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?
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.