LI Home   

David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants
How Story Parts Fit into a Whole (Part 3)


Conflicts

I've said over the past few days that a story has three major components--it's setting, character, and conflicts. When you're composing a story, you also have to worry about your treatment, the artistic way that you arrange your words, and ideas on paper, but that element exists outside the story itself.

The setting is a powerful draw for the reader in that entices the reader into the story, allowing them to mentally "inhabit" any setting in any time and place that can be imagined. It's also important because the setting gives rise to your characters, limiting the kinds of people who inhabit your story.

The characters of course have to interact with the setting, but the characters and their interactions give rise to many of your major conflicts.

So the conflicts in your story are something of the end-game, the result of the world creation and character creation that you've worked with earlier. Ultimately, you as a writer spend most of your time dealing with the conflicts that you've devised.

So let's talk about conflicts. What should you have? How do you manage them?

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the "Dramatica" model for storytelling. For about twenty years now I've used a similar model, using different names for the character types, but today I'm going to talk about problems in the context of the Dramatica model for simplicity's sake.

If you will remember, character roles in this system are shown in pairs, and usually we will see characters acting as foils to one another. For example, we will often have a "protagonist" and an "antagonist," as discussed by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago.

In screenwriting terms, the major conflict in any story is usually the "outer journey" of the story, the battle between Frodo and Sauron, or between Luke Skywalker and the emperor, between Paul Atreides and Baron Harkonnen. In heroic stories, the protagonist is often fighting the antagonist for control over his world, hoping to bring a new age of peace and prosperity.

But a story about just an outer journey will feel weak. We need to follow more than just one conflict. We have a lot of different types of conflicts in our lives--conflicts with others, with ourselves, with nature, and society. In fact, to properly show a character in turmoil, we often have to deal with all of these conflict as once, and one of the most important are the inner conflicts that we have as we battle competing impulses.

So in screenwriting terms, each story has an "inner journey" that we also must follow. This inner journey is often brought out as we follow two other character types--the Guide and the Contagonist.

The guide is often a wizardly character who advises our protagonist on how to handle a course of action. Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan Kenobi as a counselor, Frodo had his Gandalf, Paul Atreides had Duncan Idaho and his parents as guides.

On the dark side, the contagonist is an alternate guide who also wants to change our protagonist. Thus, we see that Darth Vader would love to replace Obi Wan as Luke Skywalker's guide. In the traditional hero journey, the guide is often killed or otherwise taken out of the story so that the young protagonist is psychically orphaned, and left to the temptations posed by the contagonist. In effect, the protagonist may well become like the contagonist--a mere puppet of the antagonist. Thus Luke is in danger of becoming another Darth Vader, while Frodo has to worry about becoming like Gollum, or perhaps one of the nine dark riders.

So the outcome of the inner journey that the hero faces is pivotal to the outcome of the outer journey. When you're plotting your story, it is not until the inner journey is resolved that the outer journey can also be resolved. It isn't until your character undergoes his final climactic change that a new course of action can be set.

When I'm plotting a novel, I will show these two journeys on separate plot lines. I'll actually plot the outer journey on one line, and I'll show the inner journey on a second line. I might change colors for the lines, or perhaps create different types of lines--say a solid line for the outer journey and a dotted line for the inner journey.

There is another pair of characters that we have to worry about here: the sidekick and the heckler. Very often, the protagonist of your story will have a sidekick, a friend who provides emotional support. Thus, Frodo has his Sam Gamgee, an honorable person who sticks with him no matter what. Notice that Frodo's "Guide," Gandalf, does a nice job of providing intellectual advice, but his sidekick Frodo is a simple person who is more in touch with his feelings. All great arguments have an intellectual and an emotional component, and these are not in harmony. What sounds right doesn't necessarily feel right. Frodo would like to take the Ring of Power and claim it as his own, but his gut warns him that by doing so, he would spring a trap. Luke wants to use his powers in anger, but knows that he would simply be supplanting his enemies if he gave in to his rage.

Sometimes when plotting that inner journey, it's wise to also plot in the emotional components to that inner journey, too. You also need to recognize that a character can undergo more than one inner journey in a story. You might have a person converting to Buddhism, overcoming an addiction, and taking on his role as an adult all in the same book! So you might want to create different plot lines for each of these.

In looking at internal conflicts, it's important to remember that these conflicts often provide the main conflict for a book. In other words, your character is often his own biggest problem, or at least provides the seeds for his own biggest problems. Thus, in overcoming an addiction, a character might want to quit providing drugs for a dangerous drug dealer.

One type of inner journey that is extremely important deals with romance. I decided long ago that I wanted to have some romance in every book that I write. It's not that all stories have to be about romance, I just happen to like it in my mix. So I always plot out my character's romantic journey, and that romantic journey may involve another pair of characters, what I call the "True love" and the "Temptress."

A true love character is often a woman who inspires our protagonist to be the best that he can be, to make difficult choices. She is his soul mate. The "temptress" may also be attractive and reasonable, but somehow isn't just the right fit. In a classic story, the true love character can give emotional and intellectual support, much in the way that the guide and sidekick do, compelling the protagonist to make a choice. In fact, the true love might well be more effective than either a guide or sidekick character. After all, she doesn't just lead my protagonist to action, she also serves as a reward for his actions.

But the temptress character fulfills the opposite role, compelling the protagonist both intellectually and emotionally toward the antagonist's side. In effect, the temptress offers everything that the true love offers in the way of support and as a reward, but she is often as flawed as the antagonist.

Given this, it becomes very important for me to deal with the romantic conflicts in my story on a third plot line.

Once I've gotten my protagonist charted, creating separate plot lines for each major conflict, I do the same for my other major characters--my antagonist, love interest, sidekick, Guide, contagonist, and so on.

With my antagonist, I like to look for opportunities for him or her to grow into the role. In other words, an antagonist, when faced with a choice, may for very complex reasons choose the wrong path when a choice is placed before him, thus hardening into the role of anatagonist.

It's important to remember a contagonist--like Darth Vader or Saruman--also has his or her own plans. With Saruman, he seemed to believe that he might overpower Sauron someday. With Darth Vader, he converted over to Luke's side in the end, thus redeeming himself. So your contagonist might well be a more complex character than others.

But remember that any character can have complexities. A sidekick for example might be a boost one moment and heckle your protagonist the next. The romantic interest might, for example, decide that she needs to kill your protagonist for political reasons.

In other words, no character should be one-sided, but I hope that you can see that the types of conflicts that the characters face grow out of the character and his or her role.

Mapping these conflicts out, for each major character, really helps give me an idea of what my novel will look like, how the outline for the story will flow, and by looking at the chart, I can keep in mind exactly how events will flow in the novel.

Once you have these things down, it's really a matter of sitting down and writing--and that's where the fourth element of a story comes in, your independent "treatment" of the story.