This appears to be the week to talk about “things Sam is crap at”. Today’s discussion: conflict.
I have a hard time with conflict. I suspect it’s because I loathe confrontation. There is a difference, of course, between the two, but it’s a fairly fine distinction, and conflict often isn’t very interesting without confrontation.
The ideal conflict arises when two characters (I use the term “character” pretty loosely here) have goals or beliefs which, if they don’t outright contradict each other, at the very least interfere with each other. There are the four traditional “epic plots”, of course:
Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. God
Man vs. Self
(The gendered language here is an example of a lot of what’s wrong with the publishing industry today. I like to pretend that Woman is sitting nearby eating popcorn and laughing at Man’s stupidity, or off having more interesting adventures of her own.)
For me, a major problem is that any book or television show that isn’t about an individual against an external force — any media that is about individuals interacting — usually draws on the oft-forgotten fifth epic plot:
Man Vs. Stupidity.
Because the thing is, pitting someone against an external force gets boring after a while, but pitting someone against someone else who either genuinely means them harm or has a strong conflicting goal is really hard. Building up a believable villain is tough work, and when you’re writing about an ensemble, you rarely want one character to go so far into active conflict that they become irredeemable in the eyes of the audience. Especially since we love a good redemption arc.
So it’s easier to derive conflict from miscommunication, misunderstanding, or plain stupidity. And while I have a hard time watching the bad guy get the better of the hero through cleverness, I have a much harder time watching two people in conflict because they’re both being stupid. I see enough stupidity on the street every day, I don’t need to see it in my entertainment media as well. Or, god forbid, in something that’s attempting to be didactic.
But there is no doubt that writing conflict is hard work. Often, at least for me, it’s also not that interesting; I’m stuck back in the phase where world building is still the most interesting part of the story, for me, and only rigid self-discipline actually provides conflict for my stories. Writing the fight scene between Christopher and Lucas in Nameless was one of the hardest things I’ve done. It probably shows. And it could be said that the fight was driven by misunderstanding, but I like to think it was more driven by a fundamental difference in the way the two men saw the world at that moment.
There’s no instant fix for Man Vs. Stupidity. There’s no trick to escaping it and no writerly cure. It’s just a lot of bullheaded pushing — working to build a believable contrast between the ideologies of two characters, or giving a villain a genuine motivation.
Mind you, “I like chaos” has worked for many villains of the past, but you really have to sell that one to make it stick. On the other hand, when you do, it sure is fun….