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Conflict Begins at Home / Emotionally Speaking

We all have belief systems that are the set of rules we live by. We like to assume that the people we know, or at least the people we love, live by the same values. This is rarely the case.

Conflict Begins at Home:

We all have belief systems that are the set of rules we live by. We like to assume that the people we know, or at least the people we love, live by the same values. This is rarely the case.
Working with the dynamics of personality conflicts and personal agendas (motivation), set a more complete scene. You’re starting with dialogue (of course), adding details about the setting as they occur to you, give us telling gestures and facial expression, a perceived tone of voice.
Here are some questions to prime the pump:
Do you know how the various adult siblings in your family treat money? What judgments are made about sleeping late, or being late? What resentments have cropped up over someone’s latent talent or simple good luck that isn’t shared by all?
Not everything is about negatives though. Who can be counted on to keep a secret, to step up when someone must, to be the voice of reason, to be kind, to recall a good time when all are sitting in the dark depths of a well. Positives cut both ways too.
Who is the voice of dissent in the family? Who makes the rules and how are they beneficial to all? Who hears most of another’s troubles and responds?
And some situations are simply less cut and dried. Judgments may be made, but are often less informed by reality or a generous frame of mind: Who has an extra car sitting in the driveway but doesn’t offer its use, forcing two other siblings to coordinate their schedules to ferry Mom back and forth to work for ten days. Plenty of cause for conjecture.
Whose kid gets the scholarship to an out-of-state university, throwing the family’s culture into a swivet, they’ve ‘always’ gone to city colleges.
What can be done for the family who settled Mom into a nice nursing home right before Covid hit and the place went into lockdown? No visits, Mom doesn’t answer her phone because her hearing aids have been misplaced, and as two daughters press hand-printed signs to the first floor window to her room on a rainy day, they argue about whether to tell Mom Dad has been hospitalized along with their brother.
All of this push and pull of power and opinion begins in childhood and is often only underscored in blended families, which all families eventually are as marriages among siblings become part of the picture. Consider the evidence you’ve been presented with over years. What hopes or fears might this or that flaw contribute to the situation you are creating in your novel; what might this newly recognized attribute stem from? What conflicts might seem to grow inevitably from a given negative?
These pressures don’t change the fact that people love each other—or that they don’t have redeeming (have I mentioned this yet?) qualities. Deep flaws lead to disappointments around the expectations we have of each other. Deep love takes us into the territory of tragedy.
Let’s give it another go:
Consider how nosy your in-laws are. What do you make of that?
Perhaps your sister made a remark that let you know she hasn’t been completely truthful with you about something important. How do you feel about that?
No siblings? You’re single and don’t have to ask anybody what they think of how you spend your money? Then, how about the way your best friend in high school used to crib all your homework and then stole your boyfriend the summer after senior year?
How about the fact that your mother doesn’t get along with her mother-in-law, and thinks you’re just like your grandmother?
Stop for a moment and label these people (or think of the labels they’ve earned over the years). Keep the labels in the realm of childhood, they paint a target clearly enough: bossy, fibber, big mouth, lazybones, fraidy cat, grabber, tattle-tale, stingy, meanie, sneaky—we could go on and on. Be my guest.
If you find yourself holding back, consider this advice:

“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”
—William Faulkner

I’m an old lady who agrees with him. If you don’t write about family relationships, if you write taut political dramas, ask five similarly intrusive questions of the governmental intrigues you are aware of. If you write police procedurals, ask five questions of the workplace, think about the pressures cops live with day to day. If you write contemporary romance, ask five questions about the dating scene, and the friends who share their experiences and their doubts about your choices.
Ask these pointy questions, and then answer them.
But don’t take these thoughts to family dinners for an airing. It’s been said that life is stress, and a lot of stress arises out of hard truths.
Conflict comes at us at three levels:
There’s outer conflict, which is the action line of our lives. We set a goal, we try for it, and we succeed or fail in achieving that goal. Publicly or privately.
There’s inner conflict, which is the battle we fight with ourselves. Whether we succeed or fail, we have a sack of unresolved emotions we’ll carry around until life offers us a chance at making peace with one or two of them, pretty much the only way we get to unload them. I doubt we ever get to the bottom of the sack.
There’s interpersonal conflict, when our action line trespasses on someone else’s territory, or vice versa. Wars have been fought over trespass, which is why I think family is an excellent territory to write in. It’s also why I burn some of my best information.
Perhaps you’ve meditated till your eyes glazed over, and you’ve set all this irritability aside. Even when we live a life cushioned with contentment, we know that someday, probably sooner, rather than the later we’d like to think, our time will run out.
Is that a stressful thought or what? All our lives we deal with fears, great and trivial
Utilize external, internal, interpersonal and abject fear conflict in these ways:
External defined as outside forces becoming obstacles, plot elements.
Internal defined as mixed emotions, character growth arising from coping with the external situation and it must be resolved for the character to change.
Interpersonal defined as other characters who do not want the character to get what he wants (antagonist or villain).
I focus on those pesky relationship conflicts first. We should learn something from the fact that romance novels strongly feature plot lines that keep the main characters at emotional loggerheads for nearly the entire book. I mention romance again because we think of love stories as upbeat and even comical, but what often makes for the funniest parts in a book or film are what would make us miserable or angry in real life. So conflict is most easily demonstrated when there’s a person available to bounce the grievances off of, and the fact that it is fiction makes conflict, always intrinsically interesting, entertaining as well.
The conflict in a personal relationship may introduce a larger external conflict automatically, something has set them at odds; some environmental or social problem or obstacle that will take practically the entire length of the novel to resolve, and this may indicate the second character is an antagonist of some kind. Frankly, in romance novels, they nearly always are. In the gentlest romance novel I’ve read, The Weaver Takes a Wife, by Sheri Cobb South, he is a constant challenge to her beliefs, she is ever a surprise to him.
Finally, I look for internal conflicts—weaknesses, flaws the characters must work through as the story progresses, a fear to be overcome, or a lack of courage to move forward. Of course, they won’t become perfect, but they need to grow in self awareness. They need to meet expectations outside their own natural inclination to stretch.
And fear, like death, should be an underlying awareness in most stories. It gives the characters gravitas.
All these levels relate to each other in some way. The relationship is falling apart, but the external conflict is job loss or global warming or a runaway kid, and the internal conflict is apparently something to do with a deceased parent. Believe me, however far apart these issues sound, if they are what turn up in your story, they’re connected somehow. Often enough, they are so intertwined it takes half the written work for us to see where they can be separated into separate sounding issues, to define them sufficiently for the reader to appreciate the distinctions, which is what they’re doing when they say, if that guy would just get his act together, forgive his mother for running off to Vegas to be a showgirl, his wife, the environmental scientist, could solve global warming, and their kid would come home, having discovered that circus life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Or something like that.

Emotionally Speaking:

All evidence to the contrary, I’m not much in favor of intellectual discussions of conflict. To fully understand what a character is feeling, I think it helps to get in touch with the pain of our own conflicts. To that end, I’m going again to that short exercise that rarely fails to get your pen moving.
Why? Because irritation and frustration are energizing emotions, which I suspect is why my grandmother was so crabby. She wasn’t exactly uplifted by the experiences she created, but she had the relief of a little adrenalin flowing through her veins, she felt energetic again.
But this exercise is better than that, it gets at deeper cause. And maybe you just read on before.
No. Don’t just read on again. Really try this. You want to improve your experience of writing or you don’t, which is it?
So try it. Get a notebook and a pen or pencil, writing by hand is the best approach for this kind of thing. Handwriting isn’t yet obsolete, in that we all learn to write with a pencil first; the keyboard comes later, at least, it used to. If you don’t live alone, you might also want to get a metal wastebasket and a book of matches.
Think of a family member you’ve often found yourself angry with. The reason I say family is, I want you to choose someone you’ve had a long relationship with, I want you thinking about someone capable of stirring up some deep resentment. Family does that better than practically anybody. You don’t need to know the deep psychological reason this person can get under your skin, you just need to know they do.
What was the first difficult encounter you can remember having with this person? When was this? How was it resolved? (Stick to the past. The first confrontation you remember. Details may be fuzzy but high points will still be with you.)
When was the last difficult encounter you can remember having with this person? What was it about? How was it resolved? (Now we’re working the present, so don’t bother with any backstory.)
Describe yourself from this person’s point of view.
If you find this painful, do the Mel Brooks’ version. Or the Robin William’s or Steve Martin’s version. (Some people—I find this hard to believe—have never heard of Mel Brooks. It’s like saying you never heard of Red Skelton or Ernie Kovacs.)
(Thank God for Google.)
Now put yourself in an imagined situation with this person you’ve been thinking about. If this is family (and you don’t work with them), think up a workplace scenario in which you have to team with them. Think about meeting them for the first time in an awkward way, as the boss’s wife, with her boyfriend, when you find yourself at neighboring tables in a restaurant when you’re with a blind date. As the other driver in a car you rear ended while trying to take an injured dog to the vet. Write the family member and yourself as two women sitting in an obstetrician’s waiting room. As two men at a fertility clinic.
In any case, try to give both your main characters some urgent, embarrassing, secretive, or otherwise strained circumstance which will draw out the personality flaws you’ve been considering. Write for thirty minutes, let it all land on the page; it doesn’t all have to be fiction, some of it can be the things you’ve never said out loud, about both of you.
It may take you a little while to get the hang of this deliberate mix and match game. But in some way, it’s how we all create our characters, by taking a little piece of one experience and hooking it onto another that will reshape it ever so slightly to fit our imagined scenario. Just this time we’re doing it with more awareness, more of an attachment to a pet peeve.
Somewhere in what you’ve written, there’s a dynamic that could take you through a dozen stories. You’ve got some kind of stress at work there, you’ve got a fair idea of what buttons get pushed, and without ever using a specific incident that happened, you can use the identical energy to drive scene after scene. It doesn’t matter what really happened, what matters is how you and somebody else felt, before, during and after. That’s what you’re really writing about.
One of the reasons I wanted you to imagine a situation you haven’t actually shared with this annoying person is that you might find you can write a whole novel on this energy. Use ‘find’ and ‘replace’ to change the names and go on, making it all up from this point.
Don’t worry about discovery. Chances are the person you thought of won’t recognize herself (or himself). And sometimes, someone mistakenly thinks you patterned your character after him (or her). Keep your secrets. And keep writing them down.

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