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Lifeboats / Voice of Conflict

Conflict comes in many forms; societal, political, environmental and more. I read somewhere there are five platforms, story-wise, but for me, conflict is summed up in two words: other people.


Conflict comes in many forms; societal, political, environmental and more. I read somewhere there are five platforms, story-wise, but for me, conflict is summed up in two words: other people.
And two questions: who are these people and where do we meet them? I find them in three categories, although you might break them down further into more specific groups. I have, of, course, labeled them loosely according to where I tend to find them, as life boats, play pens and pinballs:

Blood relatives are in the life boat, meaning they can get along or not get along, but only death really separates them with any kind of permanence. Spouses and their families fall into this category (no matter how vehemently they may deny this), particularly when children are part of the mix.
Individual family members engaged in strife rarely declare a truce. There are lulls in the conflict, the temporary separation of living apart and the necessary cooperation of financial ties and family members who need interventions of one kind and another, but personal agendas remain constant. They may change, but they remain constant—everybody has one.
Don’t forget: children have agendas too.

Friends and co-workers, even neighbors, are in the play pen, people who are paired up by choice or circumstance, who can be intensely sharing a life and related events for years at a time and then separated in the same chance way by whim or a strong wind. They can spend hours of every week side by side knowing nearly everything about each other, or next to nothing; the subjects of infatuation or indifference, affection or loathing. Friends and co-workers, even neighbors, can appear to be, at a glance, objects exotic or familiar to you whether you know their details or not.
The conditions of an individual’s life may overlap with another’s in such a way that co-workers become friends, that friendships of long standing sour and break up, that relationships that fall into these categories may stand in for the shortcomings of family. The people in your playpen are there for your reasons—and often for their own reasons, which you probably come to understand if they remain there for any length of time. You may be in their playpen because you weren’t paying attention, or because you saw them waving a particular co-dependent flag, or because they had a toy (a trait) you’ve always wanted to try.
You have more objectivity about these relationships. They don’t have to fall into a tribal context, but they are “other,” not us. The trait you detest in a sister you can’t get along with may be shared by a friend and never really rub you the wrong way. In the friend, you may see the positive side of this attribute, you might even admire it.
Separation is a given, at least for a large percentage of these relationships. Essentially, people trade information and move on. But some friends last a lifetime, some neighbors last a lifetime, even some jobs last a lifetime.

Pinballs are anybody from the single ride in an elevator with an adversarial type who pushes your buttons, to the chance encounter who becomes your lifelong spouse, to the blind man who offers to carry your weary toddler to the bottom of a subway station staircase while you struggle with the stroller with your sleeping infant in it. They demand responses from you, they may spin your life in another direction, they always surprise you, which makes them memorable. They force you to look at your trust-o-meter, your willingness to risk, your ability to stand up for yourself, and you learn a great deal in the process.
Everyone in your life is a learning experience, and your characters are going to range from being the mirror to being the shadow of someone you’ve come across somewhere, sometime, and whether or not you were consciously taking notes on the information they imparted, you’ve absorbed it.

It was helpful to me to learn from some psychology or anthropology class my daughter took and talked about to learn that key aspects of personality are demonstrated in five behavioral characteristics, based on a kind of sliding scale. Nikki talked about the class and I took notes.
It was helpful to me personally to learn this for all the reasons it was being taught, but it was helpful to me as a writer because some of these behaviors can look like each other and that is extremely useful to know when trying to create a believable misunderstanding between two characters you adore. Particularly if you want your reader to care about both of those characters too, even though one might be regarded as antagonistic through a large part of the story.
Some of the issues surrounding showing a conflict event in a story: trust or openness, commitment or conscientiousness, reliability, agreeableness or willingness to compromise, empathy. Googling a YouTube discussion of any of these qualities should be enlightening.

Voice of Conflict:

Character is not, and will never be a true, or even nearly true, representation of an actual living breathing person we want to put on the page. That’s just not possible, even if we are writing about the one person we feel we know best, ourselves. Today I will give you my version of the truth, and when I give it to you again tomorrow, word for word, it will have changed. The inflection of my voice will change it.
That’s the good news. Because writing starts with what we know to be the truth, or imagine to be true, or would like to be the way things really were, and moves right on to making up, deliberately, an account that we know to be not precisely true, or that we do not believe could be true, and that we may or may not like to think could possibly be the truth by anyone’s account. This is how people hear truth. Dogs, on the other hand—well, never mind about dogs just now.
You want your characters, who are delivering your truth, to fit the story much more perfectly than a real person could ever do. Writing is a chemical event derived of what really happened and other unknowns, organized by your imagination to give a reader (even if you are your only lucky reader) a feeling for. . .well, for what happened. If you felt abandoned, betrayed, despised, or belittled, you will shape the story to deliver that feeling.
There may be no real connection between the actual event, however momentary it might have been, and the two- or three- hundred page novel the feeling generates—and in no way is telling your BFF all about it during a morning run going to do it justice the way the story you create should. So you need a character capable of illustrating the drama of an event, good or bad, and you want to be able to believe in the story they tell you, even if only while you’re reading the page.
You need somebody more than real.
Here’s the method that works for me when I need to build a story around the energy that two characters can generate. Both have a valid story, a side to be taken by the reader. Both characters are strong. Your main character must be challenged by an opponent of at least equal strength. Otherwise the story weakens, and falls apart at some stress point.
You’ll have character A, your protagonist, and character B, the challenger, or antagonist, in a situation of your choosing. A child confronted with a teacher or a parent, or vice versa, or both your characters are children, or both are adults.
Use any strategy that aids your imagination, think of two family members often at odds (but change the names), or use a vintage photo that has something evocative about it (find books of photos in libraries or second hand shops—retrospectives of a photographer’s work are good), or settle on two of your own characters, or use a conglomeration of your family or friends whose collective personality is easy to transmit to the story.
Get ready, get set, go:
Imagine your protagonist just minding his own business, doing whatever it is he’s doing.
Now an offender comes on scene and makes a demand of him. We know the type: the guy who butts in line. Or pushes the smaller and weaker, or just plain nicer, guys aside in the rush to get a free thing that there probably will be enough of for everyone.
But now he’s after something more personal, something only the protagonist has to offer. Their skills. Their time. Their first born. He feels your protagonist owes him this much because he is, after all, him. He probably has a short last name that indicates he’s Trouble.
And your protagonist says no.
The other whines, gets insistent.
Your protagonist says no.
The other wheedles.
Your protagonist says no.
The other threatens.
Your protagonist says no.
The other gets physical.

Your protagonist says no.
Take this as far as you can, with the antagonist taking it to the limit, expecting your protagonist will give in this red hot minute.
Let that hot minute stretch unrealistically while your character tells the offender why, no, and why again. His heart and his gut tell him there are no other options. In the course of a life, we learn to say no, which means we make the mistake of saying yes, or maybe we say maybe, until we hate the experience enough to say no.
No matter what the consequences.
Some of us hit that threshold at four, some at forty. Your protagonist has cause to have reached the stand-me-in-front-of-a-firing-squad-I-don’t-care point with the challenger, or you don’t have a compelling story.
The antagonist is a persistent type, and he demands again, adding a line or two that suggests the urgency of the situation for him. But he is who he is, and maybe he adds a little threatening behavior to give the protagonist a push. Write it all down in the challenger’s own words, in his tone of voice, with the degree of entitlement that he expresses to you and the kind of demand he makes.
You must detail the need of both opponents at the beginning of a story, but you should give at least one of the characters the driving impetus born of past humiliations and failures, and that most bullied-by-life character becomes your protagonist. I once had someone look bemused and say to me, “Past humiliations and failures? In a nine year old?”
My answer was, “Yes, and without the adult’s duffle bag full of excuses and buck passing and making out like it wasn’t important in the first place. It takes most of childhood for us to develop those sorry defenses.”
We never get over having started life as a child: clueless, vulnerable, and if we’re smart, a little scared when we realize how long it will be before we’re (more or less) in charge of our own lives.
Incidentally, threats come in three colors: the physical threat (no need to explain, right?), the emotional threat (somebody won’t like you anymore), and the object-oriented threat (as in “I’ll take your books, your money, your toys, and I won’t give them back). Threats have two time frames, now or later.
Your protagonist replies, “No, I won’t give in, and here’s why,” establishing a definite point of view. Whether he’s Indiana Jones or Betsy’s little brother, the strength of that point of view is what carries your reader through the story. So go on, write down why your protagonist feels that no is the only appropriate response.
Now you’ve got conflict. Somebody wants something specific from somebody else, and that person is, for deeply felt reasons of their own, saying no. But what else have you got?
A main character.
And you’ve established an antagonist. Someone who needs something and who remembers the main character wasn’t big enough to stand up to him before.
Add some back story as needed to validate each opponent’s reasoning: “I won’t trust you to walk my dog because I saw you kick a dog once.” Like that. As briefly as this example, if that’s how he’s wired, but if he wants to go on and on, he’ll have his chance.
The challenger has an opportunity to rebut. To deny. To plead. To justify. To make rude comments. To bully. To make good on his threats. Anything but flee the scene. Nobody gets to leave.
So the protagonist stands his ground.
No matter what the consequences. Let your protagonist tell the antagonist, and the reader, why. Uninterrupted, the way we never get to tell our side of things. Let them tell their side in all the gory detail.
Go back and forth a few times. For some reason your protagonist feels put upon, trespassed against, morally wronged. And he’s got plenty to say about it. Notice that while he tells you all about it, he’s going to do what we would all do: he’s going to make a case for his side, which means he’s going to fill in a little back story, tell you what you need to know to understand his point of view if not actually agree with him.
But he isn’t telling you everything just yet. No. So far he’s just standing there on the field of battle.
First person, present tense, let your protagonist expand on his story. Tell the reader, and the antagonist, why he said “no.” Uninterrupted, the way we never get to tell our side of things.
Only now he’s telling you, an interested observer he feels comfortable with, who is probably on his side, and this is probably his first opportunity to get the whole thing off his chest.
Here, you’re going to write in past tense; it’s backstory. Let your character describe the setting, if he cares to, let him yell, let him feel sorry for himself. Keep in mind, working in past tense helps you dig out the back story, and you can thread that into the story when you need to. Anyone making an argument has some kind of reasoning based on lessons learned through previous experience, with this confrontational character or with another.
Your challenger gets to tell his side of the story too. He has a perspective. He has a valid (and perhaps twisted) point to make.
Let them go back and forth until you feel you’ve wrung them dry of their accusations and excuses and their dredged-up long-held grudges.
You might get half a page, you might get ten. You can come back later and work with this some more. I usually make myself go on for three pages, and I rarely let myself write more than five. So what I will have when I finish is about two pages of monologue from the protagonist, a third page from the antagonist. That’s enough to establish cause. And you won’t have written yourself out, you’ll still have plenty to discover about both characters as you write.
Remember to listen for what your protagonist wants. But need is what drives the story, so listen to what your characters tell each other, listen for what they don’t say, listen for what is implied.
Knowing what we all know about human nature, that probably connects to what your character needs from somebody else, some kind of recognition from one person or from an entire family or community. Neither of your characters need to know this. You do.
Listen for each character’s motivation, look for the pain in each character’s life, look for their moments of triumph. Even in a story that is being milked for humor, the characters can be given more depth by offering the reader glimpses of their uncertainties and insecurities. Good examples can be found watching Mixed Nuts. It’s not a perfect film but it has great charm, laugh-out-loud moments, and its characters are made up almost entirely of displays of the flaws we might find in our own.
Listen for what someone might be guilty of, or thinks the other is guilty of. The demanding character makes an argument that has some reasoning behind it. Nothing to sway the protagonist of course, but you show that he has a point of view. Both characters have a valid story, a side to be taken by the readers. Both are strong. Your “right makes might” main character should be challenged by an antagonist of equal, preferably greater, strength. Otherwise the story falls apart at some stress point.
In the first monologue you have the bare bones of the conflict from character A’s point of view, you may have some back story and you have a lot of characterization. As the monologue progresses, scene emerges. A character’s growing strength emerges.
Show, don’t tell, that’s scene. Perhaps you have only part of the picture, but you’ve got a solid footing to build on. Flesh out the scene. Make it immediate, moving forward and away from back story. First person dialogue will more quickly reflect the need for rapid change. Make it pointed, no holds barred. You aren’t writing for your reader, you’re writing to learn all you can about these characters.
Create a dialogue between them.
Try not to let them give direct answers to questions or charges made against them. Let them escalate the situation by giving answers that have an impact, that inflame each other, deepen the conflict, show that there is more here than meets the eye. Let the whole story be told this way.
Better yet, write one of the stories you would never dare to put on paper. Write the most angst-ridden scene from each character’s point of view. We all have hidden 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 set of rules. This is rarely the case.
It’s this clash of opinion about the rightness or wrongness of a given situation that brings out your point of view. Your point of view is essential to your story. To voice.
With that said, let’s move on to a discussion of character as it exists in structure, wherein you may find mentions of Bruce Willis.

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