Critique Technique, Part 9: Characters and Conflict

The next eight articles are going to be about characters and characterization. Before we get started, though, I want to point you to another excellent blog post from several years ago, titled The Night the Lights Went Out in Texas, by Keith Cronin, on Writer Unboxed. This paragraph sums up so much about the enterprise of story-telling, whether in fiction or non-fiction:

“But it really comes down to the people. (I look at the sentence I just typed, and realize I instinctively chose the right word with “people.” It’s hard for me to even refer to them as mere “characters” – that’s how real they’ve become to me.)”

That says it all, doesn’t it? It’s the fundamental question you’ll be asking about the pieces you read as a reviewer: are the characters in this piece people to me, or just characters? The answer will tell you, and the author, a lot about whether or not the piece is succeeding.

Essential Ingredients: 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.

Angry couple standing back to back
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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. 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 also has an internal component 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.

Too Much Conflict

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 fights with each other. The motivation for their arguments 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 I’ve written in earlier posts, 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, a chance to catch his breath. The characters need to do that, too, to lick their wounds (real or figurative), assess their situation, and make new plans (which, of course, will fail, right up to the very end). In his book Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham calls these moments the “sequels” that fall between the “scenes.” These 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

Too little conflict, on the other hand, will make the reader 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 her internal conflict and create conflict on the page. You’ve got to 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.

Inappropriate Conflict

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

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 no response at all. Here’s an example of mistiming a conflict in fiction. Another former member of my writers’ group once 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, and generating all sorts of conflict, for the next 200 pages? Hmmm, good question. OK, it was a first draft, where problems like this are bound to come up. (It’s also possible this antagonist wasn’t the primary one, but if so, that creates a whole different set of problems.) If that antagonist were to stay around for another 200 pages, the protagonist would find himself in more and more trouble. That’s what we want.

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

Questions For You

All right, then. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself as you review a piece.

  • 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?
    • If too much, which conflicts can be deleted or combined? How would doing so make the story better?
    • If too little, what kinds of appropriate conflict could the author add, and where?
  • Is the conflict appropriate or inappropriate for the situation and characters?
    • If it’s inappropriate, why, and what can the author do to fix that?
  • Is the timing of the conflict off, happening too early or too late?
    • What could the author do to make the timing better?

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.

Your Turn

What kinds of problems have you seen in how an author presents conflict within and between her characters? How could, or did, the author change the story to make conflict more effective? Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below.

 

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