“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Best Sort of Conflict

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

I've often told my middle school students that being an author of fiction is like being God in your own universe. You make everything, you decide what will happen. You give characters gifts and strengths, you decide what color their hair is, you make them live in Arizona or Iceland. And most importantly, you're in charge of the WHY of it all. You, the writer, understand what it's all supposed to mean.

I hate conflict. I hate it in real life, I hate it in movies and television, and I hate it in books. I might be the only person who really wouldn't mind reading a story that from beginning to end only says good things. I have no idea why this is. I also really despise the villains in stories. I know what you're thinking, because it's probably the exact same thing my husband says to me every time I get upset with a villain in a story. He says, "But he's supposed to be bad. That's his role. You're supposed to hate him." It took him a long time to realize that I would actually prefer the story without the villain at all. Now he just shakes his head and stares at me in total bemusement. I know. I'm weird.

So writing conflict is, of course, inordinately difficult for me. In fact, the novel I most recently completed took me five years to write because I didn't want anything bad to happen to my character. I really love her. Plus, I have an irrational fear that whatever I write, fiction though it might be, will come true and happen to me. A sort of twisted version of do unto others, except in this case, the others are not real people. I finally had to sit down with friends, present the character to them, and ask for help. It worked, and once I did it, I loved helping my character overcome and all, but still. Getting there was rough.

What I'm thinking now is that this rule not only makes sense to real life (seriously, whenever something bad happens, don't you always think, "But why THIS? THIS is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me right now!"--I know I do), but it's a really useful tool for a conflict-hater like me. What do I love about my character? What should happen to a person like that? Now, write the exact opposite. It's hard. It's really hard to make bad things happen to the fictional people I love, but at least this is a simple and easy way to make sure the story is authentic to the person it's about, and realistic to the reader. Not only that, it does also bring the reader deeper into the character's psyche. It's not just about strengths and weaknesses once they're up against impossible conflict. It becomes about what it takes to make that person stronger, what makes them grow and change and be better, which will ultimately bring us to that WHY factor I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Although now I suddenly feel that the bigger question to ask in not whether or not this rule is valid for writers (which, btw, it totally is), but why it's so true to real life. Like, what's up with you, Universe? Deliberately giving us problems we're not equipped to handle! Because, as I've said in every one of these blogs so far, writing simply is meant to mirror real life. And now I'm suddenly aware of the sucky truth in this one!

This disgruntled writer is now going to go sit in a corner with her arms crossed for awhile.

Please check out what the other bloggers are saying about Rule #6--it will probably be much more normal and helpful than mine!

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