Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Combat, Clash and Herding Cats


A Good Story must have conflict.
A suspense tool, among other things.
Conflict - of the gut-wrenching, ball-squeezing kind.
Excuse me there, must get out of John's POV.
External conflict. Internal conflict.
Bleeds into character, of course. Nothing is ever isolated and comparmentalized in fiction.
Skimming over the topic at random, we might classify:
External conflict may be (1) the bad guys ( or family and other animals) are after them (peace), or Romans ( or aliens) at the walls (war), or the environment ( blizzards, Vesuvius, ship wreck, pandemic.) All physical survival.
You know, the usual.
Internal conflict may be (1) she hates him on sight, his brother hates him, (2) they have huge misunderstandings ( false friends and friendly fire), (3) class, nationality, experience, morality - all create inherent conflicts, or (4) conflicts about honour, loyalty, duty.
The use of conflict and - more important perhaps - the character's reactions/methods of dealing with it, may arise from the writer's own reaction to conflict.
So I wondered.
How do you personally deal with private conflict and hurt? And does this blood seep into your characters?
That is the Question of the Day.
It's a good thing I've never been involved in physical/street sort of conflict. I have a berserker streak. I'm afraid it might be unleashed. There's a point when all the generations of civilized imprinting in the world can go for naught.
Psychological conflicts - after they reach a certain point, since I'm reasonably patient and forgiving - I tend to be blunt.
Then I don't call a spade a spade - I use a bloody shovel.
Gratuitous conflicts - that come out of no-where - I fire all guns.
Damn your eyes.
Hurts I tend to hide, wounded animal crawls away sort of thing.
Realized some of these habits have infected my main character.
Who would have thought?
I do think the characters reaction to standard conflicts - not the conflicts themselves - is what truly develops the story.

45 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree about the character's reactions. To me the story is a process of discovery, and a big part of that is seeing what the characters will do, how they'll react, to the situations they face.

And I'm more of a character reader than a plot reader, so character is of supreme importance. Any story where the character doesn't change or struggle is usually one not worth reading, IMHO.

Ball squeezing. Ah Bernita, you make me laugh! Bonnie's corrupting you with her jokes.

Tsavo Leone said...

Catharsis - which isn't that stuff blocking your nose in case anyone was wondering - comes in many forms.

I used to use my writing for catharsis, playing out violent scenes as a way of exorcising my own inner demons. These days though, I'm medicated so my personal demons are a little more sedate than they once were (save the rare occasion when they threaten to overpower me).

As such, my prose tends to be simply that, with a little Mary Jane-ing when it comes to issue resolution (I'm blessed/cursed with a bi-polar nature, so that allows for either a positive or negative outcome). It's fiction rather than allegorical or analogous (sp?).

(Yes, I have posted some of my earlier pieces on my blog, and some of those are old wounds which have healed over somewhat now.)

On the rare occasions when I venture into poetry however, that's a different story. A good friend recently commented that she thought me Catholic due to my poetry (I'm actually areligous). I do, where possible, try to attain a level of ambiguity with my poetry (no one likes a whiner), but that tends to be my outlet for the less pleasant feelings I sometimes experience.

Bernita said...

You wound me, Sandra, I thought I was corrupt before I met Bonnie - and that's why I so relate to her jokes. I suppose we all like to think we're more wicked than we actually are.

One thing I really like to read is a character who discovers strengths they didn't know they had.But then I get affectionate about those stories where the the kid/ old lady/gentle sort kicks the shit out of the bad guys.
Perhaps I'm simple minded, but I like the trump in the hand.

I recognize gray in the real world, Tsavo,sometimes I champion it; but I do like resolution in fiction - bad or good - preferrably good. My simple mind again, I suppose.

Erik Ivan James said...

"Question of the Day."

The blood of my private conflict and hurt does not "seep" into my characters, it flows.

I too tend to bury hurt and regection somewhere within me. I do not enjoy real world conflict anymore. I've experienced more than I wanted.

Tsavo Leone said...

As for conflict resolution in fiction, I'm somewhat open minded. The reality of it all is that the good guy doesn't always win. To that end, and though it may buck the trend, sometimes I let the bad guy get away with it.

That being as may... I also like to revisit characters (a trait no doubt influenced by Stephen King and Clive Barker), so that's not to say that the bad guy gets away scott free - no good deed goes unpunished after all - since they may well get there's at a later date.

As for an individual character's internal conflicts... well, I suppose that's part of the Mary Jane-ing I mentioned above. The protagonist in my main WiP has issues relating to their parents (divorced), shown in their resentment towards their father. Over the course of the tale they re-evalute those feelings, leading to closure on the issue. This is mirrored (and inverted) in the relationship between the antagonist and their father.

It may be simplistic to phrase it thus, but conflicts of that nature have always struck me as being nothing more than a journey story (start at Point A, and work your way to the final destination) first and foremost. And yes, I agree with Bernita here in that resolution is necessary - why else would we tell the tale if not to give it closure?

However, given the current One-Hour-Photo, Quick-Fix, MTv-centric view of certain publishers/editors/agents, that kind of character side-bar/sub-plot may be one of the first things to go in some kinds of long form fiction. A shame really, since, done correctly, it can greatly enhance a reader's emotional involvement in a story.

(Just to clarify: I'm more of a Story person myself, rather than a Character person like Sandra; I can live with bad grammer, Grade School narrtive, and paper-thin characterisation, but only providing the tale being told is one I can buy in to... though I'd much prefer to have my cake and eat it!)

Corruption? Nah - I call it Evolution!

And Wicked is as Wicked does.

kmfrontain said...

"However, given the current One-Hour-Photo, Quick-Fix, MTv-centric view of certain publishers/editors/agents, that kind of character side-bar/sub-plot may be one of the first things to go in some kinds of long form fiction."

Man, that said it in a nutshell, the current publishing scene in some genres. You can't get someone to look at a manuscript that doesn't have a massive and immediate conflict within the first page sometimes. Forget the little mental conflicts that can snowball into the insanity of doom by the end of a story.

I like emotional conflict in my stories, character driven conflict, but I also like the typical sort of bad guy/good guy conflict, too. What's a story without a bad guy? Most are nothing, though Jonathan Livingston Seagull comes to mind as having no bad guy whatsoever. I couldn't put that book down. I think I read it, like, five times, back when I was a kid.

Bernita said...

Writing can be exorcism, Erik, and a realignment of events, or simply the come-back you should have made three weeks ago and the face you really should have bitch-slapped.
But I mean something more than a recitation of angst, strengths as well as weaknesses.

In that case, Tsavo, there is no rest for them, they say.
Or for the Seeker.
My simple mind, again.

BTW, Sandra has a great twisted post up.

Bernita said...

How true, KM.
They may claim they want character but sometimes in the most simple terms.
In some genres the hero must have a hard-on and the heroine crotch-wet by page three.
Dear me, did I really say that?

Ric said...

I think you find your character's reaction to be the way YOU would react - in most cases. It's sort of a built in to your character.

Like Tsavo (medicated or not), I tend to not be so quick in my responses these days. Slower, trying to see all sides.

How would you react to a big crisis? Could I kill someone to protect my family? I think so. Would I kill someone to protect my family? Absolutely.
Would I kill someone to protect a complete stranger? ah.....

Being in business for myself, I have discovered there are bizarre motivations for the way people act. Understanding their reasons is the hardest part - and they usually have a hard time understanding yours as well.

There is a woman who lives near me. Someone asked me the other day why I say a cheery hello to her everytime I see her, knowing she cheated me out of a couple hundred thousand dollars. Because It confuses her - she can't understand why I would be nice to her.

That said, if she were crossing the road, I wouldn't swerve to miss her.

Dennie McDonald said...

anything that ticks me off ends up in a book - as I have said many times before the sis-in-law is my villian every time - it works better than divorce, I can blow some guy up in my book and relieve tension for every stupid thing the dh... um never mind - LOL!

you get the point

Bernita said...

Soo satisfying, Dennie, I will certainly admit to getting a few rocks off, perhaps not so much in character as ideas or narrow thoughts about what is "korrect."
Nasty people I tend to dismiss as not worth my time emotionally.

Yep, Ric, I've found that the secretive smile can really disturb. Found that out in my first foray into psychological manipulation not that many years ago.

jason evans said...

I like a building psychological strain on a character. External conflict move a story nicely and are essential, yet the gut-wrenching conflicts within a character are what hold me.

Bernita said...

You left out one, Jason...

Savannah Jordan said...

Like Tsavo, I purge my venom in poetry or prose. I pour out the uglieness in print.

My characters tend to be avatars of distillations of bits and pieces of me. The pain I put them through, perhaps, an attempts to process that which goes on in my own inner space. And, Like Sandra, I am a character kind of gal. I want a damn good story too, but I need to be able to sink my teeth into the character or the book as a whole does little for me.

Personally, though, I deal with conflict, by shutting down, walking away. I have a very strong temptation to just say, 'f*ck it' and deal with it later. Otherwise, my facade dissolves into tears.

And, that's way more personal than I EVER usually go in anyone's blog, Bernita.

"Wicked is as wicked does..." Dammit, Man, Tsavo! That's my line...

Bernita said...

Private anguish, pain and confusion certainly can enhance character.
Since I tend not to be particularly wicked or revengeful, ie. torture of enemies, in real life - more the AK-47 and walk away type, I'm afraid my main character is somewhat lacking.

R.J. Baker said...

...ah, ball squeezing, that distracted me for a moment. I think good writers write what is in them and impart their characters with that which effects them. Pain, pleasure, internal demons and dragons to be slian, conquered or wrestled with all propel the character and plot line towards some ultimate resolution or not. Just as we as individuals suffer and struggle with the same, many for the rest of our lives...

Bernita said...

I, for one, am all for slaying dragons, R.J.

Savannah Jordan said...

Bernita, I think I speak for all who stop here when I say that your charcter is NOT lacking. Pain is not always the best characteristic.

Bernita said...

That's very kind of you, Savannah, and thank you.

I do try to examine Damie to see if her qualities of endurance/stoicism mean that she will be perceived as shallow, predictable or dull.

Janna of Canada said...

How do you personally deal with private conflict and hurt?

With both conflict and hurt, my tendency is to either run, dodge, or otherwise stuff my feelings down to that point that they either escape out the other end, leaving me free of them, or they build up, build up, build up and burst free, usually in a torrent of self-righteous sarcasm designed to make the person feel stupid and insignificant. (The mind is mightier than the sword, IMO.)

And does this blood seep into your characters?

My characters will either run faster, dodge quicker or stuff harder than I or else say and do all the things I wish I could say or do but don't, either because I didn't think of it at the time, or I fear the consequences. My characters are both the best and worst of me, although determing which characters embody the worst and which the best isn't always so straightforward (which accounts for a large part of the fun of writing, I might add).

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, I'm sorry Bernita.

You're evil, malicious, vile... I could be here posting appropriate adjectives all day.

I look forward to more ball squeezing in the days ahead.

Bernita said...

Oh, very well said, Janna!
And your dialogue must be a pleasure to read.
One always likes to see bullies and other assorted nasties get theirs.

Bernita said...

Sandra, you shouldn't let the ..er... cat out of the bag...

Savannah Jordan said...

Thanks are not necessary when one speaks the truth, Bernita!

Rick said...

I'm biased toward letting the good guys win. If I want evidence that there ain't no justice, the Los Angeles Times thumps onto my driveway every morning.

Very good point about the character's reactions being more important than the conflict itself. In Catherine of Lyonesse the various plotters over her prospective throne are largely offstage; I'm mainly concerned with how she deals with the situations that get thrown at her.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick, that's exactly my perspective or excuse; and your illustration encapsules exactly what I mean.
Maybe I'm just trying to justify not writing a villain/hero/ine who was abused as a child, but there it is.
I excuse your example from the above, because if one has a Queen, certain conflicts/challenges come with the territory.

Janna of Canada said...

Maybe I'm just trying to justify not writing a villain/hero/ine who was abused as a child, but there it is.

I don't believe a character's personal weakness has to be that extreme - indeed, it shouldn't automatically be that extreme unless contributes to the story and is carried through the plot from begining to end. There are far more subtle ways of causing a person pain than beating them (q.v. my earlier comment: the mind is mightier than the sword).

archer said...

Writing is vengeance.

Bernita said...

I suppose no one remembers Nevil Shute - except perhaps for On the Beach. His protagonists were very ordinary people, who demonstrated a kind of ordinary nobility when faced with difficulties.
The difficulties revealed the essential character, they did not develop the character.Not a popular technique today, I'm afraid.

Oh Archer!
Don't get mad, get even?
Writing can also be the light in a tunnel - and it's not always the train.

Rick said...

Catherine is orphaned and stranded abroad as a child; I suppose that counts as emotional trauma. But I generally avoid abused childhoods and the like, not least because they have become something of a stereotype: an easy, off-the-shelf way to generate inner conflict. After all, even people from happy homes can find themselves in a crisis.

Bernita said...

I'm inclined to agree, Rick, along with the amnesiac's secret baby and another of other traumas.
A lot of children were orphaned in that era and no one told them they had to have psychological fits about it.

Damie sometimes yanks her own chain about her husband's illness, but her little internal voice tells her to shut up and deal with it.

Janna of Canada said...

...no one told them they had to have psychological fits about it.

Which isn't to suggest they didn't necessarily have fits, but IMO, unless it serves the story and its purpose in some way, the fits really shouldn't be included; the specific trauma either.

Incidentally, I often find stories wherein the character's actions and reactions are coloured by a trauma not fully acknowledged the most interesting.

Bernita said...

That's a good point, Janna.

~ must go check manuscript for excessive of the following~

Just as historical writers can sometimes get carried away with the authenticity of their detail, and thriller writers in excessive description of spycraft or foreign cities, I think there is a temptation for plot elements that involve psychosis or medical problems to be over-emphasized.

Gabriele C. said...

I used writing to cope with my sitation at school (always the outsider and often bullied), and boy, what perfect Mary Sue did I invent and what evil things I did to my enemies.

When I returned to writing some 25 years later, I established a distance between me and my characters. I do use personal experiences (including family members like my mother's troubles with my grandmother) but I alter them to fit my characters. I don't use them to 'get even' or as self-therapy.

Some of my characters have normal childhoods, some don't. I usually find that out during the freewriting in the planning phase of a novel. The way a character's childhood may influence his later life varies a lot and not along the lines of: bad childhood makes for some sort of un-normal behaviour later.

Bernita said...

Strikes me as a mature approach, Gabriele.
Using the experiences, but not being ruled by them in the creation of character. Sometimes a little nasty can go a long way.

Lady M said...

Ok - this one is out of my league...

How - out - of - my league?

Well... When I read the title, "Rock the Casbah" came into mind and I got the giggles...

OK - so I quit laughing and started reading what you wrote.

I think that all of us use the information we have from personal experiences and extrapolate it into our characters.

I think that we tend to either put the worst or best of what we believe ourselves to be - or what we wish we could be.

Me personally - after a good hoe down with the hubby or kid - I lock myself away and pound on the keyboard nothing but sweet and utterly revolting kinds of loooooove poetry.

LOL!

Hugs,

Lady M

Bernita said...

"the worst and the best"
That's an interesting way of putting it, Lady M.
Thank you.
"what we wish we could be"
Certainly, my character is much quicker to react than I, just as an example.

For The Trees said...

Ah, Bernita...I'm reading this post and all the comments very carefully - because I'm wading into the swamp of character development in this next book. I've set up a situation where the hero is bipolar, like me, and since he works as a septic tank truck operator, then a farmer, he has to have all this dialogue with his alter ego. And I gotta work up the bipolar as the character flaw that drives him to do his great opus.

I'm half scared I won't be able to do it and half scared it'll be too easy (and therefore not worthy of being printed out on paper). It's gonna be a new step for me.

I internalize all my conflict, as I was taught from an early age NOT to show any emotion or get a belt across the butt as punishment. So I work on stories with a central character who needs to DO something to exorcise his demons.

Interesting. Thanks for a great post. Made me think.

Shesawriter said...

I will always, without fail, read a character-driven book. Plot driven books don't interest me. I usually don't finish them either. The character driven ones always pull me through to the end.

Bernita said...

Hope the opinions help, Forrest. Write it, don't let the down half disuade.

Me, I like a good plot, Tanya. I think both are necessary.

alexandra said...

Characters, like ourselves evolve through conflict, it's a matter of life and, if we want to be convincing with our fiction and characters we have to give them the same jeopardy that we ourselves might have gone through or, we see and hear about.

My characters, therefore, tend to be as much a part of me as I am them.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

*insert maniacal laughter here*

Ball squeezing?? Must be those thong underware...even boys are wearing them!

Wet by page three...Bernita..what you said! LOL!

I try to write characters that are full bodied, so that mean having that dark side to them. That agressive reaction or over reaction. And yes a lot of it is patterned after my own emotions.

I keep a tight reign on how I act because of my faith...but your talkin' to the girl that 30 years ago would peg a man's hand to the bar with a stilleto for putting his hand on her knee.....'nough said?

Sorry I was late getting here today. It's been hectic busy!

Lady M said...

"
I keep a tight reign on how I act because of my faith...but your talkin' to the girl that 30 years ago would peg a man's hand to the bar with a stilleto for putting his hand on her knee.."


WOW!

What a life change that must have been for you.

I'm so very glad that you've dropped the utensils and have taken up writing. It is a much safer world. LOL!

Hugs to ya!

Lady M

Bernita said...

Bonnie, my sabre-tooth girl, pity we couldn't have been a pair back then - I was more crude though, just a full-bodied roundhouse.

Very nicely summed,in Ulysses fashion, Alexandra, thank you.

Philosophically, I'm not so sure character evolves through jeopard as much as reveals - particularly mature characters.
There is a tendency in fiction, perhaps as a result of YA popularity, coming of age sort of thing, to think of all characters as "growing" or progressing.
I 'm inclined to believe that events and conflict outside the normal experience strips away social layers of conduct and exposes or reveals the basic characteristics hidden underneath.
Survival mode, in effect, without Darwinian or Spencerian tautology.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita, if we had teamed up back then...we'd have spent most of our time in jail...I was crude and rude!!!

Lady M...it is only by the sheer grace of God that I am controlled....believe me, it's right below the surface!