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.

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