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!


  1. First: I hate Facebook! When I go to this post using Facebook on my phone, it links me in a weird way that makes it impossible to comment.

    Ok... zen moment... *takes deep calming breath*

    As for the topic:
    I must say I can really relate to Andi and how she feels about her place in her family. You probably didn't look at my family, but you nailed it!

    words: zombie, delicious, and gelatinous

    1. Facebook IS super annoying! Sorry to have blighted your day. :-(

      I'm so honored that you think I nailed Andi's middleness. Birth order and how it affects us is SO interesting to me! Best praise you could give my books!


  2. ~cackles madly~

    I'm sure Jung has something to say about linear resistance and the rebellion against organization equating to the psyche's tensions between unconscious attitudes...

    ~cackle~ ~cough~ ~wheeze~

    1. Is that wheezing because I kicked the organizing paradigm in the ribs?

  3. I'm pretty sure there's a deeply embedded emotional conflict which prevents you from acknowledging the brilliance of KAK's system.


    1. No doubt. I suspect the red hair contributes.

    2. Thank you, Kevin, for seeing my mad genius!

      ~wanders off rubbing bruised ribs, thinking of combustible bacon piercings~

    3. see? you already have your flash fiction written!

  4. My trick for this week, apparently, is to live internal conflict. :P