Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Everyone has seen them – the pithy pieces of writing advice that can fit on a 940×780 pixel sized square, perfect for posting on facebook and inspiring a new generation of authors. Show don’t tell! Every character should want something! Every scene needs a goal! Wait, what? Every scene needs a goal?

 

I have always struggled with that last piece of advice. My characters are usually pretty clueless at the beginning of the story and are entirely reactionary in the first part of the second act, so goals never really seem to fit. 

Maybe it’s my inability to get past the definition of a goal. A quick google search defines ‘goal’ as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. Embedded in this definition is a sense of knowing, of conscious decision-making with a specific end-point in mind, of a plan or strategy to get something or somewhere. And that just doesn’t work for me.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying – “just replace ‘goal’ with ‘want'” – and that does seem, on the face of it, a nice solution. Everyone wants something, even if it is to just sit around all day in the sunshine ignoring the problems of the world. But even ‘want’ implies a sense of knowing – a want is really a goal without a plan for achieving it.

And, besides, if we focused on building a story around our character’s wants, we might end up with a novel about someone who just wants a glass of water. Not really interesting right?

“But it could be interesting,” I hear you say, “if there was a monster standing by the sink, or if the character had a deep-seated phobia about water, or there was only one glass of water left in the entire world and a hundred other people were bidding for it.”

Excellent points! And I am so glad you raised them! Because, that is what is at the heart of this post – forget about the goals (and the wants) – what every character needs, what every scene needs, is conflict.

And if you have conflict in every scene, you don’t need to worry about articulating the character’s goals or wants. Sometimes the conflict will naturally uncover them – Kasie must sell her soul for the last glass of water in the world (implies that what Kasie wants is that glass of water, also implies her goal (since a plan is involved) to successfully sell her soul and outbid the others), but sometimes it will uncover something else.  Anaiya is secretly playing her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid being detained and executed – this is a summary of the first scene in my book Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). There is no clear goal and even the want is ambiguous – Anaiya’s wants are in conflict with one another. She wants to avoid detention and execution, but she also can’t deny the part of her that needs to make music. It is the conflict (and not the wants) that is more interesting and more critical for the story development.

 

CATEGORIES OF CONFLICT

So, what type of conflicts are there?

I’ve come up with two major categories (I’ve also come up with a range of types – but am leaving that discussion for a future post):

  • Direct threat: Antagonistic force that requires defeating for the character to progress. Can be proactively engaged, but is more likely to be engaged reactively. Must be defended against or pre-emptively attacked.e.g. A fire outbreak closing in on a house. Demands engagement. Can not be avoided. Requires direct combat – either defensive (stopping it from reaching the house) or pre-emptive (trying to put out the entire fire). Must be defeated if the  house and the character are to survive (and the story progress).

    e.g. A super villain terrorising a city. Demands engagement (won’t stop until the whole city is razed to the ground).  Is actively attacking either the character or what is important to the character. Can be proactively engaged (typically the case with superhero narratives, where the protagonist will actively seek out and defeat the evil force), but is typically only engaged when the protagonist (or what they value) is directly threatened.

    e.g. An illness that becomes debilitating. Demands engagement. Is actively attacking the protagonist. Must be defeated.

  • Passive obstacle: A permanent or temporary barrier that requires removal for the character to progress. A challenge to be overcome. A detente between two forces that must be resolved. Must be proactively attacked.e.g. The memory of a dead husband stopping a character from dating again. Doesn’t demand engagement – there are two ‘wants’ in opposition – the character wants to remember her husband and wants to find happiness with someone else. One of the two opposing forces must be (fully or partially) removed for the character to progress, e.g. she could give up on the dating scene, could try to re-animate her dead husband, could undergo hypnotherapy to forget her husband, etc.

    e.g. Two destinies competing for realisation – is she destined to save the world or condemn it to a black hole of oblivion? A detente between two equally-compelling forces. What will she choose? What is required to tip the balance one way or the other (in effect, limiting (partially removing) one of the options).

    e.g. An inability to score the grades necessary to make it into the starfleet academy. There is nothing directly attacking the character, but there is an obstacle that needs removing and a challenge that needs to be overcome. Must be proactively engaged, otherwise the status quo will remain.

 

Interestingly, these two categories can be articulated as either POTENTIAL conflicts or REALISED conflicts. Potential conflicts are those that are hinted at – where the preconditions for actual conflict are present, but the catalyst has not been triggered (e.g. the bomb is present, but the fuse hasn’t been lit). Whereas REALISED conflicts are those that have been triggered and are actively in conflict or opposition with the character or are actively challenging them.

 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

The best thing about these categories is that you can use them in the plotting or revising stages of your novel. A case in point, this is what I get if I apply them to my recent novel, Rebellion (Divided Elements #2):

Scene 1: Anaiya plays her forbidden music in the Edges to avoid detection – which will only lead to detention and execution. There is a conflict within her – part of her revels in her new Heterodox existence, finds joy and inspiration in creating music, thrives in her growing Air identity; part of her is terrified that her Heterodoxy, her blatant flaunting of the strict rules that govern Otpor, will lead to her death – just like they lead to the death of her mentor (and original Heterodox Resistor), Kane 148. REALISED PASSIVE OBSTACLE

The conflict is amplified when her music and presence is discovered by a character from her past. Seeing Kaide brings back painful memories and stirs up uncomfortable emotions of guilt and regret. But, it is his realisation that Anaiya’s realignment back to her original Fire Element has failed that generates the real threat – with that knowledge he could send her to the Execution Pillar. POTENTIAL DIRECT THREAT

 

UPDATE: A reader contacted me via email to talk about their struggles with switching away from the ‘goal’ mindset and focus on ‘conflict’. You can read their question and my reply here.

 

What about you? Do you also struggle to find a character’s goal/want for every scene? Does thinking about it in terms of conflict make it easier? Let me know if you apply this to your own novel – I would love to hear if it works for you!

 

Divided Elements - Book 1 and 2


Resistance, 
The award-winning first book in the dystopian Divided Elements series is now available for free! Click here to grab your copy.

You can also purchase your copy of the anticipated sequel Rebellion, for just USD 2.99 for a limited time! Click here to start reading now!

 

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Forget the Goal – Your character just needs conflict

Your First Act is not a plot device

By Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Lately I’ve read a few stories that had something not quite right about them. At first it was difficult to place the troubling gremlin – these stories had great characters, nice pacing, interesting conflict. It was only when I reached the end of these books that I realised I still had a lot of unanswered questions. And then I realised – most of these questions were the ones that were raised in the First Act.

It hit me: These stories were introducing tension in the First Act not as the central theme or core conflict, but as a plot device – a way to get the protagonist to where they needed to be in the Second Act. 

Imagine a story where all your protagonist wants is to protect her little sister – from their incapable mother, from a dangerous and unforgiving world, from nightmarish memories of their father’s death, from poverty and disease. Then imagine this character gets the ultimate opportunity to do this – by volunteering to take their little sister’s place in a macabre and brutal spectacle that pits child against child in mortal combat for the general entertainment of the masses. This act sends the protagonist away from their little sister and thrusts them into a entirely different world.

And then imagine that the ensuing conflict has absolutely no relevance or reference to that stated goal and tension – where the little sister is forgotten and thoughts of protecting her from the big bad world are no longer plaguing her. Where the central conflict of Act One was just a means to an end – a way to force the protagonist into this new world, and nothing else. Where the Third Act answers a completely different question to the one posed in the First.

questions

Thankfully, in Hunger Games, this is not the case. Katniss ‘adopts’ a surrogate sister, Rue – an action that helps to maintain her humanity in an inhumane situation. The need to protect her sister, Prim, also permeates throughout the series (to varying degrees) and eventually evolves in a need to protect/save everyone. Especially those closest to her.

There is something deeply satisfying, for a reader, in following the evolution and resolution of the core conflict established in the first act (and, indeed, the first book of a series). Stories that forget about this central question – will Katniss save her sister from the evils of Panem? (Hunger Games). Will Mark Watney be able to ‘science the shit’ out of his lonely and tenuous existence on Mars? (The Martian). Will Montag succumb to his Fireman role or break free from it? (Fahrenheit 451). Will Anaiya break free of her legacy and bring down the Resistance? (Resistance (Divided Elements #1)) – are in danger of ‘losing their soul’ and creating forgettable stories with no emotional resonance or connection.

 

What do you think? Have you read (or written) a story where the First Act conflict was forgotten by the time the Third Act rolled around?

 

Image courtesy of Emily via Flickr Creative Commons
Your First Act is not a plot device