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Friday, October 22, 2010

Our Guest: Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Building Conflict From the Head Down

Building conflict from the head down means starting with the character's mind rather than their heart or body. Sure, the heart and body can create all kinds of problems for these people...but without their head, those problems wouldn't really go anywhere worth reading about.

That's not to say a character who's trapped in a burning building has NO conflict! Of course there's conflict; the heat of the flames is approaching and there's no visible way out. Try the window? Oh, no, it's locked. Try the stairs? Oh, shoot, they're in flames. Try bashing a hole through the roof? Oh, gosh, will that work?

Sure, this character -- let's say a woman -- is in physical and possibly emotional trouble here. But who's ASKING these questions and evaluating these answers?

The brain in her head.

Even while her body is threatened by the fire (not to mention her heart, because her first love letter is still upstairs) and we can get all kinds of excitement from that physical and emotional turmoil...what IS it that keeps us rooting for her in this situation?

Her personality.

That's what draws us deeper into the story. Action and suspense and dangerous adventure are all good things, but we don't want this woman to be the same as every OTHER person facing the scary fire. We want to see what's different about her. What makes her more interesting, more attractive, more compelling than the character in the next room?

We might not know her backstory yet, so we can’t be attracted by the fact that she's an orphaned heiress traveling to meet the wizard-skilled lord of the realm. All we know is what we see her doing right now.

If she's gonna sit there like a bump on a log and say "that fire sure is hot, guess I'm doomed," why would anybody want to read about her?

Well, probably they wouldn't...a bump-on-a-log personality doesn't promise a whole lot of exciting entertainment. But a personality that we suspect will wind up in some kind of intriguing situation, some tantalizing turmoil, that's a character we want to read about.

No matter how this woman responds to the fire, we want to know she's got more fascination in her life than just the immediate emergency. And whatever's fascinating about her will be different than for anyone else trapped in this same building -- because she's got her own unique personality.

Which is where the most compelling conflict begins.

Julie Garwood defines conflict as external (the dragon) and internal (the demon). Both fabulous sources, right? But whether a character is dealing with a dragon or a demon or both, what matters to us is how they handle this conflict -- and how they handle it depends on what kind of person they are.

So it makes sense to look at what kind of people our characters are, and how ANY conflict in their life will be influenced by what makes them unique.

If we've got ten people all trapped in this burning building, they're each going to have a different battle ahead of them. Avoid the flames, sure, but that doesn't stay intriguing for long. Who's gonna blame the architect? Who's gonna find the axe? Who's gonna call their loved ones? Who's gonna lead the charge? Who's gonna follow? Who's gonna pray? Who's gonna panic? Who's gonna tell jokes?

You might be already thinking "actually, what MY character would do is this-and-such." That means you've spent a lot of time with this person; you know them really well. Which is a good thing!

But when you're first starting a book, you don't yet know how these people will operate...or even if they're going to set foot in a building that bursts into flames.

Still, you probably have SOME idea of what they'll be like. Which leads right into my question:

How do you shape a character's personality?

Do you have a particular system you like to use? A blend of several? Do you plan their personality before starting the plot, or are you more likely to start with the plot?

There's sure no right or wrong answer! I'm constantly looking for new personality-planning systems, and the ones I keep handy are those that offer all kinds of opportunity for conflict that comes from WITHIN the characters...because that leads them so plausibly into trouble outside.

And finally, after several years of relying mostly on birth order, priorities, enneagrams and the Myers-Briggs archetypes, I've got some new tools to explore next month. But right now, I'd love to hear about yours!

How do YOU shape a character's personality? Have you tried some method you'll never follow again? Found one that works every time? Focus on different systems with every book?

I can’t wait to see how other writers work...and look forward to seeing a whole lot of cool ideas.

Laurie, figuring we need something cool after all this talk about fire

Laurie Schnebly Campbell,
http://www.booklaurie.com/, is thrilled at getting to spend the day with historical authors, because she's never even attempted to write history. (Except for the stories she and her sister made up during junior high...er, better off forgotten.) Aside from winning "Best Special Edition of the Year" over Nora Roberts, her favorite thing about the World Of Writing is teaching online classes -- like next month's Building Conflict From The Head Down, at http://www.rwamysterysuspense.org/coffin.php.


  1. Laurie,

    Thanks so much for being our guest today. I think I've taken 4-5 classes from you and I've gotten a lot out of each one. In fact, last night I used your ennegram (sp?) method to help me stay on track with my hero.

  2. Samantha, that's wonderful to hear! What kind of hero is the one in progress, and what's his conflict?

  3. My hero is a protector and his biggest internal conflict is his arrogance. He can't see himself needing anyone else to come to his aid because HE is the hero, after all. This attitude puts him in danger both physically and emotionally. Thank goodness, he'll get an opportunity to change! Let's hope he's up for the challenge. :)

  4. Thanks Laurie. I always like being reminded that authors SHOULD be mean to their characters. The better the conflict, the better the book.

    Because admit it, that's why half of us decided to start writing in the first place-we like to torture people and it's not nice in real life.

    For my characters, I actually like to watch TV and pick out my favorite television personalities, then twist. It works for me to pick a "cardboard cutout" from the shelf, then think about ways to make them different. So my character is a football player, how cool would it be if he hated feeling sweaty?

    Strange approach? Probably. But for me, it works.

  5. Hi Laurie!!

    After taking your Conflict via Motivation class recently, I understand better what I do first - I usually have some scene with the main characters pop into my head, and then my very first question is what was the conflict that brought these two together. Your class really helped me to save time in plotting out my story via what's going on in the action scene that first came up, which in turn helps me come up with more action and steps along the way!

    So, with my short story that's in an anthology that just came out (find it at charlotteraby.com) I saw the two characters together, one was homeless and invisible - and first I had to figure out why was he invisible - who did this to him?). and then the next question popped into my head - so what did HE DO to get himself stuck that way?! And suddenly, I had him. Finding out about my heroine was the same.

    I'm interested in your new tools coming up this month. I like to try to incorporate every tool I've learned, perhaps at different times, to help me along. And your classes are the best!

  6. Great post! When you mentioned 10 different characters responding differently to the fire scenario, it made me think of the TV show LOST--each character had their own way of dealing with each crisis, because of their own experiences and philosophies. And naturally it created instant conflict! The viewers also knew the characters well enough to EXPECT certain reactions from each one -- increasing the emotional stakes.

    I'm not sure what my "method" is exactly. I always say my writing is 85% inspiration and 15% voodoo. LOL So it's kinda hard to pinpoint the details!

  7. Lorenda, what a cool idea to use TV characters (with a twist) as inspiration! Finding that out-of-the-box angle to an off-the-shelf stereotype makes readers curious: "Hmm, what's gonna happen here? I've never seen THIS before."

    Which'll make 'em very happy. :)

  8. Great post, Laurie. I've learned the hard way that it's essential for me to really know my characters before I begin the first draft. I used to draft out a basic outline of who I "thought" the character was and a basic outline of the plot. Nah, that doesn't work well for me. I've become tired of writing a dozen revisions to get down to who the characters really are. (I spent almost three years revising Blood Judgment.) Now I'm using GMC charts, conflict charts, your enneagram book and a fabulous character questionnaire that must be about 20 pages long that I acquired in another workshop. I have two projects at the moment. The second Judgment ms and another project I'm ready to begin...with charts in hand. Now I'm able to outline in depth and know where I'm going out the gate.

  9. Charlotte, I love how you're asking what the character did to get himself into a bad situation (or a good one, depending on how he feels about being invisible) -- that's making him an active player in the story, rather than a passive wimp.

    You're right on target in thinking readers like to read about active people, because they give us so much more to root for!

  10. Donna, I think you just NAILED what made that show so popular with viewers -- what's not to love about conflict that comes from plausible personalities? (Especially when they don't belong to our own family & friends.)

    Inspiration 85% and voodoo 15% is fabulous; I've gotta quote you on that. :)

  11. Joan, it sounds like you might be a Pantser-turned-Plotter -- and it's wonderful that you've found a system that WORKS for you.

    I've always been a big fan of planning...and yet it amazes me that my friend who just dives right in with no planning comes up with equally great books. Go figure!

  12. Thanks for joining us today, Laurie! I have to plan out my characters and define their personalities before I'm able to tackle the plot. I plan my hero and heroine side-by-side, working out all sorts of details and the back story for why they have these quirks, and as I go I tend to put in some instant conflict by making them opposites in a number of areas, or giving my heroine a habit that is my hero's pet peeve. Once I know who these two characters are, then I'm able to toss them into a situation and know how they'll react. If I try to plot before I know my characters, I end up trying to force them into behaviors that simply don't fit.

    I've looked at Enneagram and MBTI, and a number of other personality typing systems enough that I have a good understanding of them in general, but I tend to not stick overly much to them. I also always be sure I give my characters a specific birthday, and I might draw from the personality characteristics of their astrological sign in sorting out who they are. But in general, I don't focus too heavily on any of those things as I go.

  13. Catherine, your method of getting to know the characters and plotting from THERE -- rather than developing a plot and then choosing what kind of characters will fit in -- sounds like a great way of putting personality first.

    And it's nice you can draw on enneagrams, Jungian types and astrology traits when you feel like it, but also go your own way when you don't!

  14. Interesting topic, Laurie! I just realized that I let the conflict determine much of my character’s personality. As in, how can I make the conflict worse and then, who’d be the type of person to act it out? In that fire, my heroine would be sprinting down the hall because she heard a cat meowing in the next room. The hero would lead them to safety, reluctantly carrying the d*mn cat that knocked over the lit candle that burned his building to the ground.

    Additional personality traits and behaviors would be determined by what would create the most conflict between the two.

    I’m proudly trying out every mistake a new writer can make so I’ll see you next month in your new class! – Kathleen M

  15. Kathleen, wow, you've got a vivid set of people from just that building-on-fire scenario...I'll bet everybody in your brainstorming group loves you. :)

    And the method of starting with a scenario and designing characters to fit it ISN'T a mistake as long as it works for you -- it's staggering how many different methods there are, and how each writer evolves into whatever gets the job done best. In any case, it'll be fun seeing you next month!

  16. I never know where to start creating my conflict. I like the ideas people have been mentioning. Laurie, will your class give ways that writers can use?


  17. Laurie: I find myself treading the same personality ground with my characters, book to book. They seem to struggle with the same issues. I feel too repetitive. Do you have suggestions for how to come up with fresh personality conflicts and then how to stay true to them through the book?
    Dawn Atkins

  18. Evelyn, you're sure not alone in having a hard time knowing where to start your conflict -- that's especially tough for people who prefer to AVOID conflict in real life.

    You're right in suspecting that next month's class will cover some methods for making it easier. And if part of the problem is that you hate to make characters you care about SUFFER, keep in mind that being mean to your characters is actually being NICE to real-life readers...because in seeing how these people overcome conflict, they'll pick up tips that can make life better for themselves!

  19. Dawn, the problem of feeling repetitive is one that beginning writers have a hard time imagining -- and multi-published veterans have a hard time avoiding. Even though readers who stay with an author tend to like that author's style of building personality conflicts, you're smart to keep an eye out for new ones...if only to keep yourself from getting bored with writing.

    Coming up with fresh conflicts might be as simple as reading methods used by people here, or taking classes on personality (there are a LOT out there besides my own), or jotting down elements you like in other people's books and combining new ones in your own. Just the fact that you're aware of this challenge means it'll be a whole lot easier to fix!

  20. Great post Laurie, and thanks for joining us here on Lady Scribes. I guess my method is usually a mix of character and plot. A question jumps out at me usually like my current wip. What happens when a Viking maiden wages war on her own people? And then I build from there, why would she do this? And as I'm building and asking questions I write out a character outline and basic plot outline before I even set a word on paper. Then I write my first three chapters and usually something new gets revealed and I'll have to go back to re-outline. I was a pantser for many years but this method has helped me write three manuscripts in the last year and half. So luckily, its working for me. I'm going to have to check out your class.

  21. Laurie, I learn so much from your classes, blogs, etc. Thank you!

    Once I get a story idea I just use actual people I've known to copy as my characters. Like, "The teacher should be and think and act like my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Winn," ot "this girl would be like my friend Donna Peterson," and so on. It's fun for me and seems to work, unscientific as it is.

  22. Laurie you made me think! But then don't you always. I realized for the first time that the way I get to know my characters is that they're based on real people I know well or know all about, either from life or from fiction. I am wondering if that's cheating?

    When my CPs or readers say, "Your character wouldn't do that." I think, their alter ego would so of course they would. I do back this up by checking their enneagrams of course.

    I think my style of writing is plotter first then pantser. Get everything worked out how it should be and then let the characters go wherever they lead. That outline is always changing.

    When it comes to conflict I remember my first writing teacher, the late, great Gary Provost. He said, "Throw her on the sidewalk and then smash her head into the concrete." Ouch, but he also told us to give her a small victory. Let her get up and cross the street. If she lay there she might be though of as a loser and who wants to read about a loser.

    Just my two cents!

    Petrina Aubol

  23. Great blog, Laurie. You've given us lots to think about. I usually have real people in mind when I start thinking about my characters, then I change them enough so that they're not recognizable. But I have experimented with the ennegrams, Myers-Briggs, etc.

  24. Melissa, I've gotta know -- why WOULD a Viking maiden wage war on her own people? You've sure got me wondering, and I'll bet the other readers are as well...any chance you can give us a sneak preview before the book comes out?

  25. Leona, I'm curious: have people like Mrs. Winn and Donna Peterson ever learned they're serving as role models for your characters? If so, here's hoping they LOVE those characters...and tell all their friends about how this book is a must-read!

  26. Pet, I'm so glad Gary Provost told you to let that bonked-on-the-head character get up and cross the street -- he was right; nobody likes reading about a bump-on-a-log type of person.

    Although, shoot, now that I'm saying that I realize it's possible there HAS been some such character who absolutely enthralled readers. If anybody's run into one like that, please say where to find that book!

  27. Clarissa, here's hoping your real-life inspirations are thrilled at knowing they started a character taking shape in your mind...I'd think of it as a real honor. :)

    Do you mention them in the dedication / acknowledgments, or let them know privately, or is it the kind of thing you'd rather they DIDN'T know?

  28. LOL Laurie, now that just makes me all glowy inside. Maybe I've done my job and piqued your interest. I'm only half through with the first draft but this is the short blurb I've got so far. I'm sure it could use some work though lol. Hopefully, I won't totally fail at this.

    Valkyrie's Vengeance

    A Viking maiden declares war on her own people and must rely on the Viking warrior sworn to protect them.

    Stranded on foreign soil. Rescued and raised by the enemy. Witness to the death of the very woman who’d saved her life. Tyra Svensdottir declares vengeance on the Vikings who attacked her shores, she takes hostage the man sworn to protect them. Forcing him to repair her shipwrecked vessel their journey takes them across frigid waters on a myriad of adventures and unravels a sensual discovery she hadn't known existed.

    Rorik Thorlicksson, the keeper of the Hel’s Hammer, a mystical sword that grants its owner a place in Valhalla and holds the power to invoke Ragnarok finds himself on a quest to return home to warn his King of an impending attack. Along the way he discovers the mysterious identity of his captor is actually the future queen of his people and the woman who was promised to him at birth.

    Their intertwined pasts lead to a tangle of family lies and deceit, and force them both to make a choice between duty and desire. Will their newfound passion unlock a chance at love, destroying the need for a Valkyrie’s Vengeance.

  29. Melissa, thanks for the preview! It's always such a kick, getting a glimpse of some totally new world -- or in this case, I guess I should say totally old world. Except somehow I suspect yours is more exciting than the real one EVER was. :)

  30. Laurie, what a great post! I find I must start with the black moment. It gives me a vivid-but-brief glimpse into the characters, so I can see them, even if I don't know them yet. Then I start somewhere at the beginning (on the day the normal becomes horribly slaughtered (evil grin) and work forward. Other than knowing the black moment, I'm a pantser through and through (altho even a pantser can use a little enneagram guidance now and then). :) CJ

  31. Thanks Laurie, it's nice to hear someone say that.

  32. CJ, what a perfect way of ensuring a dramatic black moment that really FITS the characters -- taking that as your jumping-off point is a great idea!

    I'm betting it's easier to write the resolution when you've had the ultimate crisis in mind for a while, too. Which, if only your characters knew about it, would leave them feeling very reassured. :)

  33. Great post Laurie! Like Pet I've learned so much from you over the years. My writing is definitely much better for it! When I first starting writing I was way to kind to my characters. I hated to see them struggle too long. But as I learned more about the craft and I got one more rejection that said my character had it too easy, I realized that making my character suffer made for a much better story. So once I put my character through the paces facing one conflict after another I realized it's all part of the character arc. And that watching my character grow made my writing more satisfying for the reader as well as myself.

    : )


  34. I love all the different ideas we're seeing today. This is awesome.

    My beginning point is usually a question... "What if the hero's best friend stole the woman he loved and the hero can't move on?" Then I have to think about what kind of friend would do something like that and what is it about the woman that makes her so special, etc., etc. Anyone who knows me well knows I ask lots of questions in real life.

    To me, it's interesting to think about how different the story can be depending on the personalities of the characters. And if I'm honest, sometimes I don't really know the character's personality until we've spent months together. Usually by the end of the first draft I have a very good idea of the character then I go back and look at scenes through his or her eyes and make the changes.

  35. Karen, good for you on working up the emotional fortitude to MAKE those characters suffer. It's hard, isn't it? Like making our children suffer.

    But your idea of viewing it all as part of the character arc is a great way to look at it, because that gives the whole painful angst a broader (and more tolerable) perspective!

  36. Samantha, it IS awesome seeing all these ideas -- aren't you constantly amazed by how many great ways writers find to get their work done?

    Like your starting with the question and moving outwards from there, getting to know the characters as you work through the first draft. (Although now you've got me wondering if this guy who can't get over losing the heroine to his best friend is someone different than your arrogant-protector hero...)

  37. Laurie,

    Thank you so much! My head is swimming with ideas. Your insight into character is invaluable.

  38. Nan, you're very welcome -- although I hope your head stops spinning soon, because it's just about time to enjoy the weekend!

  39. Laurie, as usual great information. You always have a way of making me take a deeper look into my character's personality.


    My characters had me laughing at their response to the burning building scenario.

  40. M.A., talk about a fabulous teaser...now I'm wondering what your characters DID about the burning building!

    Hmm, any chance we'll see that in an upcoming book?

  41. Laurie,
    As always, a fabulous post. I find that I have two main staples.

    Although I do remember your wonderful personality workshops, and I find that I still come back to some of the mind/body/soul questions, I have two main tools:

    The first is GMC--but I break it down into all the parts. Romantic GMC, Life goal (before the conflict) GMC, internal GMC, external GMC, Plot GMC, then I figure out the wound that caused the false belief that caused the fatal flaw. After I've figured out all of the things that my character wants and whether or not she has it or can't have it and how she's holding herself back, I really have a good idea what this character wants out of life and who she is. All of this fits on a 5x6 card. Well, when I used to write it down. It's pretty internalized now, so it fits in my mind. :D

    Then I use my second tool which are all the little tricks I learned in your Plotting by Motivation workshop. That workshop is still my go-to workshop when I'm having trouble or when a CP is having trouble. Awesome stuff in that. It really makes me ask the important questions.

    Thanks for making me think some more with your blog here -- I would have to say that my current heroine would want to run as far away from the fire as possible (that's her story goal - to keep on the run) but her internal goal is to help others or the faces in her imagination would haunt her, so she'd try to find out how to help the victims.

    thnx, sheryl

  42. Great post as always, Laurie!

    I can think of one book centered on a "bump on a log" character that I found enthralling: "Something Happened" by Joseph Heller, author of "Catch 22."

    I had no idea if anyone else liked it, so I did a quick google... Kurt Vonnegut said, "Is this book any good? Yes. It is splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond."

    Risky, for sure, to write about such a dull and uneventful life...near the end of the lonnnnnnnggggggg book...something happens.

    I'm not recommending it, but 35+ years after I read it I still can't forget it.

  43. Sheryl, it's fun watching somebody take this burning-building heroine and run with her...I like how you've got her goals figured out and playing into the story action.

    And it's cool knowing that the tools from my classes are still working for you -- that's a wonderful thing to hear; thank you!

  44. Wow, what a great post. Thanks for giving me something to think about this weekend. I can see how it would really strengthen a story.

  45. Gillian, you're very welcome -- have fun putting it to work!