Big Cat, Little Cat
Feeling Conflicted about Conflict
I find that establishing and escalating conflict is the hardest thing to do for a new writer. Picture it: you’ve got your setting and it’s a good’n. It’s somewhere familiar to you, either based on the place where you grew up or on somewhere you’ve been that had an impression on you. Or maybe you made the whole thing up based on bits of this and that. In any case, you’re proud of it.
From there, you build characters. Some are based on people in your own life. One might even be you. Others are based on your favorite heroes and villains from song and story. The point is you built these characters–or, in the case of the ones adapted from existing works, you built these versions of them. And you’re proud of them. But now you have to put them in conflict? Screw that!
I find it often helps to work mechanically at first. Establish what your characters want and why it’s important to them. Make sure these wants are mutually exclusive. In other words, that if one character gets what they want, another character can’t. There’s a simple way to do this, which is to have one character trying to stop another character–like a Bond movie. But that pattern runs into a problem: if your hero’s only plan is to stop your villain then the hero looks passive and dull. So writers often turn it around: the hero has a quest and the villain’s job is to stop them. Okay. Now your villain looks passive and dull. Great going. Eyeroll-emoji.
Okay yes I’m a Huge Nerd
The pattern I like best is when two characters want the same ends but have very different methods. A good example? The old Spiderman comics. Specifically the ones featuring Venom. What was so compelling about Venom (in the 90s) was that he thought of himself as a hero. He was trying to do good. But when he saw a wrong in need of correcting, he would literally murder the person who was doing wrong. So you might have Spiderman and Venom on the same side of a conflict, i.e., trying to stop the same baddie, but Spiderman would still feel the need to check Venom’s murdery tendencies.
You may not have heroes and villains in your story, but make sure to make your conflicts formidable. Venom is physically stronger than Spiderman. And Spiderman can’t sense Venom the way he can other dangers. Oh, and Venom doesn’t play by the rules. They’re supposed to be on the same side–like Spiderman, Venom considers himself a defender of the weak and innocent. But Venom’s violent tendencies have the effect of making him into Spiderman’s dark shadow–the part of Spiderman that wants to cut loose and just murder the crap out of people. When you make it so that a character has to face the dark side of themselves in order to face what is outside them you not only have a compelling conflict, you have one that feels true-to-life.
Establishing conflict is great. But it doesn’t mean much if you don’t then escalate it. I would say there are three main things to remember:
1. Conflict Originates in Character
The conflict should arise naturally from the characters and situation. We all know a story (be it King Lear or the latest blockbuster) where the start of the conflict feels forced. Keep listening to your characters and don’t be afraid to change your ideas for where the plot is going next.
2. Conflict Develops alongside Character
Not only should your characters have desires and goals based on their personalities, but the methods they select should be based on their personalities.
Don’t worry I’m not going to bring up the example of strong, silent Darcy suddenly finding himself in love with wasp-tongued Lizzie Bennet. I’m going to bring up the same kind of example from a different 19th century English novel: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. In the novel Bathsheba Everdene has two men vying for her hand. One is the bloodless landowner Boldwood. The second is the mercurial Sergeant Troy. Part of what makes Boldwood such an interesting character is precisely that his attitudes and methods are very slow and steady, but he is also laboring under a passion (for Bathsheba) that he has never felt before. He’s trying to use his old methods in a new circumstance. It’s a pattern one can sympathize with.
But a more famous example is the matter of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Poirot is a psychologist at heart. He uses psychological profile to establish a possible motive for each of his suspects and then fits the evidence in where he things it goes. This was already meant to be a contrast to Sherlock Holmes, who started with the evidence. Then there’s Miss Marple who uses the fact that she’s an elderly woman whom nobody fears or suspects to basically gossip her way to a murder-conviction. Similar goals. Similar results. Vastly different methods.
3. Don’t go Easy on your Characters
Don’t make your characters like each other because you like them. This happens a lot in old franchises. Two old rivals become friends (or at least friendly) because the writers apparently can’t think of how to keep them fighting. I will just say that the idea of two old soldiers–two men (usually) who are used to looking at each other from across the trench of their personal, political, and often socioeconomic differences finally putting aside old grievances and letting their mutual respect blossom into something more… unless it’s done exactly right, is going to make me want to vomit.
Four identical photos side by side. In each, a large orange cat with darker orange stripes sits on a cushion beside a small grey cat with darker grey stripes. The large orange smiles down beatifically at the small grey while the grey looks discontentedly off into the distance. They have met on this occasion to chat about whatever topic comes to mind, but, as often happens, the lightest jests can be windows to the heaviest truths.
Big Cat: I want to tell Human-Mom about the Thing.
Little Cat: Oh, man. Can you imagine?
Big Cat: She’s serving out the catfood one day, when…
Little Cat: “Human-Mom, all shapeshifters are cats and all cats are shapeshifters…”
Big Cat: “We can change into anything, but this is the most desirable form, so we don’t.”
Little Cat: Nah. We can’t tell her.
Little Cat: Rascal told his Human-Mom. She went full-crazy-cat-lady.
Big Cat: Wait–really? Is that how that happens? Live and learn…