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  • Beth Black

Characters & Conflict



 

Visit the "Free Samples" page on this site, and you'll find a short story I wrote about the way a lot of characters feel as they navigate their experiences. "Help!" takes place in several locations, and each one offers its own special hell for the lone character. You could say, perhaps, that there is actually a second character present — the writer. It seems that way because the character spends most of the story berating her creator for placing her in horrible, uncomfortable, dangerous situations.


But what's a writer to do? Without conflict, a story usually loses readers. Erica Jong taught us that "Conflict is the soul of literature." I tend to think of it as the muscle, but she has a point. Without conflict, the writing is nothing more than a lifeless model of what might have leaped snarling from the page.


Give us a bucolic setting, gorgeous prose ... and interesting characters? Wait! Characters who never face conflict are boring. We learn nothing about them. The thing about conflict is that it's far more than the arch villains we find scattered through today's books and other media. While bad guys can indeed be entertaining, they're only one kind of challenge. Conflict can come from the environment, such as outer space or a courtroom. It could come from a character's lover — as small as an argument over dinner or as large as a decision about staying together. Also, it could be a character's internal struggle — solving a personal mystery, finding courage, learning to love, and even growing up. Coming-of-Age stories are all about overcoming the conflict of losing childhood to gain adulthood. Try counting the myriad ways humans endure misery (or even discomfort), add to that a hearty helping of struggle that's not currently our reality, and you'll see the variety of conflict available to writers.



 
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Is the character awaiting conflict? Or is conflict awaiting the character?

 

In fact, usually, when I'm pondering a new story, I'll come up with the conflict first. Then, my task is to blend art with math to design characters who embody the different sides of that argument. Of course, sometimes, a character will present herself to me, and then the crazy-making work of finding a suitable conflict becomes my next dreaded step. I much prefer the first system. However, since life is filled with struggles, a writer's work must always — in part — deal with characters who need conflict that isn't forced, too hard, or too easy. Something just right. And honestly, sometimes all I have to do is peek inside the suitcase the character is holding.


This short story shows what the character might endure while her writer is figuring it out. For sure, conflict abounds. The story brims with it. In the end, the character is allowed to rail against what she perceives to be her biggest threat. Click on the seashell labeled "Help" to see exactly what she hates.




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