If I mention the movie ‘Gone with the Wind’, what’s the first thing you think of? The cinematography of the sweeping landscape? The historical accuracy – or otherwise – of the battle scenes? Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley? Chances are, it’s none of these. Chances are what springs to your mind immediately are the characters of the dashing Rhett Butler and the fearless Scarlett O’Hara. Deep down, you fell in love with them, flaws and all, and what held you entranced was the emotional intensity of passionate conflict between them.
Pick your favourite book and ask yourself why it is your favourite. Maybe the plot left you gasping for breath, but nine times out of ten, it’s the characters and the conflict they find themselves in that we find the most compelling. Well drawn characters resonate with us, we become emotionally involved with them. All of us need to belong, to connect with others – or disconnect on occasions – and reading about characters we identify with and care about and feel empathetic towards, as well as imagining ourselves and what we might do in their situation, are what keeps us turning the pages of a book. But for a story to be powerful and credible, we need to see conflict on every page and at every level, and that has to come from our characters and how they react to the plot.
Without conflict, characters would be boring, cardboard cut-outs; it’s the element most necessary to make them to come to life and jump off the page. Conflict must sizzle inside your characters; it must spark between them outwardly, and then build to a dramatic climax with the external situation they find themselves in – in other words, your fantastic, tight, and believable plot.
Conflict inside a character comes first; from their assumptions and anxieties, history and motivations, hopes and fears, needs and wants; the bundle of flaws and qualities that makes them human and believable. Next, throw them onto the stage of your novel, reacting against someone equally human, who has a different set of needs and wants, history and motivations, and you’re already setting up conflict between them.
But this is only the beginning. You layer it further and add complexity by cranking up the tension, making sure that your characters’ lives go from bad to worse, where the pressure builds until their deepest fears are realised and they are at war both inside themselves, as well as with the external dilemma they find themselves in. For example, maybe deep down, they begin to discover that their needs and wants are different to what they assumed. Maybe they have a difficult choice to make, which directly opposes the needs of other people as well as their fondest hopes and expectations. Maybe they’ve brought trouble on their own head through flaws in their personality. Perhaps they find it hard to accept that in order to resolve their problem, they must dig deep and confront their innermost fears and then, after all that, they have to attempt that most fearful of challenges – which is to change. Change mindset, change direction in life, or change outworn beliefs; something in their life has to transform as a direct result of the conflict they’ve been through.
My new book A Husband’s Confession tells the story of two couples in which the leading men, brothers Max and Finn Kennedy, are very different indeed. Before they come together on the page, you know that Finn has major issues with his brother, which stem from his own self-doubt (internal conflict), and these are further heightened by finding himself out of work. An actor, Finn’s lead role in a long running, Irish TV crime drama series has been axed and six years of fame and recognition is over. (External conflict). It doesn’t help that Max’s star is rising with the success of his artisan bakery. (More external conflict) Then a hit and run accident causes even more disaster for the families, and life gets very messy and goes from bad to worse.
Conflict in characters must be resolved by the end of the narrative in a convincing and satisfying way, and in a way that is true to themselves. You will have winner and losers, and not everyone is going to have a happy-ever-after ending because that doesn’t reflect real life.
Problem is, what if you, the writer, empathise deeply with your characters and become so emotionally involved with them that you can’t bear bad things happening to them? Maybe you shy away from conflict in your own life and avoid all forms of confrontation. Maybe you want everyone to be happy and contented, and you just can’t bear to put your beloved characters through trauma?
Yet what if Margaret Mitchell had decided to give Scarlett O’Hara a life of happiness and contentment? Would we still remember her?
©Zoë Miller for writing.ie
Zoë Miller is the author of six contemporary women’s fiction books published by Hachette Books Ireland, including the newly released A Husband’s Confession. Her books are an escapist blend of drama, romance and intrigue. She also works in the area of training and development and juggles her time between the day job, her writing and her family. You can find out more at www.zoemillerauthor.com, Facebook/zoemillerauthor, or follow her on twitter @zoemillerauthor.
About A Husband’s Confession
A deserted laneway
A hit and run accident
Two families will never be the same…
Ali and Max Kennedy own a renowned artisan bakery in Dublin’s creative quarter. Max has given Ali everything she ever wanted – marriage, children and security. Now, her biggest fear is that her precious family will be taken away from her.
Across the city, Finn and Jo Kennedy live a life of responsibility and success far removed from the carefree couple they were when they first met in Australia twenty years ago. But in the best of marriages, appearances can be deceiving.
When a tragic accident befalls one of the families, a long-buried secret between the Kennedy brothers comes to the surface and a house of lies comes tumbling down.
As Ali and Jo discover life-changing truths about the men they married, each must make a decision – to forgive, to forget or to move on…