Monday, March 24, 2008

Oh, The Pain...Characters and Conflict

I haven't skinned a character alive, as Cindy notes in her recent blog entry but as she also notes, it's not just the physical pain we authors put our characters through that creates workable story conflict. It's not the car going over the cliff, the "Die Hard" style big rig being chased by a jet fighter, the super heroine leaping tall buildings in a single bound. If that's all conflict was, then most novels would be comic books.

Conflict is both external and internal. And quite honestly, the internal is the more powerful. Because two people must care, think and feel this external conflict or it's useless: the character and the reader.

Let's take the example of the car going over a cliff. Your character, Mortimer, is in the car. But Mortimer is an immortal alien being incapable of dying. Mortimer knows this so he has no fear, no worries. Okay, he'll need to find a new car--and his insurance rates will likely go up--but he'll walk away unscathed.

If your reader knows Mortimer can't die, then s/he, too, walks away unscathed.

If your reader knows nothing about Mortimer--ie: you introduce this scene on page one--s/he doesn't care enough about the character to give a fig if Mort lives or dies.

See, there's no internal connection. If there's no internal connection, there's no internal conflict. External conflict--without a matching internal conflict--falls flat.

Cindy/Colby wrote: "Star Shadows is the story of Elle and Boone but it also introduces Zander who loses his memory in the first half of the book and then becomes an assasin. He has no recall of learned boundaries from his youth so therefore he does not know why or how he has become a killer. All he knows is kill or be killed. "

Ah, see? We're introduced to Zander as a character. Then he loses his memory. We have an experience of him, we get into his skin, we feel his loss, we feel his confusion. Now, put him in that vehicle hurtling over a cliff just as he's on his way to the clinic where his memory will be restored, and he'll be made whole--and we care. (And that's not what happens in Colby's book but I'm hijacking her character to make a point.)

Yes, it will hurt when he dies or is injured or in some way prevented from reaching his "goal" of memory restoration, but the physical pain is only powerful because of his internal pain of failure. Of loss. Of "I almost had it. I coulda been a contender. I shoulda had a V-8..."

Cindy asked about Branden Kel-Paten. For those of you who've been on sabbatical to the outer reaches of the Gensiira System and have no idea who he is, he's one of the male protagonists in Games of Command. He's also a biocybe: half human, half android. Not his choice, mind you, and we learn this and we learn about his fears and his feelings of inadequacy and his hatred of being a "freak" in the early chapters of the book. It's all internal conflict for Branden. Which was fun because physically he's incredibly powerful. He is half machine and as such, runs faster, jumps higher and does all that kind of top notch "Keds' sneakers" kind of stuff. He's one tough dude. He's also a total softie underneath.

Branden as a character is a poster boy for external/internal conflict. His outside is the invincible military officer. His inside is a mass of self-doubt and loathing because of what his outside is.

There's a universality in this and Cindy touches on that point as well in her blog. All of us differ in physical strength, depending on our height, age, weight, training, etc.. Rowena towers over me. Cindy and I are about the same height but she's much younger than I am. These are physical differences that make us unlike. But inside Rowena, Cindy and Linnea may well live very similar internal feelings. Self-doubt pretty much only comes in one size and flavor, and it doesn't really change with age or location. So while we as readers may not always understand what it's like to be in a car hurtling over a cliff, we all understand what it's like to feel ashamed.

There's a universality in internal conflict. It's a one size fits all set of feelings. It's a genderless, timeless, applicable-to-all-ethnicities experience.

That's why you can't have true workable conflict in a novel without it. ~Linnea

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