WHEN YOUR CHARACTERS FACE CONFLICT
As I wrap up the first draft of my second novel, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conflict and how it applies to my characters. Of course, I need plenty of conflict to drive the story forward; however, I can’t have so much of it that I write my characters into situations they can’t get out of.
In order to create a satisfying (not necessarily happy) conclusion to the conflict – both the smaller ones within the story, as well as the main conflict of the plot — our characters have to have a good balance of assets and liabilities.
Let’s look at two extremes of what happens when there isn’t good balance.
TOO MANY ASSETS
It’s what I like to call the “Superman Effect.” When you have a character who is just too perfect in every way there isn’t much of a challenge when he or she faces conflict. Look at Superman: He’s super strong, super fast, he can fly, he has x-ray vision, he’s impervious to bullets. And he has the moral compass of a Sunday school teacher. Sure, he’s vulnerable to Kryptonite, but how many times can we the audience swallow the sudden appearance of that glowing green rock before it gets boring? The problem with Superman is that he has so much working for him that it becomes a stretch to give him real conflict. In the most recent movie he had to fight off several baddies from his home planet at once, and he still won. Of course he did, because he’s Superman. Even my kid was bored, because Superman just isn’t that interesting. Despite the attempt to give him some “man vs himself” conflict in the form of making him moody and full of feels, his inner struggle simply did not feel real to the audience, mostly because none of us could relate to the “struggle” of having to downplay your superpowers. He’s not a regular guy who has made himself into a superhero, like Iron Man or Batman, and he’s not a regular guy who has to deal with some outside force that made him how he is, like Spiderman or The Flash. He’s an alien; he is, literally, superhuman, even in his morality. He’s too alien in his perfection.
Characters need flaws, and they need things to overcome in order for their resolutions to feel satisfying. If there is a happy ending, it should feel earned; if there isn’t, it should feel tragic. Let the audience see the character have to figure it out, overcome his own shortcomings or the odds stacked against her. Otherwise there’s just no conflict in your conflict.
NO WAY OUT
Otherwise known as the dreaded “Deus ex Machina,” that old god in the machine, a saving element that comes out of nowhere to help our characters get out of trouble. I’ve had “Jurassic Park” on the brain recently, and the T-Rex at the end is a great example of a Deus ex Machina: our heroes, including two children, are trapped in the visitor’s center, surrounded by hungry and intelligent velociraptors, with no way to escape. Just when things look hopeless…oh, there’s the T-Rex from before, who swoops in and eats the raptors! How convenient that a giant, loud dinosaur, who earlier made the earth shake with his mere footsteps, managed to sneak up on these scarily intelligent raptors. And eat them, not the people.
This is the opposite of the Superman Effect, and it’s just as dull for readers. In fact, I think this extreme might be worse, because on top of being boring it also insults the audience’s intelligence and gives them no real payoff.
To avoid a Deus ex Machina, it is imperative to have some set-up, some foreshadowing throughout the book. Or don’t write your characters into a corner. If we’ve already seen the T-Rex stomp around and scream loud enough to burst eardrums, then he can’t be sneaking up on anyone at the end. That’s just not believable.
Two examples of good balance when it comes to characters and their conflicts are Star Wars and The Hunger Games.
Now, I love Star Wars to death. That doesn’t mean I won’t be the first to admit its many flaws, but one thing George Lucas gets exactly right is Luke Skywalker’s personal journey through the original three films. Luke has plenty of personal and external flaws to overcome: he is overeager, he’s hotheaded, he’s impatient. He’s also drawn to the Dark Side of the Force, especially when he learns the truth about Darth Vader, which itself introduces new conflict for Luke because of his absent-father issues. He has the entire Empire working against him and only a motley crew of scrappy rebels on his side. At the same time, the odds aren’t so stacked against Luke that his success at the end of Return of the Jedi isn’t wholly unbelievable. By then we’ve watched him grow from a boy to a man, come into his full Jedi powers, and learn how to both cope with his father’s true identity as well as forgive him. That’s a complete character arc right there, with the exact right amount of conflict thrown at him to make it interesting and satisfying.
In The Hunger Games, there is plenty of set-up for the dramatic ending. We know how much Katniss hates the Capitol and those responsible for the games; we’ve already seen her subvert the system by illegally hunting and trading on the black market. We know how much the citizens of the Capitol love the Hunger Games, and how the game makers will go to any lengths to keep people watching and to keep the citizens of the Capitol cheering for the tributes’ deaths. So, at the end of the story, when Katniss has had nearly every possible terror thrown at her by Seneca Crane, it’s easy to believe she’d rather make a suicide pact with Peeta and eat poison berries, rather than let the Capitol “win” by forcing one of them to kill the other. In this way, Suzanne Collins perfectly set up a way for Katniss to win the Hunger Games without having to kill Peeta herself.
Creating a good balance of assets and liabilities for your characters will require some creativity, but after all, isn’t that what we do? Well-placed foreshadowing and multi-layered character development all help when it comes to conflict that helps the story and keeps readers turning pages.