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

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I was feeling all kinds of nostalgic about nearing the finish line for Divided Elements | Resistance, and decided it was a good time to reflect on all the big lessons I have learned as a first time author. Last week I talked about the very sage advice of setting up your author platform (seriously, if you haven’t already done this step, add “start wordpress blog” and “set up at least one social media account” to your list of things to do). This week, I want to talk about the lessons I learned (and some I should have avoided) and the things I figured out for myself in writing a first draft.

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Lesson 1: Gnothi seauton. (Or, for the non-ancient Greeks, “know thyself”)

This is a lesson I had to figure out for myself and one I’m still trying to fully figure out. Every writer is different – in what we write, in how we write, in why we write. Inspiration for story ideas will come to each of us differently. There are those of us that start with a character (e.g. I want to write a story about your average suburban girl who has found street cred and a way to brush off her legacy of schoolyard geekery via zombie hunting), those that start with a genre (e.g. I want to write a supernatural dark comedy), others that start with a theme (e.g. I want to write a story about love overcoming prejudice), those that start with a setting (e.g. I want to set my story in post-apocalyptic Australian suburbia), and those that start with a premise (e.g. I want to write a story about a  zombie hunter whose mum has just started dating a zombie).

Each of these starting points represents a key aspect of the story you are about to write. Regardless of whether you are a plotter (someone who structures their story before they write it) or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a roadmap), figuring out each of these is important for determining your story’s trajectory. Knowing your character is a starting point. Knowing your character, and the setting, theme, and tone (indicated by genre) of their core conflict (indicated by premise) – that’s trajectory.

Figure out yourself, figure out the gaps, and figure out the story trajectory. A story about a surburban zombie hunter in a paranormal mystery is a very different story to a one about the same hunter in a coming of age story or a dark comedy.

Lesson 2: Don’t write shitty first drafts

The old adage ‘write shitty first drafts’ abounds in writer circles. I agree with its underlying sentiment – “just write!” – but don’t agree with its call to action.

For me, ‘write shitty first drafts’ belongs in the same proverb bag as ‘he who hesitates is lost’. But, for every pithy idiom is another to contradict it –

“Look before you leap!”

“Haste makes waste!”

“Measure twice, cut once!”

“A stitch in time saves nine!”

I am not one of those writers who can vomit out words and then spend an inordinate amount of time going back and editing that word vomit into shape. I prefer to get my stories mostly right and then undertake strategic edits to fix problems that are the exception and not the rule.

Having your story trajectory sorted will help with not writing word vomit – so will these other awesome tips:

  • Read and watch and listen to good stories. When I get stuck or feel that the quality of writing (or dialogue, or setting description, or exposition) is sub-par, I read a few pages of a writer I admire or a book that I see as a benchmark. It serves as inspiration, motivation and a quick ‘how-to’ guide.
  • Understand story structure. Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, you need to recognise that the human brain is pretty much hard-wired to absorb a story in a very specific way. It seeks out certain patterns and conventions. It’s why romance readers demand their happily ever after, why thriller readers demand their moment of ascendancy for the antagonist, why mystery readers demand their subtle clues and red herrings.
  • Know your end-point and where you want to go. This one is a little trickier (as I note in the next lesson)

Lesson 3 – Don’t go in blind. But, don’t plan too far in advance.

Okay, hard-core pantsers, you may look away at this point – this is one for the plotter-leaning amongst us (like most things, I think it is more accurate to think in terms of a Kinsey-like scale of plotting/pantsing, rather than strict binaries).

I love story structure. I spend each new novel planning stage extrapolating an outline from the bare premise I start with. I think you need a game plan before you run out on to the field. That said, I don’t think you can anticipate everything in advance. If your story writing process is anything like mine, your characters will have a way with assuming control of your story and shifting it along unexpected tangents, or your research will uncover some new and exciting aspect to the story that seems to shift its tone or direction.

You need to have a plan, but you also need to be flexible and open to new directions.

My approach goes like this:

  • Figure out my story trajectory and use that to frame the broad parameters for writing. Everything should be consistent with the trajectory, and the trajectory should be wide enough to allow for some deviations within the lines.
  • Outline (and write) in stages. Typically, I outline (and then write) each gap between the five key turning points. This gives me some structure to write to (which makes for much more productive writing sessions), while also allowing for new tangents, developments and ideas to be picked up in the next part of the story. Outlining in stages also helps me to keep fresh the key points I need to be hitting in each part of the story.

 

Well, that was cathartic! Hope you found it helpful 🙂

 

Image courtesy of DangerPup via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts