top of page

Location, Location, Location / This is About Conflict

Many writers set their stories in deeply familiar locales, even unchanging locales. Anne Tyler in Baltimore, Jack London in the frozen north (although he lived there for only a couple of years, making an argument for an intense experience being as valuable to a writer as a lengthy one), Bailey White’s characters live in a small town, Larry McMurtry’s are lost at sea in a changing environment.

Location, Location, Location:

Many writers set their stories in deeply familiar locales, even unchanging locales. Anne Tyler in Baltimore, Jack London in the frozen north (although he lived there for only a couple of years, making an argument for an intense experience being as valuable to a writer as a lengthy one), Bailey White’s characters live in a small town, Larry McMurtry’s are lost at sea in a changing environment.
Think about the writers you read and see if they’ve made a connection between the setting and the character’s predicament. In movies, I think immediately of a fish out of water story set lakeside (What About Bob?), of an underdog story of a successful romance novelist who can’t find love (As Good As It Gets; Romancing the Stone), road trips (The Leisure Seekers; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), an adult grows up (About a Boy, Hope Floats) monster stories in which a flawed or seriously depressed, or perhaps oppressed, person is healed or freed (A Monster Calls, The Shape of Water).
I’m going to make my argument in favor of this kind of layering the easy way, by offering you some chapter titles from books that make my argument for me:
Setting as a vehicle for establishing mood . . . for characterization
. . . for steering the story . . . for delivering backstory . . . for conflict . . . for creating emotional connections . . . for inserting sensory details.
If you are convinced, log in to your favorite bookstore and look up Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, standing by to make your argument more convincing.

This is About Conflict:

In every story beginning, hopefully from the very first line, there is the clear implication that something is about to change, or even that something needs to change. Maybe it’s already changed, but we’re stepping into the swirl of the birthing waters just here.
Change is something we all try to avoid. If our experience is that we plunged in head first, it’s probably simply that something so terrible was coming up behind us that we pushed forward out of desperation. Rarely do we get up, smile into the mirror and say, “Today, I think I’ll just wreck my world as I know it.” No. Life comes along and does that for us.
I tried to break down changes into categories. This is not a definitive work, but it gives you a starting point:
Something happens that changes our situation, and we have to adapt. (Call this divorce, but you can come up with a list of similar ‘need for adaptation’ scenarios, by heading in the lone survivor direction, I think.)
We are the change in the situation and others have to adapt to us as an individual while we adapt to our equally new circumstances. This is largely an external change, but the character at the center is in need of reassurance, needs to feel secure. (Call this adoption, but again, generate a list of ways this might come about.)
A variation, but the expression of the adoption paradigm might come from within. In the same way that children feel they’re part of the wrong family, a change of behavior in a single family member can throw the whole family into a spin. There can be lots of ways for this to happen. As a child matures, or a person’s attitude alters, old rules feel restrictive, the old ways aren’t working for us. Perhaps, due to high integrity or low ability, we simply can’t meet expectations and are having a meltdown; or we’re tired and frustrated and refuse to meet expectations. (Call it adaptation.)
We have a static situation we want to change. (Call this the squeaky wheel.)
We have a hopeless situation. Think To Build a Fire by Jack London, but know that most stories demand that we find a way out, a solution, something more positive than this bleak finish. (Although thirteen year olds love bleak. Call it what it is.)
We have a situation we can’t run from. (Call this the diagnosis.)
A situation that isn’t right for us as an individual. (The underdog.)
A situation where we aren’t wanted. (The orphan.)
We have a situation we run from. Or a situation we’re pushed into, summer camp or boarding school. (Out of the frying pan.)
It’s simpler than that: we have to move. Or someone moves in. (In transit or delivered unto, aka, someone leaves or someone comes to town.)
The situation is as it has always been, but we never understood what that means, before now. (Come to realize.)
And, of course, change. The situation as we know it has changed, and we’re the only one who deals with it. (Um. I’d call it Men in Black, for want of a better designation coming to mind, but if everybody knows things are bad, we have a lot more conflict. We could be an underdog, or we could look very squeaky wheel, but mostly we are a thorn in everyone’s heel, that’s the formative element.)
Change is interesting to the reader, it’s a vicarious roller coaster ride as this character nears the achievement of his goal, meets with a bump in the track, which is cause to take another route. Change is cause and effect, significant change results in conflicts large and small. Conflict interests the reader.
When you find change in a story you’re reading or watching, think of change as cause. Because a given event occurred, a character reacts with a shift in his state of mind, a physical adjustment that is accommodating or it is definitely not. There’s a resulting external story we’re relatively familiar with: the detective solves the mystery, a boy gets the girl, the princess triumphs over the witch, the spaceman battles a monster, a wife improves her husband, the new marshal cleans up a border town, an executive fights to become a CEO and succeeds.
And that’s fine. External stories are only made original by the character inhabiting them. And that character is made up of an internal story.
Internally, a character’s ideas get shaken up when change occurs. He lives with deep uncertainty for a time. He revises his opinions, adjusts his attitude, learns how to deal with a specific kind of trouble. Life makes a steep turn now the story has taken place, and a new status quo is achieved.
Need is an internal conflict. Characters are often in conflict because they can’t see the forest for the trees. If they’re lost, they’re not even looking at the trees, they’re looking for moss. And discovering that moss doesn’t know the “north side” rule. It’ll grow anywhere the sun doesn’t hamper that growth, and even then it can make the best of a bad situation.
The first thing a character bumps up against is the fact that what he wants is deeply connected to what he needs. That is, he knows what he wants: recognition, attention, acceptance—in a word, love. If the story is about a health issue, he wants good health, he wants to live without that restriction—love will be part of the story. If the story is about a political issue, he wants a better world, he wants us all to enjoy a better life—love will be part of the story. He can still be clueless about what he needs.
Romance sells, but love is not always about romance. Keep your definition broad, because your protagonist may tell a story of insecurity or disappointment, and how the BMW or the silver sandals is the actual cure for that. He’s telling you what he wants, or thinks he wants. He may tell a story of rolling along doing his job and someone shot at him and all he wants now is a new job, to say nothing of a bullet proof vest.
Like those of us who are flesh and blood, the character who can tell you what he wants will find it’s much harder to define what he needs. To create realistic characters, writers have to follow this psychological truth: We all have loved ones we don’t want to compromise, nor do we want to risk losing their love, so we compromise. We all need to feel we are living rightly, so we justify. We need to feel as good as the next guy. We need to feel we are as good as the next guy. We’ll do what it takes to get that feeling. Where does your character fit on this continuum?
Then think about the form your conflicts take. Conflicts arise for the idealistic character who sells out because he needs the money; for the deeply flawed character who nevertheless wants to be highly regarded (or just a big shot); for someone highly regarded who’s made a mistake they want to cover up, for the morally correct character who is disappointed in fulfillment of right action goals.
At any time our needs aren’t met, we want something connected to that need. We may not make the connection quickly, but satisfaction is rarely answered by getting what we want. We have to get what we need.

bottom of page