Monday, November 24, 2014

Four Steps to Create Gripping, Character-Centered Conflict

A story without conflict is not a story. 

Frodo must inherit the ring and take it to Mordor. Simba must overcome his guilt and return to Pride Rock to defeat his evil uncle. Dr. Frankenstein must escape from and destroy the monster that he has brought to life. Eren must join the Survey Corps and fight the titans that killed his mother. Link must vanquish the evil threatening the land of Hyrule. The list goes on.

But merely having a conflict does not a good story make. To fully engage the reader, conflicts must latch onto the reader, engaging them as much as the character doing battle with the conflict itself. In today’s article on writing advice, I’m going to discuss the four integral steps to creating a conflict that quickly grips your reader’s attention:
  • Conflict must be defined
  • Conflict must be significant
  • Conflict must be pressing
  • Conflict must be personal
1. Conflict must be defined.
This first step may seem painfully obvious, but it is none-the-less the cornerstone that lays the foundation for the rest of the conflict development. If the problem is not defined, or described, to your reader, then there is no conflict. In defining the conflict, the writer brings it into existence. Definition is the initial “breath of life.”

By “define,” I do not mean that you should plainly state the conflict to the reader. Don’t say, “Frodo had to run away from the Ring Wraiths or else they would capture him and take the ring and he would later face a painful death at the hands of the Dark Lord who wants his ring back.” That is poor story writing at its finest. Nobody wants to read all of that.

Instead, work the “definition” into the story through the character and plot. The age-old adage “show don’t tell” is important here. If you’ve done your job well, readers will already know that the Ring Wraiths are after the ring and that Frodo is in big trouble. You should never have to outright state this fact to the reader. The reader will feel that you are “hand-holding,” and that’s very off-putting to them.

If the conflict is something physical, then it may need defining. Using our example from Lord of the Rings, the readers will need to know exactly what a Ring Wraith is. What do they look like? What defines them? Where do they come from? Who do they serve? How do they speak and act? If the conflict is something more readily comprehensible, like a bear or an earthquake, then little defining should be necessary on the writer’s part.

The problem is that many amateur writers curtail their conflict at this stage; however, simply stating what the conflict is and that it exists does not a gripping conflict make. To be taken seriously, the conflict must engage. We’ll discuss this concept over the next three points.

2. Conflict must be significant.
You’ve defined what your conflict is: an earthquake, a bear, a titan, a Ring Wraith, a monster, a depression, a feeling of inadequacy, etc. Your reader has a strong visual or psychological understanding of what the “dictionary’s definition” of the conflict is. The next step is to explain its significance.

Think of significance as why the conflict should be considered a conflict in the first place. If your conflict is a bear, then, for all your reader knows, it could be a koala or a cute, fuzzy cub. In order to have your bear taken seriously, it needs to have significance. Your bear is a conflict because it is 10 feet tall (when it stands on its hind legs), has enormous fangs, is an angry mamma bear looking for her cubs, and hasn’t eaten in 24 hours. Once you’ve given your conflict a certain amount of problematic value, your readers will begin to take it seriously.

Less physical conflicts, like depression or feelings of inadequacy, also require significance. Simply saying, “Elsa was feeling depressed” does not automatically give her conflict significance. While those who suffer from depression themselves may automatically sympathize with the character, those who have never had these feelings will need to understand their significance. Qualifying is integral. As the writer, you should detail why Elsa’s depression qualifies as a conflict. It keeps her isolated from everyone else, it gives her insomnia, it steals her appetite and interest in things she once enjoyed, it causes her to miss time with friends and family, and it makes her feel inferior, for example. These are all serious elements of significance that will help your readers accept the conflict gravely.

3. Conflict must be pressing.
Conflict should be kinetic—meaning it should be “on the move.” Put your conflict into motion and let it gradually escalate as a threat. If the conflict simply sits within your character’s comfort zone, then it is never a threat. Bring the conflict front-and-center by having it act, thereby forcing your character to react.

A great example of this occurs in the first episode/volume of Attack on Titan. The viewers/readers are introduced to the titans early on. Readers/viewers are aware that titans are enormous giants (definition) who eat and kill humans mindlessly if they catch them (significance). However, as a conflict, the titans do not become a serious threat to the main character, Eren, until they break through the outer walls protecting him and begin flooding into his hometown. At this point, the titans have become a pressing conflict. They are now a tangible threat. They have acted in a way that is going to force the character, Eren, to react in some way.

Let’s go back to Elsa from Frozen. Her fears about her powers act as her own inner conflict throughout the movie. We know that Elsa is afraid of her ice powers (definition) because they have the power to hurt others and because revealing her powers will isolate her from society (significance). When her parents die at sea and the entire city comes to the castle to watch her coronation, Elsa’s conflict becomes pressing, even more-so because her powers manifest themselves when she is nervous or afraid. At this point, Elsa’s conflict can no longer be ignored. It has come to the forefront in a way that is forcing her to react to it in some way—by wearing gloves for the duration of the coronation, by refusing her sister’s fiancĂ©-to-be, and by trying to cancel the ceremony early into the night in order to rid herself of prying eyes.

Once you’ve defined your conflict and “given it fangs,” then let it bear those fangs. Allow your conflict to make the first move; then, allow your character to react accordingly.

4. Conflict must be personal.
Let me qualify this by saying that not all conflicts must be deeply personal… but the most gripping and significant ones certainly are.

When a conflict is personal, it deliberately engages the character in some personal way that endangers their self-image, property, life, or something that they hold inherently dear. It’s fine to have a conflict that threatens the character on a broader scale, for example: a dark lord vows to destroy the character’s entire homeland, but narrower threats are usually more powerful. Perhaps the dark lord has vowed to destroy the character’s entire homeland, but then minions of the dark lord also kidnap the character’s little sister. At this point, the conflict has escalated to personal because it has endangered something integral and important to the character.

In Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, the main character, Ike, and his band of mercenaries find themselves at war with the Daein army after Ike and his mercenaries shelter the princess of Crimea. At this point, the conflict is a very pressing matter; however, things don’t get personal until Daein’s most powerful warrior, known as the Black Knight, kills Ike’s father.

Frankenstein, the classical story of monster VS man, features a plot-long conflict that is very personal to the main character, Victor Frankenstein. His own creation comes to life and begins terrorizing the countryside; however, things get very personal when the monster comes after Frankenstein’s family and, later, Frankenstein himself.

Take a look at any best-selling story and you’ll notice a pattern of deep-seated conflict that is not only pressing and significant, but is also very personal. The character engages the conflict because the conflict demands action… and also because the conflict is a threat to something that the character holds dear—be that their status, family, identity, life, belongings, or something else of significant value.

Tying It All Together
As we close, let’s examine a few examples of gripping, character-centered conflicts in popular media:

Remember this if you remember nothing else: a conflict is not a threat until it invades your character’s space.

Merely mentioning the bear and its monstrous size and its craving for human flesh is not enough. Send that bear to your character’s house. Have it claw at the door as it tries to make its way inside. Let your character be the only one capable of combating the bear because they’re the only adult in the house, left there to babysit the kids for the evening. At this point, the conflict demands a response from the character because it has made a move (trying to break into the character’s house) and is threatening something the character holds dear (the character’s life, as well as the lives of the kids).

Remember also that, when resolving a conflict, you should look beyond the mere “win or lose” mentality. This leads to reader predictability and dissatisfaction. There are more outcomes available than “kill or be killed.” Your character can shoot the bear with a shotgun, or be eaten by the bear instead, but don’t let those be your only two options. If it’s a talking bear, consider settling the matter over a reasonable game of chess. If the bear is stupid and violent, have your character lure it outside and use it to decimate the zombie hoard in his backyard. If the bear is less fantastical, your character could set up an escape route to get himself/herself and the kids out of the house safely. Perhaps your character could even toss some meat to the bear and gradually earn its trust, befriending it.

The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Be thorough, be creative, and, above all, be personal. Conflicts are only as strong as the personal spaces that they invade and the important ties that they threaten to sever.

For more information, check out Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.

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The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Loneliness

One of the debilitating battles that your characters may encounter is the struggle against their own, personal form of loneliness. While it takes many forms, loneliness is a sense of hurt, sadness, depression, or resignation that stems from strong feelings of grief or inferiority and a need to form relationships with others; in some cases, it may be the result of psychological problems.

So, in today’s post, let’s talk about:
  • What causes loneliness
  • Physical signals of loneliness
  • Internal sensations of loneliness
  • Mental responses to loneliness
  • Cues of acute or long-term loneliness
  • Signs of suppressed loneliness
What is Loneliness?
Psychologically speaking, loneliness is a natural response to isolation—be that physical, mental, social, or psychological. In its simplest form, loneliness occurs when a person finds themselves alone with nobody to support or connect with them.

However, a character may also feel lonely due to social or psychological isolation. Perhaps they see themselves as inferior to others, believing themselves to not be as beautiful, intelligent, strong, athletic, or capable as others are; this creates a sort of self-inflicted isolation born from feelings of inferiority. Oppositely, an individual may feel socially isolated and alone, even when surrounded by others, simply because they are different. This factor of difference may be many things—physical appearance, race, wealth, abilities, and so on—but, regardless of the factor itself, this perceived difference creates a gap between the character and those around him/her, resulting in feelings of loneliness.

In time, overbearing feelings of loneliness may result in a character becoming depressed or—on the other extreme—angry at the world around them.

It’s important to understand, however, that an isolated character does not a lonely character make. Just because your hermit lives alone or your ingenious detective finds pleasure in solitude does not mean that your characters are lonely. Loneliness is an intense feeling of separation that results in a character’s desire for relationships and connections with others. If your character seeks solitude—and enjoys it—then they are not lonely; they are introverted.
Physical Signs of Loneliness
When characters experience loneliness, they feel disconnected from others and a sense of hopelessness often permeates their daily lives. After attempts at connectivity fail—or the character feels socially or mentally stigmatized by the world around them—they may begin to feel that any attempt at creating relationships is futile and resign themselves to their loneliness. This means that, when in social situations, lonely characters are more likely to avoid eye contact, stare at the sidewalk, give little or no welcoming expressions, and adhere to a routine. In discouraging change and new interaction, the character sets up mental barricades against further failed attempts at connecting with others; this is a psychological defense against being further hurt by their sense of isolation.

Should a lonely character try to form new connections, they are most likely to do so with people they have had little to no prior contact with (and whom they may never have contact with again). For example, a lonely character may more readily converse with a total stranger in a shopping line, look forward to speaking to the mailman each day, or create an online persona through which they live vicariously. In doing so, the character is able to present a new, or alternative, “self” to those they have never met (or who know little about them). This gives the character a feeling of empowerment and a sense of control in that they can “try a new approach” to gain connections with others.

These physical signs of loneliness are most likely to be recognized by an outside observer and not the lonely character. While the character may be aware of some symptoms, such as beading tears in their eyes, a lot of these physical signals may occur without them realizing (or intending) it.

Internal Sensations of Loneliness
The internal sensations are those that the lonely character is completely aware of. These signs may go completely unrecognized (or at least, unobserved) by onlookers. Internal sensations are still completely physiological (or pertaining to the physical body), and are not to be confused with mental responses, which we’ll address next.

Mental Responses to Loneliness
Mentally, a lonely person is drained by their isolation. Anything that reminds them of their loneliness is painful, and, as a result, they will often avoid social gatherings and public places. If they cannot avoid them directly, they avoid them psychologically—by keeping to themselves, looking down, avoiding eye contact, and speaking to no one.

Mentally, a character is likely to be consumed either by anger or sadness, though often the character will juggle between these two emotions as they obsess about the cause of their isolation. Lonely characters frequently daydream, or fall into thoughtful silence, so that they might escape to fantasy worlds of their own making, in which they are accepted and have ideal relationships.

Cues of Acute or Long-Term Loneliness
The sensations of loneliness mirror those of depression (which loneliness can escalate to under certain circumstances) in many ways. The lonely individual faces a daily battle of literal (or perceived) rejection. This constant disconfirming can lead to feelings of inadequacy and obsession with one’s loneliness. Characters may find themselves trapped in a vicious, mental cycle where they consistently ask the question: why?

  • Why do I have no relationships?
  • Why am I not accepted?
  • Is it my own fault?
  • Should I change?
  • Am I fated to be alone forever?
  • What make me so different than others?

Unfortunately, rather than ask such questions constructively, the lonely character finds themselves barraged by these questions that they cannot answer—that they do not, in fact, know the answer to—or that they simply do not want to answer. In turn, this detrimental cycle can result in mental exhaustion, insomnia, and even physical aches and pains.

In time, the character may decide that they are alone because they are not good enough—that others don’t enjoy being around them because they are unattractive, boring, awkward, weird, or socially stigmatized in some way. This can result in severe psychological consequences, and heavy, continuous thoughts of inadequacy, low self-esteem, depression, or even anger, may occur. In the most bizarre of scenarios, the lonely character may fall into hopelessness and begin contemplating suicide.

Loneliness, if left unchecked and allowed to prosper, will destroy a character, bit by bit, until little else matters to them but acceptance. Characters who do not find healthy ways to cope with their loneliness may begin engaging in constant stimulation in order to distract themselves and create a false sense of belonging or escape. They may begin to spend extensive amounts of time with (or even hoard) pets. Their appearance often becomes an afterthought, as they no longer care what others think of them, and they may gain weight, lose weight, or not bathe regularly or dress appropriately. To counteract feelings of inadequacy and rejection, they may spend unhealthy amounts of time on their job, volunteering for charity, or bingeing on food, media, or hobbies, in order to compensate.

In the long-run, this results in detrimental side effects for the lonely character. Physical effects may include obesity, high blood pressure, fatigue, and insomnia. Psychological effects may include self-doubt, feelings of worthlessness, addiction, recklessness, and depression.

Cues of Suppressed Loneliness
Characters who manage to suppress their loneliness do so with an exorbitant amount of self-control and willpower. However, they are often betrayed by an exaggerated sense of interest and need for stimulation that is outside their normal disposition.

For example, lonely characters may instantly befriend—or commit themselves—to anyone who shows even a small amount of interest in them. Sometimes, these characters may find themselves in poor, negative, or even abusive relationships through their intense desire to be accepted. They may also frequently text or call family, friends, or spouses in order to get consistent confirmations of their acceptance from others.

Less assertive types will express their loneliness by engaging in activities that show a craving for social contact. These may include people watching from a distance or frequently viewing online videos of others socializing and having a good time. Daydreaming is an enormous player here.

A Final Note on Loneliness
Loneliness is not introversion. An introvert is a character who seeks, thrives in, and enjoys their solitude. A lonely character is one who lives in self- or socially-inflicted solitude—who feels that they are not accepted on some level and who desperately wants to escape their isolation by forming strong relationships with others.

Loneliness is a very deliberate emotion. Unlike strong anger or feelings of sadness, which can become irrational and uncontrollable emotions, loneliness is a feeling that the character will try and work themselves through by engaging in various—oft-times unsuccessful or fragile—connections with others. Every action a lonely character makes should be done with specific intent: to achieve an end, reveal emotion, or to characterize themselves (or their ideal “self”) to others.

For more information about writing anger and other character emotions, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. The lists and charts in this article are all adapted from that book. All rights reserved.

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Sadness 
The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger