Sunday, 27 April 2014

Writing Personal Conflict

At some point in the story, the conflict must become personal. 

A simple enough #writetip but one that sparked a heated discussion, and so I thought perhaps the topic deserves greater exploration than can be achieved in 140 characters.

The counterargument was that in an historical conflict around a war, the protagonist has no personal beef with the opposing king.
Of course not. Well, you could write it that way, depending on who your protagonist is – but assuming your protagonist is a mere soldier, then no, that would be artificial.

Don’t confuse your setting with the conflict. A war, historical or otherwise, is a setting. Perhaps an important part of the setting, and perhaps one that breeds conflicts, but it’s not the story. For example, my WIP In the Company of the Dead occurs during a siege, and although that's part of the story, it's not the story.

Another example is disaster stories. Impersonal, right? Wrong… The setting is the tsunami, the blizzard, the asteroid… The conflict is what it means for our protagonist, what it stops him getting, and how it will affect him. That’s personal.

The day after tomorrow by MarkinhoO. Impersonal storm - very personal conflict

Stories are about people not events – as opposed to history, which is largely about events. You know those chronological lists of dates with what happened on those dates? Yawn…. That’s history.

A story takes a person and tells us about them. You may learn some history along the way. I know about the Battle of Culloden because of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, but the story is not about Culloden or the Scottish emigration to America or the revolution or the Declaration of Independence or any of the other true historical events depicted in those books. No, the books are about Claire and Jamie Fraser. It is their story. And their story is very personal. Their conflict is not the Battle of Culloden, but the risk they may lose each other – a risk heightened and deepened by Culloden.

The Battle of Culloden (1745) by David Morier, oil on canvas.
Setting or conflict?
Making the conflict personal simply means the protagonist has some personal stake in the outcome of events. If he doesn’t – if he is a dutiful soldier, who goes off to war because he is told to, does his job, and comes home an unchanged man – where is the conflict? Why do we, the reader, care?

We don’t. But maybe he has gone to war in place of his conscripted brother whom he loves too much to let die. Or maybe while he is gone, he risks losing his sweetheart to another man. Ah – now it’s getting interesting.

A related concept is motivation. If there is no personal conflict, what is the protagonist’s motivation for seeking to resolve the conflict? What are his goals? He doesn’t really have either.

If we take this back to goal, motivation and conflict (which I discussed earlier in April in How To Use GMC Charts to Plot A Novel), the goal is what the character wants, motivation is why he wants it, and the conflict is what is stopping him getting his goal. Looked through this lens, it’s much easier to see why these should be personal. Wanting something is inherently personal. Being stopped from getting what you want is also inherently personal. Your motivation is why you will keep fighting hard to get it and that drives a story. 

Any story with personal conflict will be stronger than one that is impersonal. 

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Sonia Lal said...

I agree with everything you say about conflict being personal. It has to be, yeah? No large event will leave the character's life alone. Even small events may not do that.

But I disagree with history about events. You can't separate people from the events, and events are important for how they effect people (and how the people in the events effect it.) History isn't just a list of dates and event names. Though most classes teach it like that (I was lucky enough to have one teacher who didn't.).

A.M. Guynes/Annikka Woods said...

I do agree that conflict has to be personal. If the character isn't invested in the outcome of the story, the reader won't be either. I have a tendency to think of the event as the conflict instead of being the setting for the conflict. That is definitely something I need to work on.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I was more talking about how it's taught, although I probably didn't explain that. When history is made personal (because of course there are stories to be told) it's much easier to get students engaged and involve and learning. Sadly, it's just hardly ever actually taught that way.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

It can be very difficult to actually isolate the real conflict for the character, and we have a tendency to fall back on physical conflict as THE conflict when it's often the least important issue for the character.

Anonymous said...

I struggle with writing conflict, so I appreciated this post.

Hello from a fellow AtoZ! We're almost there!

Have a great last week

J Lenni Dorner said...

Ah yes. Cool post. Good point. That's why the movie "Titanic" isn't just about a ship that sank. That's the whole reason that Leonardo had a role to play-- and the roll wasn't just to drown. (*Lame spoiler alert... the ship sinks. Who knew...)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

You are absolutely right!

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