14 December 2013

Characters in Conflict with Themselves

Sometimes you eat the blog topic; sometimes the blog topic eats you.

Autumn Frederickson's illustration for
C.A. Verstraete's "Songbird" in Athena's
Daughters. I haven't seen the picture
for my story yet, but between the wood
and the birds, I figured this fit the theme.
I was pretty sure December had it in for me as soon as I read this month's Beyond the Veil topic:  "Gifted or Cursed: Making your Characters' Greatest Strength, their Greatest Stumbling Block".  Uh oh.  Am I supposed to do that?

The first thing that popped to mind was a writing book I read so long ago I can't remember the title, much less the author.  The book recommended creating characters by picking a principal personality trait (or two) and throwing a person with that trait against their polar opposite.  Bad against good.  Hero against coward.  Crowd-pleaser against agoraphobic.  You get the picture.  It was, according to the author, a foolproof a recipe.  You take your sweet and mix it with your sour, and baddaboom, you got yourself a book.

The second was something William Faulkner said in his Nobel Award acceptance speech: "The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."

Naturally, I don't agree with either of them.  Not entirely.

I'm sure by-the-numbers character creation works for some. After all, I know people who use spreadsheets to write their award-winning books. But for me, it would only result in fake people in artificial conflicts.  No one and nothing in my world is entirely one thing or the other.  Everything in my universe is a double-edged sword.

I'm better with Faulkner...if you ditch the aging lion's complaint about all them young whippersnappers.  People in conflict with themselves--like Death in Kimberley Troutte's Soul Stealer --can make for powerful stories, but...



But what about Bram Stoker's Dracula?  The Transylvanian dude isn't in conflict with himself at all.  He wants blood, and he's going to do whatever it takes to get it, without guilt or second thoughts.  Everyone else in his story is simply a means to an end.

Consider Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.  She wants something that no one can take away from her, and she'll do anything to get it.  Her problem is she doesn't know what that something is until the very end.  But once she figures it out, she's going after it.  No guilt.  No apologies.  No angst. 

Likewise, Rhett Butler isn't her opposite. He's her mirror.  Her greatest strength doesn't cause her to stumble, either.  Her strengths are wit and determination.  All her problems arise from applying her wit and determination to unworthy goals.  The problem isn't her strength.  It's the application of that strength and the consequences it entails.

Consequences--that's the key for me.  It doesn't matter if the character is operating from their strengths or weaknesses.  Their actions have consequences, and those consequences drive the conflict.

In "The Gap in the Fence", my story for Athena's Daughters (inserting plug for the Kickstarter here :-) ), ten-year-old Ana's greatest strengths are her determination and her empathy.  They aren't stumbling blocks, but they do force her to act in certain ways.  Those actions bring her in conflict with her best friend's mother, a powerful fairy, and ultimately, the friend she was trying to help. 

But those character traits aren't stumbling blocks.  They're necessary to her sense of self and agency.  But they do have consequences.

Likewise, the other characters aren't her opposites.  None of them are, for example, bad or weak-willed in opposition her goodness and strength.  But their own needs entail consequences, consequences which bring them into opposition with Ana.

For me, it's all about consequences.  And heart.  And creating characters who act like people, not emoticons.

And if they wind up in conflict with themselves, well, that's fine, too.

Jean Marie Ward

PS, For those who are interested in reading a taste of "The Gap in the Fence", you can either pop over to my website, or check out the blog I did on the Athena's Daughters Kickstarter.  You can even go straight to the Kickstarter.  It has pictures.  And a video.  And an astronaut...

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