What do you mean, I need conflict?

I’ve been trolling through my storehouse of articles I wrote in the past, looking for likely material for my blog. This is partly out of sheer laziness (easier to rewrite something already written than write new), but also because there are some pretty decent musings on various writerly topics.

The most recent one I’ve pulled out has to do with conflict. Creating genuine, difficult to resolve conflict between my characters used to be the bane of my existence. Okay, sometimes it still is. But it’s also something I enjoy doing because it’s part of characterization, which is my favorite part of writing.

This particular article came about when a writer related to me how editors would tell her they “couldn’t engage” with her characters, that her characters weren’t sympathetic or dynamic enough. When I first started writing novels, I received similar feedback from editors and it was always a bit maddening because it seemed so vague.  As a consequence, it was difficult to put a finger on what it was about my characters that didn’t pass muster.

What I learned after years of writing, rewriting, getting feedback, rewriting, etc., is that what was likely missing in my characterization, where it was lacking the “zing” that the editor was looking for, was lack of development of my characters’ backstories and conflicts.  While judging writing contests, I’ve read so many promising, well-written manuscripts that fizzled because the main characters lacked powerful internal conflicts. These internal conflicts, paired with complex external conflicts (e.g., they have to save the world from blowing up) are what invest your reader in your characters and therefore in your book.

What is an internal conflict?  It’s a problem within a character that only he or she can solve.  Something so deep-seated, it informs every choice the character makes.  Something so enormous, it should seem to your reader that nothing will ever heal that wound. The issue may not completely resolve at the end of the story, but there should be enough of an arc such that the character at a minimum has new insight into this difficulty. Otherwise, your reader may feel dissatisfied with the story’s resolution.

I like to use as an example my hero Lucas Taylor in the first book I wrote for Harlequin, THE BOSS’S BABY BARGAIN (yes, a bit of a goofy title, but the thing sold like hotcakes).  Lucas’s mother was an alcoholic and he spent his childhood in and out of foster care.  His mother let him down countless times, getting sober long enough to regain custody of her son, then falling off the wagon and losing him again.  Then, when his mother finally seemed to have her act together, was staying clean and sober, she was killed when their apartment caught fire.  Lucas was badly burned while trying, and failing, to save her life.

Think about the load Lucas was carrying.  He fears caring for anyone–they might disappear from his life at any time.  He doubts the power of love–it neither kept his mother from drinking nor saved her life.  And his guilt over his inability to save his mother is a thousand pound weight on his heart.

These are big, big issues that will require a novel-length story to resolve.  The trick is to make a sympathetic character out of this harsh and hard-edged man.  I had to make sure there were moments of generosity and kindness that demonstrated his true nature, showed the reader the man Lucas might have been if his life had not been so tragic.

I always think hard about my characters’ backstories, what in their past has built the walls around their hearts.  I try to make those conflicts seemingly insurmountable, but as the story proceeds, to show glimmers of the characters’ true selves through the chinks in their armor.  Hopefully, my reader will care enough about my characters and my story to read all the way “THE END.”

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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