Conflict

A photograph of the right eye of an Amur Tiger...

Here’s looking at you, pal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the title made you start humming Eye of the Tiger, I tell you this: put on your boxing gloves, or turn about now.

Conflict! That is the name of the game today fair fellows. So often conflict drives to the heart of our own personal lives—a multitude of conflicting ambitions, needs, and uncertainties. From the epic struggle of man vs. toaster on a late morning wake-up sprint, to the classic struggle of two for the heart of one (THE HEART WANTS WHAT IT WANTS), conflict is, honestly, what makes the world half as interesting (and vexing) as it is.

English: Battle of Legnano

I sense someone’s soon to make with the stabby. (Battle of Legnano. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It should come as no surprise, then, that conflict is key to literature. While it could come in the form of some heavily armored fellow stomping down the lines with mace-in-hand (hello Sauron), it could also be a character’s struggle for acceptance, a war for the heart or information, from internal to external and all the delicious blends in between. Conflict keeps us interested. Conflict gives us something to worry about—something to stir hope against. We want to see how others can overcome because, more often than not, we don’t always have the luxury in real life.

We like to see people that don’t have to sit there and take it.

And what’s more along those lines: as in real life, conflict seems to exist to build character. Is your novel about the characters in it (if you tell me no, I refer you again to the boxing gloves of GTFO)? Then there should be conflict to spur them on.

First edition cover image by John Howe

Robin Hobb is master of character development in the fantasy realm, and if you have not yet consulted the Farseer/Tawny Man trilogies to see what I mean, go, go now. I’ll wait. (First edition cover image by John Howe. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As much fun as it would be to watch a character sit back on his farm and milk a cow for 900 pages, detailing how content he is with the cow (the cow is a lie), that scenario brings no change. It brings no growth. Nothing develops. Conflict is experience, and experience is what shapes us—we need it to add that dose of spice to existence. Likewise, by the end of a book (series, etc.) we should be able to compare character A from before the madness, to post madness, and see a notable change of figure.

Why? Because we want to have been along with them for the ride. We want to have seen the change that shaped them into the characters we know and love (or hate—this applies to bad guys too).

In my own novel, The Hollow March, we might take the character of Rurik, for example. Kind of a putz of a youth in the beginning, he is, willfully self-deceiving and heedless in his pursuit of what he thinks is best. It’s not healthy. It’s not good. He’ll theoretically have two more books over which to make his changes, but even by the end of this first outing, he is a changed character. We have seen him confront his fears head-on, walked with him through war and a very unfortunate few cases of drinking, and watched in the same horror as he to see the results of many of his actions—actions he threw himself into with the best of hopes, of intentions, only to see worse outcomes for the doing.

Will conflict always end pretty? No. It certainly doesn’t for Rurik, or Essa, or most of the other characters in The Hollow March, but then it wouldn’t be real to us if struggles didn’t lead to more struggles, and there weren’t a little pain before the breaking of the dawn.

Change will not always be for the better, but it must be.

As I said: struggle builds the character. I would say, no pain no gain, but this isn’t a sports movie, I’m not the inspirational coach, and you’re not about to win the championship game. Unless you are. Then I have to ask why you’re taking the time to read this. Bad sports person, bad.

But to do conflict well, there are also a few things we need to remember. Keep the list and hold it tight:

  1. What does your character want?
  2. What stands between them and that goal?
  3. Do any other characters want the same thing…and how will they clash in the achieving?
  4. How must they change themselves to overcome?
  5. What, in turn, will be the results of that change?
Sauron in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Ring...

“My name is Sauron. I like serious bling and to smash things on the beach.” (Sauron in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stay loose, and look for all the angles. People are layered, intricate monstrosities. You have your posers and your hangers-on, but in the end, no two people’s goals will be the exact same—and neither will the way they hope to achieve it. We all react differently to the strife in between, and rarely will all of us take the smart path. Hell, that conflict may stretch on a long while for no reason other than our own bungling. Things, as they say, have a way of getting worse before they get better.

Growth. Change. Humanization. Associate those three words with your conflicts, and you will be a better writer for it.

10 Things To Know About Your Book (Part One)

The book!–what makes it tick? What makes it move? What makes it stir the heart and mind?

That’s right, boys and girls, today we’re talking literature, and not just any old book either–your book! Please proceed to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

In every book, there are certain things that should be obvious to the writer, things that should be formulated and plotted and planned and beaten with that little stick we call the honing. (Mind you, this is different from the Shining: ideally it doesn’t end in an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson. Though I suppose that does lose it some points…)

The man forever-known as Johnny.

In point of fact, there are a great many things we should know, but I’ve done my best to narrow it to a list of ten. Then I went through the additional trouble of lopping them into two separate meals for you–so try not to gorge, and hopefully, you may find a little purpose in our first five:

Some quests are nobler than others, I suppose.

  1. What is your story’s purpose?
    What does it exist? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the plot, the story, and the characters struggling toward? Or, if it is perhaps an educational or otherwise non-fiction novel, what do you hope your readers to take away from it in the end?
  2. What sets your book apart?
    You can also turn this into: Why should we care? (But the former does sound much nicer.)
  3. What is the conflict?
    Honestly, this can be anything from zombies to family to an evil stork with the baby (welcome to the bizarre nature of my mind), but there must be conflict, something to drive the story and its characters on. Note, of course, that there can also be many conflicts within this category—internal and external, and a variety hodgepodge of delicious mortifying interaction (if you’re as cruel to your characters as I can be). You need to think what challenges your character, and how it’s going to be fought…or more simply, how they’re going to deal with it.
  4. From inside on of the hobbit holes, on locatio...

    From inside one of the hobbit holes, on location at the Hobbiton set, as used in the Lord of the Rings films. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    How does it begin?
    Aha! So you’re one of those clever rogues that already has the ending all figured out. Well done. Now you just need to get there which means…oh crap, that’s right, you actually have to find a point to begin. Shall it be at the beginning? Or shall you do the ever-popular in the middle and reflect scenario? There’s always starting from the end, of course—but if you then turn the story into having been an elaborate dream, please note neither I, nor you, nor the internet can save you from the torch-wielding mob that shall likely come for you. You have been warned. In many ways, the opening is the most important. It has to seal the deal for the reader. Introduce the conflict (or hints of the conflict). Don’t lose us to the abstract, but don’t beat us down with a straight-up info dump either.

  5. What is the opposition?
    Obviously, this ties into the conflict, but it’s important enough to stand on its own. Who is the catalyst? The man, creature, or group driving the woes of this story’s forward momentum? Who has it out for your characters, and why? Give them as much life and attention as you do your heroes, and you’ll be glad for it. Single-minded antagonists can be fun and all…but it makes them all the more insidious to make them real.
    Furthermore, this goes beyond mere avatars of the opposition, to the very notion. It could be a stock market crash. Incompetent bosses. An earthquake that has severed all the power lines. The opposition can be legion, in the right hands, and it is all the more way to present us with a living, breathing world.
English: A screenshot from Dracula Italiano: U...

Say it with me now: Con-flict. Also fangs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)