Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hurting the ones you love

No, I'm not going around bashing friends and family. I'm taking my title from an RWR article by Collen Thompson on creating conflict in stories (I just got my Dec. RWR today, having received the Nov. issue yesterday...bah, stupid post). A story without conflict is, as the article rightly says, a bit flat. Imagine a book where only nice things happened to nice people. No one is ever sad, no one ever loses anything or anyone important to them, and everyone attains their goals without any problems whatsoever. Even children's cartoons are grittier than that.

When I started out writing, I didn't really understand what people meant by 'conflict'. I thought they meant it literally: characters fighting with each other. I hate books where all the hero and heroine do is fight, fight, fight, and then miraculously realise they're mad about each other on the last page. Characters who fight can of course be a whole lot of fun--one of my favourite romantic pairings is Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing, but their fighting is a sort of foreplay, and they're becoming increasingly attracted to each other the whole time. And, crucially, once they've acknowledged to each other how they feel, they don't go all lovey-dovey and stop fighting.

But conflict isn't about arguing. It's about the barriers that come up between your characters--between characters realising or admitting their feelings, or between them and their goals. Say you have a man avenging the death of his brother. He wants to find the person who is responsible. Imagine his distress when he discovers it's the girl he spent a hot night with a week ago! He's already admitted he finds her incredibly attractive, but hell, she killed his brother, and he's sworn to kill her for it. That's conflict, and it's also the basis of a lot of hot, angry sex between Chance and Dark in Almost Human.

How about a man who is dedicated to his job, and who has learned through an unhappy childhood that friends and family aren't really worth the bother--until he gets landed with a protégé who's a total liability, requires lots of close mentoring, and pushes and challenges him every step of the way? He doesn't want to get involved with her, but bit by bit he can't help it. That's Luke and Sophie in I, Spy?, Ugley Business and A is for Apple.

Al right, enough of the pimpage. I'm going to apply this to my WIP, The Untied Kingdom. Thompson gives a few tips for ramping up the conflict and forcing your characters to grow, and without giving away the whole article (because I reckon you ought to be an RWA member to take advantage of their articles!), here are a couple of them.

1. Take away your protagonist's one indispensable tool or ally.

I'm doing this for both Harker and Eve in The Untied Kingdom, but Harker's is more devastating, forces him to rely on Eve even more, and happens gradually throughout the book. His biggest ally is his faithful sidekick, his indispensable lieutenant (literally), Sam Riggs. Sam is his backup, his confidante, his friend and his undisputed second-in-command. He's managed to get the commander of the army on-side for keping her with him wherever he's assigned. Sam knows what's best for the major, and also what's bad for him--like getitng involved with a potential spy. And not only is Eve a possible enemy, but she's also a huge distraction for Harker when they're engaged on a very important mission. She challenges and provokes him, and she does it in front of his men, undermining his authority and questioning the cause they're involved in. Sam knows that if Harker gets involved with Eve it could spell disaster not just for him, but for the whole army.

So, when she begins to warn Harker, she begins to create a rift between them, because Harker is sure he's not remotely interested in Eve, and he reckons Sam is over-reacting. The more he finds himself attracted to Eve, the more annoyed he becomes with himself for it, and with Sam for reminding him how obvious, and how dangerous, it is. He starts to lose Sam as an ally, which is a terrible thing.

Here is a picture of the actor inspiring Harker, Richard Armitage, because a) he's looking pretty conflicted and b) he's looking pretty hot.

2. Destroy the relative safety of the 'ordinary world'. Eliminate any possibility that the character's life can simply go back to normal.

Poor Eve has had her ordinary world demolished a couple of times. Once, when her career fell down around her ears and the taxman took everything she owned, leaving her in a smelly little flat doing temp work. Now it's happened again, when she falls through the hole in the world into the Untied Kingdom, where absolutely nothing is familiar or sane.

Then, just as she's beginning to find her feet in this mad world, making friends in the squad and falling for the exasperating major, everything is pulled out from under her. Can she ever go back to being a dreary temp after fighting battles, reattaching limbs, being captured and beaten and risking her life for the greater good? No, not really. Is there any possibility of her making a happy life with Harker, when he's in deep trouble with the general and she's destined to go back to jail for being a potential spy? Nope, there really isn't.

3. Force your character to choose between two evils.

This happens to Eve and Harker at more or less the same time. When she's taken prisoner by the rebels the army is fighting, Harker is forced to choose between his orders to move on and leave her behind, and his pretty strong feelings for Eve. If he goes after her, he'll almost certainly be court-martialled for disobeying orders. If he leaves her behind, she'll probably be tortured and killed.

For Eve, the choice is less obvious. While she's being held prisoner, she's beaten for information. A hot poker is produced. Eve knows it's intended to cause her a world of hurt, but she's determined not to break and show fear. She's got to stop them hurting her so badly she'll forget herself and betray Harker. So she grabs the poker to force their attention, badly burning her hand as she does, and feeds them the name of Harker's sworn enemy. They take that, and leave her alone. But at a price: because Eve is a musician, and without her hand she can't play her guitar or her piano. If she ever gets back to the real world, this will cripple any chances she has at ever getting her life back on track. And here in the Untied Kingdom, it's destroyed the biggest asset she had: entertaining the troops and drawing the admiration and friendship of people who might otherwise treat her like a prisoner.

Those are three of the things I've been doing to build conflict. Does anyone else have any great examples of how those nasty little devices have been used?

1 comment:

  1. I haven't received my magazine yet. Hmmmm, wonder where it is?

    I write romantic comedies, so the conflicts are a little different. In the latest MS (Operation: Eden) the hero, Jared, thinks that Eden (the object of his desire) has fallen in love with his brother, while Eden thinks that the brother has fallen for her. Then you throw in the ex-husband who wants her back ...