Monday, March 2, 2015

Yeah, about that.

I read the subject of this week's post and thought two things: first, I probably came up with the subject.
Second, if writers cannot actually handle the development of Character Inner Motivation and Inner Conflict, fiction might not be what they should be writing.

Still, here we are.


So, let me put this simply: if your character is not conflicted on a few levels,. you character lacks depth on every level.

Money's tight. I have four hundred dollars and seven hundred dollars worth of bills: Which shall I pay first?

Every time I'm having with my girlfriend and my friends, she's looking at Joe more than she's looking at me: Is this a problem or am I being overly sensitive.

Joe's looking back, and he dresses better when he knows my girlfriend is going to be there: Am I being paranoid? Which relationship is more important to me?

Just lately the boss is being more of a weenie than usual: Did I do something to offend? Will I have a job tomorrow? Should I confront about this? Should I hope it goes away?

I was maybe a little too harsh in my criticism of Nick last week. He's not exactly good with negative feedback: Did I take it too far?

Every living, sentient human being is conflicted about something. It might be the smallest damn drama you ever saw, but it's there and it's real for them.


Not my imagination: Joe is definitely hitting in my girlfriend and she likes it. Should I confront both of them? One of them?

Joe cleaned my clock after I confronted him: Do I bow out gracefully? Do I walk away? Did I just spend three months worth of my salary on an engagement ring for nothing?

Do I know how to hide a body? Is she worth killing him for? If I do this, am I really out to protect what is mine? Or is it a matter of revenge?

I want to go on vacation. Not happening with the current job. Do I really want to take on a second job? Maybe not, but damn, Hawaii....

That masked man killed my wife! But I saw the ring on his hand, the one that Joe used to wear. I will have my revenge!

Motivation is easy.

I want to be a writer! Maybe the first step is writing a novel....

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Emotional Mining - Using Your Friends to Build Inner Conflict

March came into Santa Fe this morning like a slightly drunken lion - rain fell at dawn, melting our six inches of snow and bringing a double rainbow. The birds are clamoring like it's spring. Who knows what the lamb will be like?

Before I go further... NEXT WEEK in the Bordello is Flash Fiction Week. We will riff off the words you give us, so please leave a word or two in the comments. We'll pick five and use those for stories next week. God save the queen, and all that.

For this week, we're examining development of character inner motivation and inner conflict. Frankly, I'm feeling like having a chat with our Calendar Nazi, K.A. Krantz. THESE TOPICS ARE TOO MUCH ALIKE CRAMMED THIS CLOSE TOGETHER, KRISTINE!!


Marcella did a nice job of discussing internal conflict last week, in context of external conflict. (HA!  WHAT WILL YOU DO *THIS* WEEK, CHICA??)

Marcella, who is one of my steadfast and long-term crit partners, shares my fascination for internal conflict. Though neither of us are psychologists or sociologists, we both love exploring people's internal lives and how that affects they way they interact with the world. I'm a writer in part because I love exploring people's inner worlds and how they grow and change. If I'm asked to identify one of my major themes, I pick Transformation. From my early fascination with mythology, to studying spiritual transformation via comparative religious studies in college, to years of martial arts study, I've always been drawn to the concept of change, of overcoming flaws and becoming something MORE.

A lot of people get annoyed at the concept that could or should strive to be a better person. I see comments about that a lot around the new year and setting of resolutions. And there is something to be said for accepting and loving ourselves as we are. This is where storytelling comes in. Through stories we can step back and see the flaws in others - and love the character despite those flaws. We can then zoom in, step into the characters' shoes and try on their emotional journeys. If we're lucky, we learn something about ourselves from that.

Let me share a little secret with you. When interviewers ask me if I ever base characters on real people, I usually say no. This is actually a lie. I do base characters on real people all the time, just not on the whole person. Instead I draw from the emotional struggles I see in people around me. Especially those issues that create emotional barriers that keep people from doing the things they want to do.

This is the richness in the world around us, that's sitting there, waiting to be mined for characters. People who've never moved past grief. Ones unable to break away from controlling families. Women struggling with scars from sexual abuse. Men dealing with old rage. Inner conflict comes from slamming up against these barriers.

What are they barriers to?

Why, to what the person wants most.

My best advice for learning to develop inner conflict and motivation in characters is to listen to the people around you. Listen for those moments when they tell you what they want. People do this all the time.

"I would love to travel more."
"I hate winter - I wish I lived somewhere warmer."
"I want to be a writer."
"If only I could find someone to love, who'd love me in return."

Then suss out - by asking careful questions, observing or making up your own story - exactly what is stopping the person from having what they want. Don't pay attention to the excuses they offer - not enough money, not enough time, the job, the family - those are the cover stories. Useful ones, as you can give those to your characters also. But dig deeper for the real, emotional knots. Maybe they don't travel because they feel unsafe away from home, or are pathologically incapable of saving money. Perhaps they'll never move somewhere warmer because their controlling family would never forgive them. That person who has no time to write might have a husband who demands all of her attention - or maybe she lets him have it, because her fear of failure is too strong. That person who never finds love might keep picking the same people to date, ones who will never come through.

Don't worry about people recognizing themselves in your books. First of all, they should be so lucky, to see themselves that clearly, and second, the characters will take over and make it their own.

So get out those conversational pick-axes and mine away at your family and friends' feelings. You'll be doing the double-duty of actually, actively listening to their problems, while filling your little ore cart full of lovely emotional conflict.

Remember to leave words for Flash Fictionizing!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Creating Conflict and Motivation

This week’s subject is how we create conflict and motivation for our characters. I must say I’m heartened to find I’m not the only pantster in the group after all!

In my latest science fiction romance Mission to Mahjundar, the heroine has been blind since an assassination attempt on her life as a child. That provided me with numerous conflicts for her, and motivations to cause her to make decisions that set the events of the novel in motion. Agreeing to the arranged marriage, for example, and demanding that the hero, Mike Varone be forced to accompany her as extra protection. (At that point in the story neither of them realizes they’re going to fall in love of course.)

In the novel, I’d explained the motivations for Mike and his cousin Johnny to accept the mission to Mahjundar in the first place but it wasn’t until I got deep into the book that a light dawned on me and I realized why exactly the two of them had been just about to retire from the Sectors Special Forces. (Being a person who “just writes” the book as it comes to me, these things do happen.)

In the time-honored tradition of show, not tell, here’s the scene between Shalira and Johnny where they find out how alike they really are. As the scene starts, Shalira and Johnny are escaping through an enemy temple at night, and hoping to find the room where Mike has been imprisoned. Johnny hasn’t been too keen on the romance between Shalira and Mike, nor of the complications which have ensued. Putting things mildly!

To avoid serious spoilers, I’m providing edited snippets of the scene, but you’ll get the general idea. Johnny is speaking as they’ve paused before a certain chamber in the temple which must be traversed.

 “I gotta warn you, there’s some pretty awful stuff in this room we have to cross ahead. Put your hand on my back and follow me.”
“I sensed the evil when the priest brought me though earlier,” she said. “I didn’t need to see it.”
Despite the urgency of their situation, he didn’t budge for a moment, swallowing hard. As if he was talking to himself, he said, “The worst part? That thing in there is carved a lot like a Mawreg would look. Not exactly, but close enough to make me think the sculptor had met one.”
Surprised to realize he was fighting himself about entering the sanctuary, she squeezed his hand. “Mike spoke to me of these aliens. They menace the Sectors, yes? Are they so terrible?”
“We liberated an experimentation camp once. I’ve seen the Mawreg and lived. Most humans don’t.” He rolled his shoulders and stood taller. As if giving orders to himself, he said, “All right. We’re moving now.”
Shalira got a grip on his shirt and copied his pace. The evil emanating from the room ahead was already taking her breath away. The sensations were much the same as when Ishtananga had led her past the statue, but now she was more nervous because she and Johnny were vulnerable, so much depending on their success in finding and rescuing Mike and Saium. She closed her eyes tight as they crossed the threshold, knowing she could make her way perfectly well without seeing the horror they were walking past.
She thought she heard a voice, whispering just below the threshold of her hearing, urging her to open her eyes and behold the glory of Tlazomiccuhtli. She let out a little gasp and bit her lip, fighting the effects of the mental assault. She realized Johnny was barely walking.
“What’s the matter?” she whispered.
There was no answer, and he stopped.
          “Johnny.” She shook his shoulder, horrified to find his hand was now at his side, blaster pointed at the floor. With her abnormally keen hearing, she was positive no one else had entered the room.

(SNIP – a very tense scene where Shalira eventually rescues them both from the uncanny thrall of the alien deity…and then this conversation)

                Once she knew she was out of the chamber, and the pull of the voices lessened, Shalira and Johnny leaned side-by-side on the wall for a moment. Sweat was pouring off the sergeant and his hands were shaking.
                “Are you all right?”
                Cradling his blaster as if to anchor himself in reality, he nodded, swallowing hard. “Thanks. I owe you one.”
                “I owe you more than one,” she answered. “Let there be no accounting between us.”
“The Mawreg held me prisoner briefly, initiated their interrogation, not long enough to do real damage. Mike and a squad of operators rescued me, took down the base.” He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. “It’s a hard thing to get over. I’ve had all the standard military treatment, but I still have nightmares sometimes, which is the real reason Mike and I are retiring. I can’t do the job any more. No one dreamed we’d come close to triggering a flashback on this backwater planet, begging your pardon.”
                “You appear to be doing all right to me,” Shalira said, choosing to ignore the less than flattering reference to Mahjundar.  “I know what it’s like to have screaming nightmares, to not be able to remember what was done to you but knowing it was bad. You don’t owe me any explanations, Sergeant. The important thing is to keep going, and I have a feeling we’re both accomplished at that.” She squeezed his arm.

Friday, February 27, 2015

External Conflict - Picking At Scabs

Conflict generally comes in two flavors: Internal and External. They're easily defined. External conflict is guys with guns chasing you and trying to kill you. Internal conflict is your belief that you're trash and not worth saving - think of it as the psychological and emotional baggage that comes prepackaged with a character.

You already know I'm going to say that ANY conflict arises from character. Here's what I mean by that. In order to come up with plausible, interesting external conflict, I need to know exactly what kind of emotional and psychological issues my characters are carrying around. Why? Simple. External conflict exists to reflect and exacerbate internal conflict. Whatever you believe you cannot do, I, as author, must challenge you to do - and I have to make it terrible.

Example: you don't believe you can face a room full of zombie babies because you lost your baby to crazed, three-toed sloths six months ago. Guess where I'm going to drop you. I might also light that room full of rotting infants on fire with you in it - while you listen to all those raspy baby zombie voices whimpering in the gathering smoke. This is probably going to trigger you over the lose of your child and you'll have to make a horrifying decision. Kill all those creepy, crawly zombie ankle biters yourself to spare them the flames? Or run and let them all go up in the fire? You'll have to listen to their cries if you pick that last one. Or is that *your* baby's cry you hear?

External conflict should pick the scabs off the internal conflict sores. It should make characters bleed and leave them (at the black moment of the story) lying in a puddle of comingled blood and tears. Even if those are figurative.

By knowing what self-doubts, insecurities, fears and faulty beliefs linger within my characters, I know what kinds of external conflicts they have to face - anything that exposes those self-doubts, insecurities, fears and beliefs. Bonus points in plotting if the external conflict pushes a character past what she believes herself capable of withstanding. Such hard, implacable, external forces are necessary in fiction because novels compress the time it takes most mere mortals to change. Instinct tells us that without some pretty solid motivation, the hero is not going to just up and admit the error of his ways, resolve to be a better person and wander off into the sunset, no fuss, no muss. We have to rub his nose in his wrongheadedness. External conflict does that.

When I was planning and writing my first book, I knew the heroine had PTSD from having been a prisoner of war. Initially, it was a device that gave the hero some inroads into her psyche. In no way had I intended to hand that heroine back to the creature that had kept her prisoner. Yet. When I got blocked three quarters of the way through the book, it became clear that had to happen. It was her greatest fear and the greatest test that proved whether she'd learned her lessons from every other external conflict that had come before. (I hadn't wanted to give her back to the alien because in no way did I want the story to suggest that kind of thing could cure a complex issue like PTSD.) But hopefully, it's a reasonable example for how a character's own internal issues point up interesting external conflicts that will heighten those internal conflicts and make everything much, much worse.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Outer Conflict in Defining Character

Outer conflict is easy, especially when you're writing a character whose go-to solution to problems is "punch in the face".  Of course, "punch in the face" is rarely an effective long-term solution for anything, and more often than not, conflict escalates. 
Of course, why a character gets into conflicts in the first place, and how they react to that escalation are crucial defining points for your main character.
That is part of why the Twelve Part Outline Structure* has "Investment" as one of the structural points.  The quick version of that is your character could be able to just walk away from the conflict, but doesn't.  Joining back into the fray is an active choice.  Stepping into the proverbial ring needs to be a source of agency.
That's what your outer conflict needs to bring to characters: the active choices they make.  Give the reader the sense that the character is deciding what they're going to do, rather than the story itself dragging them along by the nose.
All right, I've got a hundred and seven things to do before going to Connooga tomorrow, so I'll see you in the word mines.
*- I will be writing an extended post about that in the near future.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

External Conflict & Public Stakes

Because I have some kind of snot monster hard at work inside my head, I'm totally going to go slim on this week's post. Forgive me my wee effort, but these short and sweet points have correlating questions at the bottom that could spark some ideas in your own work.

Since the topic is being covered, as always, in fine style by my cohorts, allow me to tweak it a bit to address how the external conflict and the public stakes go hand in hand.

First a word on external conflict: All those things that oppose the main character are the external conflict. Could be the shark, the twister or the zombies (to reference my posts of the last two Wednesdays).

1.) The shark is a pretty specific external conflict, he's in the water and he's eating townspeople. On land your hero is safe. So you have to make him go into the water to have a story. Why would he do that, knowing there is a monster out there? Public stakes could be a handy way to force him into this action. In Jaws, reward money sent some folks out fishing; Sheriff Brody went because he was a good man, but it was also his job and he was an elected official so if he wanted to continue being Sheriff he had to go out and do his job.

2.) With a tornado, you're not really safe on land, but certain areas (Hello, Oklahoma) are more prone to twisters and you may need to have your hero in that area. (And yes I'm going to resist the urge to make any but this single Sharknado are welcome.) Public stakes in Twister consisted of the hero purposely getting in the path of the tornado in order to have it lift the radio transmitters that would give data back that could increase our knowledge of the big storms and help save lives. Not only was the hero's life on the line, but the information for public safety that could be gleaned from the experiment.

3.) Zombies are different from the former examples as their numbers are typically vast and they are essentially everywhere. The threat they represent is far from singular though that happens on occasion. The bigger picture is what has already been lost --every normal daily activity now has the potential to be made dangerous because of zombies...and then "every normal daily activity" doesn't exist anymore. The people left have all lost their lives as they used to be. Public stakes here are typically survival every day. Often added in are the possibility of finding a cure to stop it from happening any more, and/or finding a surefire means to eradicate all the zombies for the sake of safety going forward.

So...ask these questions and see if there are any applicable answers for your story:

1.) What is publicly at stake for your antagonist and how can you use that to force him into the fray?

2.) What is it that your hero is in the position to learn that could make a difference to or effect many other people's lives? For good or bad? What would bad guys do to keep him quiet? Who else would then be at risk?

3.)What has already been lost to disaster (small scale/personal or large scale/global) in your story? How does that increase the external conflict for your viewpoint character(s)?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Plotting the External Conflict

DC Comics: Batman Death of the Family
Usually I'm all, "ditto whatever Jeffe & James said!"  This time, this topic, I have to step a wee bit out of line, because I am not, by any means a Pantser. I am one of the Plotters among the group. With External Conflicts, Plotters truly plot, scheme, and do all sorts of horrible things to our heroes and their loved ones.

External Conflicts: the means, methods, and opportunities of the antagonists.

The last two (three?) weeks we covered the bases on the Persons, Places, Things, and Ideas that make strong/compelling antagonists. We know who/what is standing in the way of our protagonist's success. Through plotting, we figure out how the antagonist is going to thwart the hero.

All the best antagonists have plan, right?
(The sentient ones, at least)

When I plot External Conflict, I use a "bell-curve of misery" spread over a three-act structure (~30 chapters). Chapter 1 reveals the inciting moment and drops the first dot on the bell curve. This is the first time the protagonist feels the pressure from the antagonist (whether or not the hero actually knows who/what the antagonist is, varies depending on the story). The pressure continues to build, getting worse and worse until we reach the peak of that bell-curve: aka, the hero's Black Moment.  It is also the antagonist's high point. The downward slope is the hero rallying while the antagonist's power crumbles. The last dot is the hero triumphing and the antagonist being defeated.

It's easy to be evil when plotting the story.

Chapters 1-24: The hero must suffer in every chapter, and the suffering must be increasing horrible. That suffering can be a result of the antagonist's actions (External Conflict) or to can be caused by the self-destructive behaviors of the hero themselves (Internal Conflict). Balancing and interweaving the External and Internal conflicts is tricky. If done well, it makes the story a page-turner because the reader doubts the hero's ability to succeed.

Act 1 Climax: Somewhere around Chapter 13 (ish) the climax of Act 1 happens. The hero fights back, takes a stand...and fails, with big repercussions. Sometimes the climax is a false success, the sort where the hero achieves their goal, only to realize they've triggered a larger disaster. The protagonist may or may not yet know the identity of their true foe.

Example: The heroine's goal of Act 1 was to steal the brass monkey from the temple. Heroine takes the monkey out of the temple...and releases a plague of locusts that eat the souls of children. Oopsie. Oh, and the people who set her up to steal the brass monkey? They've been turned into brass monkeys too.

Act 2 Climax:  We're up to Chapter 23 (ish) when the antagonist demonstrates his/her superiority over the hero; thus, the Black Moment. The catch here is that the antagonist hasn't yet done their absolute worst (believed or actual). That threat still looms until the final which the hero prevails. But, BUT, what's done at the Black Moment is still pretty damn awful. And, at this point, the hero knows the antagonist's true identity (whether or not the reader knows is a different matter).

Example: The antagonist is The Joker. Batman's tied up in silly string that's eating through his bat suit, while suspended over a vat of bubbling plastic ready to be poured into molds.  Bubbles burst, giving our hunksome Bruceypoo some horrific third-degree burns. Batman is surely defeated.

Chapters 24-30: Lessons learned. Everything the antagonist has done has made the hero stronger and smarter.  Such is the nature of survival. Now, you the writer must show the reader how the hero applies those lessons to defeat the antagonist and to overcome the External Conflict.  If you're plotting your story, you can make little "take away" notes from each skirmish. Thus, when writing the Great Takedown, you know what to incorporate. Bonus points if the hero uses a variation of the villain's ploy to save the day.

To repeat: Every chapter is an opportunity for the hero's ruin. By plotting the External Conflict, you can appropriately escalate the damage inflicted and the scope of the lesson learned. Pace your hero's suffering. You don't want to have Big Horrible Limb-Losing event in Chapter Six. It's like...well, you know. The fun's over, and no one is sticking around for the apologies.