Comments on Craft: Characters with Conflict

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson CoverThe most interesting characters aren’t necessarily the ones with super-awesome skills or the best backstory. Most times, they’re the ones with the most internal conflict. One example of such a character is Joel from Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist and his co-star, Melody. In this YA novel, magic is restricted to a chosen few, and Joel is not one of them. He is, however, incredibly skilled in every facet of a rithmatist’s skills: geometry and other mathematics, the foundation of the magical system, are Joel’s forte. Melody is a rithmatist but is rubbish at mathematics. Both characters, regardless of any other plot points, are already set in conflict. Conflict is the core of plot, so Sanderson sets himself up for success right out of the gate.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Recent Fairy-tale Projects

Since I last posted, I completed my master’s degree in English, moved house, worked on dozens of projects, and got a dog and six chickens. But today I’d like to highlight three recent-ish projects that are on the same topic: fairy tales.

Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales and Television, edited by Pauline Greenhill & Jill Terry Rudy

The first project, Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television, is a collection of scholarly essays edited by Pauline Greenhill and Jill Rudy and published by Wayne State University Press. I indexed the volume, and it was a pleasure to read (not to mention the fact that it fed into research for my master’s thesis). The topics contained in the book are broad, and the various authors bring unique concerns, interests, and perspectives to the discussion about fairy tales on television. And look at that cover! Isn’t it nice to find an academic press that takes a little pride in the designs as well as the content?

The book spawned another project I worked on: Fairy Tales on Television. I was one of many research assistants and contributors who made the searchable database and functional data visualizations possible. The database is a research tool for researchers and creators whose interests intersect with fairy tales and television. I’ve used it for research of my own, and I might be preparing an infographic summarizing my findings. (So stay tuned for that.)

PersinetteOutside of academia, I also had the opportunity to work with Laura Christensen, a French-to-English translator who translated “Persinette,” a literary French fairy tale similar to “Rapunzel.” Laura translated the tale, wrote a delightful introduction, provided some biographical information on the author, and included introductions to and public-domain translations of the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” (which was published after “Persinette”) and Giambatista Basile’s “Petrosinella” (an Italian tale published before “Persinette”). I copyedited the text (except the public-domain translations) and formatted everything for its upcoming ebook release. Laura lets you know where you can find her collection on her translation website.

Humanize Your Book’s Villain

Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeYour book’s villain or antagonist is probably the reason why you have a story to tell. He or she is the one who causes the protagonist’s problems, stands in the way of the protagonist’s desires, and completes the conflict that lies at the heart of your story. Even so, many writers (not always newbies) neglect to make the villain a compelling character in his or her own right. When your villain is a one-dimensional character, your story’s conflict also becomes one-dimensional and you miss out on a prime opportunity to make your book more compelling.

The answer? Humanize your villain.

Humans are complex beings; nobody has only one dimension to them. Even real people you dislike have more to them than that one annoying habit that drives you up the wall. I’d venture to bet that people are so complex that you can find common ground with anyone on this planet if you have a chance to interact with them long enough. So there is absolutely no reason why your books’ antagonists can’t have complex motivations, competing impulses, and maybe even a bit of goodness in them.

An Example: Achebe’s Okonkwo

To illustrate my point, I’m going to use an example of writing that humanizes with painful precision (although the character I’m going to be using is the protagonist, not the antagonist). In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the main character, Okonkwo, is a strong and fierce man. I hated him. He beat his wives and killed children. Even though those actions were acceptable in his culture, he did them in ways that discomfited and outraged his peers. Almost everything he did made me hate him more. (So much so that I probably would have stopped reading the book had it not been assigned reading. I came to be very grateful that I read the entire book; it’s on my list of best eye-opening experiences.)

[Slight spoiler] A point came in the novel in which Okonkwo is summarized. A stranger takes one element of Okonkwo’s life and uses it to create a summary and “understanding” of him that supposedly stands for his entire life. [/Slight spoiler]

That moment broke my heart. My heart broke for a man I detested, because he was such a complex person that seeing him reduced in that manner was horrifying.

The key to making me sorry for Okonkwo was the fact that Achebe made Okonkwo a man. Not a straw man, not a cardboard cutout, but a man. Most things in that man irritated me. Some I could understand. Okonkwo was proud and never wanted to be seen as less than a paragon on manhood by everyone around him. I’ve never tried to be a paragon of manhood, but I have felt the pressure of other people’s eyes and the need to look capable. I’ve never felt like those feelings could justify the sort of things Okonkwo did, but I’ve felt those feelings.

Means to a Humanized End

What’s the takeaway from all this? Your antagonist doesn’t have to be one-dimensional to be villainous. I found Oknonkwo villainous, but reducing him to less than he was offended me. Your villain can be a heinous human being, but make him or her a human being. Here are some ideas on how to do it:

Give your villains more than one reason for their actions. We all do things for a variety of reasons. Very rarely does one motivating factor determine all our actions. If your antagonists wants to take over the world—or even just the corner store—give them more than one reason. It will make their goals more realistic and their means more understandable. Okonkwo wanted to look good in front of others, to be a good father, and to defend his culture against invaders. Those motivations all influenced his actions.

Give your villains universal traits. Everyone has felt embarrassed, angry, hurt, and betrayed. All of us may not have felt those things to the same extent, but we’ve all felt them. If your villain can act on traits that your reader understands, even if your villain’s reactions are more extreme than what your reader’s, the reactions will be more human. Okonkwo feared shame above all else, and that’s something I could sympathize with.

Give your villains a reason to think they’re heroes. Everyone is the hero of his or her own life story. When you’re crafting your villains, consider things from their points of view. Would they be able to justify these actions to themselves? Their mothers? Maybe your villain is motivated by love, by family duty, by a desire for security. If your villains are motivated by a goal your reader shares, their actions will be more believable and even more horrifying. Okonkwo thought he was fulfilling his role as a man; the idea that his actions were what it took to be a man made my insides roil.

Your villain’s actions need to be as realistic and as human as your hero’s. When both of them are multidimensional and realistic, the conflict between them becomes more engrossing. The more you engross your readers, the more they’ll keep coming back to hear your stories.

For more tips, check out this post about villainous characterization techniques.

Leaflet Review: A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry PratchettWitch-in-training Tiffany Aching hadn’t expected magic to involve chores and ill-tempered nanny goats! But as Tiffany pursues her calling, a sinister monster pursues Tiffany, and neither mistress Weatherwax (the greatest witch in the world) nor the six-inch-high Wee Free Men (the greatest thieves in the world) can defeat it. When the monster strikes, Tiffany will have to save herself—if she can be saved at all!

I love Terry Pratchett, so I can hardly say anything bad about his books—even though, with so many books on the market, I’m bound to not like some of them. But I liked A Hat Full of Sky. Perhaps not so much as its predecessor, The Wee Free Men, but it was still a very enjoyable book. As always is the case with Pratchett, I both laughed out loud and had a bit of thinking time to go with it.

That said, there were several times where I thought the main conflict had been resolved, only to discover there was a new conflict (though, to be fair, these conflicts were always attached and related; I just don’t think they were foreshadowed). They felt a bit tacked on, if you ask me. However, all the conflicts were thematically consistent, even if they didn’t seem to be all part of the same action arc, so it wasn’t really bad. I was just expecting a book unified by a single action; if I’d been expecting a thematic work I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

As with The Wee Free Men, the book waxes philosophical. (What? In a children’s book? Absurd.) Pratchett gets away with it because it’s natural to the character—all the ideas are in Tiffany’s voice and they’re things Tiffany would think, what with her First, Second, and Third Thoughts running around. She’s bound to run into some heavy thinking. The other reason it works so well is that Pratchett makes you laugh while he’s going about it, and the things he talks about aren’t controversial in any way: they’re just thing you may not have thought about very much before. Like how full the universe is of things that are interesting an amazing, and how you should never reduce people to things, etc. He couches them in a context that brings the ideas home.

(As a side note, The Wee Free Men introduced ideas that I repackaged and repurposed for discussion in a literary theory class in college. My comments were referenced throughout the semester for their brilliant-ness and relevance, and I felt a little dirty not mentioning that I’d gotten them from a humorous young-adult fantasy novel. But you can’t parenthetically cite your source while you’re talking. At least, I haven’t figured out how to yet.)

That’s really what Pratchett does for me: He takes things I should know and presents them in a mirror that’s ever so slightly askew so I’ll actually see them. Defamiliarization is the term, I believe. And while he defamiliarizes he delights, so I can never complain about a Pratchett book. I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the Tiffany Aching plot arc (once I chew through the stack of books next to my desk, that is), and I’ll probably end up buying them all so future children who use my house as a library will be able to read them. I wish I’d read them as a kid.

3 Common Conflict Killers

Cover of Kidnapped by Robert Louis StevensonOne of the panels I attended at WorldCon was “Creating Gods.” The panelists were Brandon Sanderson, Carrie Vaughn, some people they invited up from the audience, and Patrick Rothfuss. The main thrust of the panel was how to have superbeings (and/or deities) in a story without pushing humans or regular Joes into insignificance.

The bottom line for the panel was that you have to create conflict. You can do this by creating a disparity of powers, giving everyone something they are completely awesome at (even if it’s just being totally loyal, like Sam in Lord of the Rings), not letting powers define who someone is, making the superbeing’s power irrelevant to the main problem, or focusing on interpersonal conflicts.

This all boils down to the same thing: no matter what you add to your story, you have to maintain a level of conflict. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve pointed out in manuscript evalutions. Authors either let their conflict falter, make their first conflicts irrelevant to what the plot later becomes, or never really establish a strong conflict in the first place.

Conflict = Story

Conflict is what drives your story. If you’ve got a character-driven book, the conflicts within that character are the thing the reader is reading about. If you’ve got a plot-driven book, the plot is centered around conflicts, whether they are interpersonal, societal, global, or simply fist-to-fist mindless fight conflicts. Allow me to rephrase the first sentence in this paragraph: Conflict doesn’t drive story; conflict is story.

If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have story. If you don’t have story, you don’t really have fiction. (I’d also argue that most good nonfiction has a story as well. But I won’t get into that right now.)

Common Conflict Killers

If you’re writing a story, you’ll want to be on the lookout for common conflict killers. I’ve seen several types of conflict killers in manuscripts I’ve read or evaluated, and here are a few of the most common.

1. The main character doesn’t need to try. This first conflict killer is what the “Creating Gods” panel centered on. If you make a character too powerful, or even just too competent, there isn’t enough conflict to keep things interesting. If I look at your character, then at the situation, and know exactly how it’s going to go down and I know your character won’t lose anything in the process, then what is there to worry about or root for? There’s no suspense.

This doesn’t mean your character can’t be powerful; it just means they need to have skin in the game and something to lose. Take Superman. Kryptonite is a pretty lame weakness; it almost doesn’t count. But he has something to lose. He cares about people who are too weak to defend themselves, and he has Lois Lane to protect all the time. The WorldCon panelists pointed out that a lot of Superman’s identity stems from those he has to save. Even collateral damage can provide conflict. I’ve read far too many manuscripts where every obstacle the character faces provides no threat of loss.

2. A conflict is forgotten or erased instead of overcome. Relationship conflicts threaten a loss of love; many genre conflicts threaten a loss of life; several gut-wrenching conflicts threaten a loss of self or moral standing. That threat of loss drives a reader’s interest. If you, as the writer, then forget the first conflict you introduce and supplant it with another, or magic it away instead of having the characters sort through it, you have made the conflict your reader invested in irrelevant. Do not do this. If the conflict is irrelevant, don’t introduce it in the first place. Ditching conflicts asks your reader to make an emotional investment and get absolutely no return.

That isn’t to say you can’t have multiple conflicts, or that they can’t interrupt each other. They just need to be sustained and relevant throughout your book. For example, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the initial conflict is that David Balfour cannot wrest his inheritance out of the clutches of his uncle Ebenezer. That conflict gets interrupted when David is kidnapped and ends up going on a book’s worth of adventures with the Scotsman Alan Breck. However, the conflict of David’s poverty continues throughout the book, and the conflict with Ebenezer returns in the final chapters and illustrates David’s emotional growth. The conflict is explicitly overcome.

3. Promising one conflict and delivering another. The last common conflict killer is one likely more subjective than the other two because it centers on what you promise a reader in the opening chapters of your book. If you set up one type of conflict and then provide a completely different one, you can run into a load of trouble. I once read a manuscript that opened with a heart-wrenching revelation to the main character. The way it was introduced promised that the character would need to relearn how to trust herself and others. This conflict didn’t happen. She jumped right into trusting someone she hardly knew and risked all sorts of things for him. Given the self doubt at the beginning of the book, that path didn’t ring true.

This is hard to spot in your own writing because you don’t always know what you’re promising. Get someone to read your manuscript. Most well read people will be able to articulate when they’re getting something other than what they were promised. Also know that this is sometimes subjective. A friend of mine read Kidnapped and thought she was being served a family conflict and felt betrayed when she got a coming-of-age adventure story. I thought I was promised a coming-of-age story, and I didn’t gripe much when it stopped being a family drama and started being a Highland adventure.

Subjective or not, a disjoint between your promises and your delivery can kill your story. My friend hated Kidnapped, even though she could recognize many good things about it. That one broken promise broke the book for her.

So cultivate your conflict. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Weekly Roundup: 9/3–9/9

Cory Doctorow: “Why Should Anyone Care?”

Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts about working at a bookstore and how that opened his eyes to how the book-producing industry chugs through the years. He also provides some practical thoughts on self-publishing based on his own experience. My favorite quote: “I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. ”

Stacy Whitman: “Some Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice”

The editorial director of Tu Books shares her thoughts on voice in general and the middle grade voice in particular (I thought this article would follow up last week’s Wordplay podcast quite well). She focuses on how hard humor is, and why it’s really bad if your writing displays the difficulty of your undertaking.

Nathan Bransford: “Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints”

Nathan Bransford presents a post about how publishers lend credibility to authors associated with their brand name—and why that credibility may be squandered on lesser-known imprints and specialty groups. (I’d like to comment more on this, but I recognize more imprints than most people should, so I can’t really say which imprints are actually adding brand-name power to a book.)

Wordplay Podcast Episode 2: “Character, Plot, & Protagonists”

This week the Wordplay team has Ally Condie, the author of Matched, as a guest on episode 2.They talk about the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction, and why you need a balance between the two. They also harangue the idea of a paper cutout villain who doesn’t have believable motives or a certain degree of emotional complexity.

Writing Excuses 6.14: “Suspension of Disbelief”

The Writing Excuses crew has Patrick Rothfuss joining them for a podcast about suspending your reader’s disbelief. Some highlights: don’t make everything too tidy, don’t betray human nature, lay your groundwork, and make use of the slow build to absurdity. Rothfuss also highlights the concept of bathos, which boils down to undercutting serious or weighty things with commonplace events or thoughts.

Jon Schindehette: “Is Illustration a Viable and Productive Art Form?”

Illustration is the art of books, from two-page illustrated spreads to covers. In this post Jon Schindehette (creative director at Wizards of the Coast) briefly looks at illustration as an art form from an artist’s standpoint. He also addresses the viewpoint of an art director or editor. “[Art directors and editors] are responsible for ensure [sic] the artist that is chosen is appropriate for the task at hand, but they are also responsible for communicating the ‘needs of the text’ so that you [the illustrator] understand what success will look like.” If you’re an author looking into being your own publisher, you should also start thinking about what it takes to be your own art director as well.

Kristin Nelson: “In The Author’s Shoes”

Agent Kristin Nelson shares a conversation she had with an author who has recently changed agents. The author pointed out three things every author should be sure of before signing with an agent. Kristin adds her thoughts on each point. These points serve as a reminder that the author–agent relationship should be a partnership, and you should approach it as such. If you can’t ensure they’ll be a good business partner, you shouldn’t be signing with them.