Critique Technique, part 9: Characters and Conflict

There are two things a story can’t live without: characters and conflict. A “story”—fiction or non-fiction—without characters is a technical report. A story without conflict isn’t a story at all. Without conflict, characters have nothing at stake, there’s nothing that forces them to do anything at all, much less change or grow.

Now, conflict doesn’t have to mean a character having a gun to his head. Conflict can be internal, too. In fact, that’s the primary form of conflict in much of “literary” fiction. In a 2011 seminar, playwright and author Jeff Helgeson identified five kinds of conflict:

  • Person against self,
  • Person against person,
  • Person against society,
  • Person against nature, and
  • Person against “fate.”

While four of these are external, each has an internal component as well as the character struggles with how these conflicts are affecting her.

As a reviewer, you may find a piece you’re reading has either too much conflict or too little. The conflict might also be inappropriate or mistimed. Let’s take a look at each.

It may seem odd to suggest that a piece can have too much conflict, but here’s an example of what that might look like. A few years ago, a local writer brought her draft novel to my writers’ group for our review. Right from the first chapter, her protagonist and antagonist were having screaming cat-fights with each other. The author’s explanation in the text for why they were so at each other’s throats was weak—it didn’t justify the intensity of the conflict—and worse, it gave the characters very few ways to escalate their conflict. As we’ve seen, things have to get steadily worse for the characters over the course of the story, but these two were denied that chance.

Another example of too much conflict is the case where there’s nothing but conflict in the story. Constant conflict might be fine for a first-person-shooter video game but in a written story, the reader needs a break from time to time, to have a chance to catch his breath. The characters need to do that, too, and lick their wounds (real or figurative), assess their situation, and make new plans (which will, of course, fail, right up to the very end). Those changes of pace, from conflict to peace to conflict again—or more conflict to less to more—keep the reader engaged, not exhausted.

Too little conflict, on the other hand, will cause the reader to lose interest. Writers, especially new ones, who are nice, gentle, kind people, may shy away from creating conflict between and within their characters because they don’t want them to be hurt or stressed. Tough noogies. The writer who’s too nice to her characters will put her readers to sleep. As a reviewer, your job is to help her get over that internal conflict and create conflict on the page. Gotta do it.

Now’s a good time to go back to Helgeson’s list. Conflict should be constantly on the move, from internal to external, from physical to mental, from personal to impersonal, from one source or cause to another. “Constantly” isn’t necessarily the same as “rapidly,” however. The pace of this movement, like the intensity of the conflict, should be changing over time, too.

That’s a good transition into inappropriate conflict. How can conflict be inappropriate? Let’s take a crazy example. Bob, a mild-mannered private-practice CPA is out on a date at a local Applebee’s with his girlfriend Alice, who’s a sales clerk at a Gap store. The relationship has been fracturing and Bob is struggling to find a way to tell her it’s time for them to go their separate ways. Just as he’s getting ready to say so, a gunfight breaks out among the patrons and Alice whips out a Mac 9 machine pistol from her shoulder bag and joins the fray.

Uhhh, yeah, sure, that makes sense.

Now, with more background information, maybe it would make sense, but with only what I’ve given you here, that conflict is completely inappropriate.

Mistimed conflict is a different issue. Getting timing right is difficult—just ask any stand-up comic. That moment’s hesitation before he delivers the punch line can be the difference between howls of laughter and boos. Here’s an example of mistiming a conflict in fiction. Another member of my writers’ group recently gave us a chapter from the first draft of his novel. The chapter is pretty early in the story (probably less than a quarter of the way through) and yet the protagonist kills his primary antagonist in it.

Uh-oh! Now who’s going to chase the good guy around, making trouble for him, putting him in danger, generating all sorts of conflict, for the next 200 pages? Hmmm, good question. OK, it’s a first draft, where problems like this are bound to come up. But if the antagonist were to stay around for another 150 pages, the protagonist would find himself in more and more trouble that entire time. That’s what we want.

Mistimed conflict can, of course, be conflict that come too late, as well, which may be related to there being too little conflict to start with.

All right, then. Question time.

  • Is there conflict between and within the characters?
  • Is there conflict between the characters and their “environment” (collectively, Helgeson’s society, nature, and “fate”)?
  • Is there too much conflict, or too little?
  • Is the conflict inappropriate to the situation and characters?
  • Is the timing of the conflict off, happening too early or too late?

Conflict is the heart of “story.” It defines and redefines the story’s characters—it changes them. Getting conflict “right” is one of an author’s central tasks. Helping him do so is one of your most important tasks as a reviewer.

What kinds of problems have you seen in how an author presents conflict within and between his characters?

One comment to Critique Technique, part 9: Characters and Conflict

  • Split/Sun  says:

    […] while back, in part 9, I wrote about timing as it related to conflict. The questions above revealed to me another layer […]

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