Friday, November 30, 2018
Last week I mentioned that a novel (screenplay, television script, etc.) is not the place to showcase cordiality, mature relationship skills, and the appreciation of others. But fictional characters also require internal conflict to appeal to readers. This is not news: it probably forms the most basic piece of advice in writing classes and craft books. But finding out what a given character’s internal conflict is can challenge the most seasoned writer.
I cite myself as an example. I have, by now, eight published novels, a ninth completed but destined never to go on sale for copyright reasons, and a tenth—Song of the Siren—in the final stages of proofing and due for release next February. You would think that establishing internal and external conflict would by now be as simple as checking off boxes. Sit down, decide what I want to feature this time, figure out which sources of conflict are available, and decide.
But no, crafting a novel doesn’t work that way. At least, it’s never worked that way for me. Sometimes I can spot the internal conflict relatively easily: in The Golden Lynx Nasan imagines herself as a warrior heroine while everyone else in her life pushes her toward the conventional roles of wife and mother. That’s external conflict, but also the source of her internal conflict: which goals take precedence, her own or her family’s? Suppose, in being true to herself, she alienates those she loves?
In other novels the characters themselves force me in a particular direction. I recognized early on that Juliana, the heroine of Song of the Siren (formerly known as Roxelana, for fans of the Legends series, although it turns out that’s not her real name either), had established such effective barriers against change that it would require a disaster to knock her into undertaking the difficult journey toward self-realization. Only stripping her of every emotional and material resource she possessed could reveal her internal conflict and get her to confront and overcome it. Even then, I struggled for a while, once I’d dumped her in a virtual ditch, with ways to get her heading along the road to a better place.
Grusha, for some reason, presents a different kind of problem. A third of the way through the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, I have yet to feel certain that I know what she wants at this stage of her life, let alone what stops her from reaching out and grabbing it. I’ve produced half-a-dozen Goal, Motivation, and Conflict charts without any of them sticking. The minute I think I have her figured out and start a new chapter, she throws me a curve ball, and I know I still don’t have it quite right. But I’m closing in on her, and any day now I’ll see what it is that she’s hiding even from herself.
In part, this process reflects the way I write. Perhaps there are people out there who can run the charts and check off the boxes, but I find my characters, my story, even the details of my plot on the page. I start with raw exposition, pages and pages of it, then turn it into dialogue and action devoid of place or time or sensory detail, and only gradually fill in the blanks through draft after draft, most of them undertaken before I move on to the next chapter and start the whole process again. The fellow writers in my critique group are immensely helpful at this stage, although I’m sure I drive them mad by changing everything around every month, whether in response to their comments or my own evolving sense of the story.
Eventually, I get far enough into the novel that I understand where it’s heading and therefore where it needs to begin and what has to happen for it to get there. Sometimes I manage to create a list of potential events to act as a guideline; in other cases, like Song of the Shaman, the list keeps morphing as the book develops. But once I get to that magic midpoint, when I understand the source of the main characters’ internal conflict, that’s when the real fun begins. The rest of the book writes itself, and I become a channel through which it flows onto the page. When I reach the end, the critique group comes into play again, ensuring that the whole thing hangs together in minds other than mine.
Internal conflict isn’t limited to heroes and heroines, of course. It’s an essential element in “rounding” (that is, filling out) a character, and in a well-crafted novel antagonists and secondary characters also have conflicting hopes and fears. But theirs are always lesser; otherwise they take over the story. For the protagonists, deep internal rifts and choices that pull them in opposing but equally appealing directions are essential. Only then do they come alive on the page.
Images purchased from iClipart.com.