“I go to great lengths to avoid conflict in real life so filling my stories with sufficient conflict is my Achilles Heel. I like my characters. I don’t want to hurt them.” ~ Mary
This comment was left in response to Monday’s post, “Reasons for a Rewrite: The Ugly Truth,” in which I came clean and admitted why I had to delete the final 3/4ths of my story and start over. I’d released the tension at the 1/4 point when I got the couple together too soon. While there are stories in which a plot like this works, mine didn’t because there was no real reason to keep my characters apart after that.
I understand how difficult it can be to “hurt” our characters. I used to dread doing so, as my early efforts clearly show. It’s taken me time to see how making things tough on my characters actually helps them grow and leads to a more satisfying experience for a reader.
No conflict = no story.
Well, there might be a story without conflict, but it would run the risk of being a yawn-inducing read. Readers want to see characters in crisis. That doesn’t mean there needs to be a gun-toting villain closing in or ruthless landlord saying, “Get out.”
While external conflict does a good job of keeping characters apart, so does internal conflict. An emotional issue can drive a wedge between a hero and heroine. He can’t forgive himself for something in his past and thinks he’s undeserving of good things in the present. She is still grieving a lost love and is unable to let anyone else get close.
I overcame my fear of conflict in fiction when I accepted five truths.
1) My characters are tougher than I gave them credit for. I used to think of them as being like me. The truth is, they aren’t. They’re better. My heroines are brighter, braver, and more beautiful than I’ll ever be. My heroes are stronger, more loyal, and more self-possessed than the average man. My hero and heroine each have a backbone. They bend, but they don’t break.
2) Forcing my characters to deal with tough stuff helps them grow. Overcoming trials helps them become better people. Look at your life. I think it would be safe to say that you experienced more growth when you were going through hard times than you did when everything was peaches and roses. That can certainly be said of me.
3) The rewards are sweeter when one has overcome a great deal. Those writers who work for years, suffer rejections, and deal with debilitating bouts of doubt experience a near-euphoric state when, at long last, they sell. A hero and heroine who encounter obstacles, setbacks, and loss will be overjoyed when they’re finally able to be together.
4) As a reader, I enjoy conflict. I love when a writer crafts a tension-filled story that pulls me in and has me flipping pages faster than IHOP flips pancakes. I want to create that same experience for my readers. In order to do so, I must add conflict to the mix.
5) My characters want to get together. Because I write romance with happy endings, they will get together. That’s a given. My job as the writer is simply to keep them apart. Once I accepted the fact that conflict is OK because my hero and heroine have a happily ever after coming, I no longer ached each time I threw another obstacle at them.
I still experience a twinge now and then when I begin a scene in which I’m going to thwart their plans or rob them of something they want, but I console myself by consoling them. Goofy though it might sound, I look at the photographs I use as models for my characters and tell them, “Don’t worry. This will be tough, but better things are coming. Trust me.”
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When I accepted these truths, I experienced a sense of relief. By adding conflict to my stories, I was increasing the pleasure my characters would experience when they finally got together, the reader’s pleasure when they race to the end to find out how things work out, and my pleasure as a writer, knowing I’m writing a story that won’t put people to sleep.
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Is it hard for you to “hurt” your characters, or is conflict your friend?
Do you agree with the statement, No conflict = no story? Why or why not?
Do you tend to rely on internal conflict, external conflict, or a combination?