a question, at the end, of "what one of them wants the most, the other fears the most" for whatever reason. It's real conflict on a gut level that comes from externals (the real world), internals (past experience) and the now which is: are they able to love each other unreservedly and give the other what each of them needs. Love is always a risk. And they have to find the courage to take it.

Because even when the external conflict and some of the internal conflicts are taken away, there is still this one huge emotional conflict - Love is always a risk.

I think in real life, we all find that out anyway. Even with the easiest and most straight forward of romantic relationships, ones where we meet our 'other half' and look forward to happy ever after, there is always that risk - that worry for some, fear for others, doubt, uncertainty that will the other person feel the same? For most of us, thankfully, there is no other conflict complicating that risk, but if you add in the other emotional conflicts that we write into a story then as Anne says, everything combines - externals (the real world), internals (past experience) and the now to create a real conflict on a gut level.

For me the real answer to a sustained lasting, strong conflict is that you know your characters deeply and intimately. You know why they act and feel as they do, why something is a conflict to them - something that may not be a conflict to anyone else. You know why they actually feel that, no matter how fiercely attracted they are to this one person (their hero or heroine) deep down inside they really feel that this person is absolutely the wrong person for them to fall in love with - or they are absolutely the wrong person for that other to fall in love with. Usually this is because they don't know the other person - or themselves - well enough. They think they are acting in one way because it's the only way.

You as their author know that there is another way but they just can't see it. Your job is to create reasons why they just can't see it and why - slowly, perhaps painfully, stumblingly , they come to realise that other way. I say slowly painfully because I have never ever believe in the 'quick conversion' - the 'Road to Damascus' conversion where, say, the hero, having believed that the heroine is a slut and a gold-digger suddenly sees that she is doing all this for her sick mother/father/baby brother . . . and sees the light in a blinding flash. That's the 'rabbit out of a hat' resolution and I can never believe in their happy ever after ending. Happy for now perhaps, but the reasons for the way he thought of her like that are still there - in him. Because they came from him and there hasn't been a fundamental change in him, only someone giving him proof he can't deny. It is that fundamental change that you are looking for. And it comes about purely because he has met this other person and wants to change for them.

But being a fundamental change, people don't do that easily. They resist it, fight it all the way, try to change then fall back into their 'default' position. Each couple of steps forward has a balancing step backward because this thing that they are groping towards - Love - is such a risk.

The initial conflict starts off the story but gradually that story becomes one of resisting the inevitable - so that along with the 'fight' over whatever conflict you have set up you have the emotional conflict which is that person fighting themselves because they don't want to take that blind leap out of the plane and into the unknown when they have no idea whether their parachute (ie the other person's feelings) will even open for them and they might crash to their (emotional) death. Because somewhere through that stumbling journey they have reached a point where there's no turning back . Where they can't walk away, never look back because they will always leave a part of themselves in the hands of (metaphorically) this person. So the original conflict morphs into this particular, very personal, very internal, very emotional conflict - which is the real reason why your reader is reading the book - for the emotional journey.

The way to follow your characters on that journey is to know them as well and as deeply as you can.

And - you knew it was coming - always, always, keep on asking WHY?

To go back to your original question, for me there's a special thrill in knowing that my characters - and I - have got themselves into such a hole it's going to be tough, painful and emotional to get them outof there. But I love that challenge. The challenge of finding out just why they are in this situation, what can help them get out of there - and how - and why that will come about.

It isn't always easy but those challenging 'holes' often create the best stories if you don't let yourself lose your courage and run away from them.

(C)Kate Walker


Caroline said...

Great stuff! Thanks Kate. Caroline x

Kerrin said...

this is y favourite post on conflict, Kate - thanks for this!!

LindaC said...

Kate, I've found this workshoo really useful and I hope you do it again. I've been copying and pasting for future reference.



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