Kats n’ Dogs: The Importance of Conflict In Writing

I live in a veritable menagerie of animal and child chaos. Now, we’re down by one basset just this last year and it’s been more quiet without our Bailey girl, but her brother still manages a good ugly face when the cat garners more attention than he thinks she should. Yet she keeps insisting that he enjoys her arching-cat rub beneath his saggy jowls, calico tail flicking into his cataract plagued eyes.

He secretly does.

Until he sees us watching.

Then he’s all bark and tiny overbite snaps at the air above her.

“Knock it off, I don’t like it. I don’t like you.”

But we know better.

It got me thinking about conflict and what makes it work in our novels and stories.

We all know the basics of conflict as it pertains to our writing. That it needs to be between our main character and some other source (i.e. a person, technology, the weather, the government, their past etc.). That it drives the character to escape, succeed, fail, run (to or from) all important story climax points that keep the reader engaged.

But when I think of this kind of conflict, I think about writing romance.

Ok, look away and or stop reading if you think this has nothing to do with your historical fiction on the Prussian War…but I’ve only got a few more words left and it may give you a little insight.

Sometimes the conflict comes in the not wanting to want what we want. It comes when two characters rub each other the wrong way, precisely because it’s kind of the right way and they both hate admitting it. Two characters (leads in your story, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation) who get riled up by the other are usually, in some way, riled up about how much they don’t hate them despite knowing they should.

patrick and kat2

One of the best examples of this is Kat’s final speech in 10 Things I Hate About You. (I GET that its from a teenage snippy version of ‘Taming The Shrew’ but bear with me because that movie is actually quite brilliant and the principal is a romance novelist who spends a great deal of the movie looking for synonyms to the word “penis”).

It is a play on the beloved Shakespearean 141st Sonnet, beginning with “In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes…” and underscores this principle of why not wanting to love someone can be the most powerful motivator of behavior and conflict.

“I hate the way you talk to me
And the way you cut your hair
I hate the way you drive my car
I hate it when you stare

I hate your big dumb combat boots
And the way you read my mind
I hate you so much that it makes me sick
It even makes me rhyme

I hate the way you’re always right
I hate it when you lie
I hate it when you make me laugh
Even worse when you make me cry

I hate the way you’re not around
And the fact that you didn’t call
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you
Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.”

It’s in the breaching of walls, the naked vulnerability, and the human exposition that binds us as readers to the character, and makes us fall just as hard as they do.

You may not have swooning shirtless people with wind machines in the background, mussing their perfectly golden locks, while they embrace ecstatically, but I bet that you have a character that you want your reader to root for. And that means creating conflict that resonates with the deeper tendrils of human emotion hidden beneath the layers of caustic comebacks and snide remarks.

Your conflict doesn’t have to drive your character into the arms of their reluctant beloved, it just has to drive them into the hungry hands of your readers.

Happy Writing!

The Power of A Flat Character

Hey kids! Today’s blog is all about writing, specifically pinpointing a very prevalent problem novelists face.

Flat characters.

Now, most of my novels are character driven. That is to say, I begin with a person. A beautifully flawed and imperfect hero who has a problem. Hopefully a big problem. (If they don’t have a reason to cry, by God, I’ll give them one!) And normally, not to pat myself on the back, I can write a pretty interesting character. Someone readers want to follow through the ups and downs of plot arcs.

And yet…

When I found myself mired in yet another round of editing my latest novel, wondering why nothing was working and everything seemed so boring and flat in nearly all of my scenes, I realized the story was trying to support dead weight. That is…my character was not providing any sort of flame to heat the story. They were just being pulled along by their circumstances. She was the equivalent of a wet blanket draped across a closeline, pulling both ends of it down in the middle.

I started this novel many years ago around a situation. And the situation was driving the plot. Instead of my character driving the story, she was just a passenger. Not only does that make everything in writing your novel a struggle, it also makes it less interesting for your readers. No one wants to know about the girl sitting complacently in the back seat. They want to know who in the hell is driving the car and how close it is to the cliff.

All the rounds of editing were wasted in trying to make the scenes and plot more vibrant but it never seemed to be enough. Because it couldn’t carry itself and her lazy ass too. A flat character, lacking depth, quirks, a solid core of values or lack thereof, is like an empty billboard in the middle of a field. Taking up the view without contributing to it.

So I’m back to the drawing board and today, I’m going to start it right. I’m starting with a detailed account of just who this girl is and what drives her. If it’s not interesting enough then I’m going to try out some weird shit until that awe inspiring ‘ah-ha’ hits me between the eyes. And then I’ll re examine every page of her story to see if she’s behaving the way she would and saying the things she should. The story will change, scenes will change, her interaction with others and the direction they head will change. I’ve got a ton of work ahead of me.

It’s going to be like starting over and I’m a little disheartened by that. But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right and I’m not ready to give up on her just yet.

After all, she does know how to shoot, bakes the best biscuits in the county, and can shear an angora goat in under a minute-thirty.

(By the way, the world record for sheep shearing is 37.9 seconds. Goats take longer, because they’re feisty and require a more careful ‘clipping’ technique.)

more you know

Don’t be lazy. In the same way certain Robin Hood actors wouldn’t learn a British accent (ooo, Kevin Costner BURN!) don’t half-ass your main character. They should carry the story, not drag it down.

What are some of your favorite character development tools?