This is the fifth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Is The Obstacle? – Conflict

Every scene needs conflict, otherwise, why spend your precious word count on it? But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what, exactly, conflict is. Does it mean a fistfight? Well… obviously. But every scene can’t have a fistfight, unless it’s one of the Fast and Furious movies.

Think of ‘conflict’ as something that stands between the hero and her goals for that scene. Let’s remember that there’s always an Actual event for your main characters, something they want to achieve, a goal they need to reach. The conflict is something that prevents them from reaching that goal.

If you want to take a third-grade understanding of this, the obstacle is a physical thing. An actual barrier. If you’re writing an adventure story then a physical barrier is a real possibility. That big rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re writing a story about star-crossed lovers, however, the obstacle is almost never going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. The boy is forbidden by his parents from seeing the girl, who is herself torn between the safe choice and the boy. The path of true love never runs straight.

The Obstacle Can Be Another W

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. We have the hero who intends to tell her ex-husband she’s taking their son across country. Why can’t she just come up and tell him? Tear the band-aid off, metaphorically speaking?

Good question. If a dilemma could be solved by people simply talking, the world would be a much nicer place. But it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting. In our hero’s case, the obstacle – the conflict – could be that she’s done this before. Maybe she did it a few years ago, and faced legal repercussions because of it. Or maybe the obstacle is that her husband is an angry control freak, and she knows that when she tells him she’s leaving, he’s going to marshal all his considerable resources to stop her. Or maybe the obstacle is the son himself, who learns of his mother’s intentions and tells his father he doesn’t want to go before the hero can.

In all these cases, it’s the Character and Relationship that provide the conflict.

Conflict Should Be Resolved, Not Necessarily Overcome

The hero doesn’t need to physically conquer every obstacle. A story like that quickly becomes boring. Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He didn’t conquer that rolling boulder, he didn’t stop it, he didn’t divert it, he didn’t step out of its way. He ran. As fast and as far as he could until he got out of the cave and the boulder rolled away somewhere harmless. He didn’t overcome that boulder, he out-ran it.

The same principle applies to more metaphorical challenges. In our birthday party example, say the son tells his father what the hero – his mother – intends. So what’s our hero going to do about that? Stand and fight? Face off against her ex-husband who has far more cash and friends in high places? No, she’s going to thinks sideways. Maybe she’ll just up and leave anyway and take the boy with her. Or maybe she’ll pretend to go on a road trip, which is really her absconding. Which, of course, creates an entirely new obstacle for her to overcome.

However you do it, you need to resolve the conflicts you set up. This is the pay-off for the set-up. It doesn’t have to be smooth, or elegant, or even pleasant. But it has to work with the other Ws.

You’re a writer, and you love your characters. Right? All of them. Equally. They’re like your children. So you have to love them. Don’t you?

Of course not. They’re not your real children, they’re your mind-babies, and you’re allowed to hate them.

That may seem like blasphemy, and maybe it is a little, but you yourself don’t like everyone you meet every day. At least I don’t. I’m fairly indifferent to most people, but some people, a few of them, I actively dislike, even if I don’t know them. Maybe especially if I don’t know them.

So how do you translate that real-world distaste to your fictional characters? I’ll tell you in this internet-friendly numbered list.

1. Make the Character a Traitor

For me, disloyalty is the worst. If I can write a scene with a character who even hints around at being a traitor, I’m down on them the rest of the story. No matter what else happens. It’s an easy drive for me then, as the writer, to put that character through the wringer. They deserve it, after all.

But what if the character is a bad guy, and she’s being disloyal to other bad guys? Then that makes her very, very interesting. But it doesn’t make me like her any better.

2. Make the Character Rude to Helpless People

I particularly hate this trait in real people, in my imaginary people it drives me crazy. People who are rude to wait staff, for instance, or to service workers. Rudeness is pointless and lazy.

It’s so easy to take a moment for kindness, and when your characters just can’t be bothered, even when they’re in a position of clear superiority, that’s grounds for hating them.

3. Make the Character a Hypocrite

Ooh… this really chaps my ass in real life. Like the TV preacher who expects his congregation to tithe to him, but who doesn’t give a single dime of his own to charity. The moral-values politician who’s cheating on his wife. The cocaine-addicted prosecutor who locks minor drug offenders away for years. Those assholes.

As despicable as this trait is in your character, if it’s hidden from other characters (at least at first), it’s also dramatic irony. And readers love, love, love dramatic irony.

4. Make the Character Cruel

This is related to, but different from making a character rude. Rudeness is usually just careless, but cruelty is calculating. You have to put effort and creativity into being cruel. The guy who pretends he’s going to give a homeless guy a sandwich only to hand over an empty paper bag is one cruel bastard.

In real life, cruelty is a serious character flaw that often comes from deep-seated emotional pain. Your character should have a reason for being cruel, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to like her any better because of it.

5. Make the Character a Weasel

Everybody knows a weasel. This is the guy who doesn’t have a position of his own, he just gives a ‘yes, and’ to what someone else says. The guy who can’t stand up straight because he has no backbone. The guy who’s in it for one person alone: himself.

I have to confess, weasels are fun to write. I usually just have to think about what I would do in any particular situation, then write the opposite and amp it up times five. Doesn’t make me like the character, but it does hold my interest.

Up until now the editing process has been pretty sweet.  I felt it was a collaboration, my editors making recommendations based on their experience and their reading of what’s best for my story.  You need someone to point out your blind spots, you know?  Keep you honest.  And it was going well.

And then 17 May happened.

Houston, we have a problem.  During my regular proofread edit I came upon a ‘suggested’ change that I did not agree with at all, not in the slightest.  I felt it was arbitrary, with nothing behind it but the editor’s preference.  To make it worse, that edit changed a foundational element of my story, a main character’s reason for a decision he made 10 years prior to the story, that directly led to the story taking place.  It was like deciding that Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t killed by a robber, they were just inconvenienced by a kindly panhandling hobo.

I fixed the suggested edit as best I could, without changing the tentpole premise of the entire story, and sent it back with the rest of the proofread edits.

On 17 May my manuscript came back.  There was a ‘plot change comment that was not addressed.’

Well… I addressed it, I just didn’t gut my story to suit someone’s whim.  To make matters worse, I got that email after a 16-hour day working the job that pays my mortgage.  The phrase ‘did not take it well’ would be something my neighbors might say if you asked them.

Now I was in a dilly of a pickle.*  Up until this very last minute, all my publisher’s suggested edits made my manuscript stronger.  This one made it much weaker.  I really, really, really disagreed with their suggestion.  What could I do?

There is very specific language in my contract that states if the author (me) refuses to make edits the publisher deems necessary, the publisher has every right not to publish my novel.  To pull the plug and never look back.  This is my debut novel, I can’t make waves, I can’t stand up and fight, I can’t adamantly refuse to change a very, very basic story element.  I have to surrender.  I have to be someone else’s bitch, or I won’t see my name on that nifty cover.

So I made the change.  23 words out of 83,204.  I tried to face down the playground bully and ended up stumbling home bruised and shoeless, with my mouth full of sand.

Am I overstating this?  Possibly.  Am I concerned that this edit changes my story for the worse? Absolutely.  Am I right now stabbing voodoo dolls of editors I’ve never met in person? No comment.

I don’t think I’m being a touchy author here.  Sincerely.  I took the notes they gave me, I made the changes they suggested, I engaged in the process fully.  I played well with others.  Until the very last day, when they wanted a major change that made the story weaker.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that change was.  When my novel is published, you tell me what the weakest part of the story is.  If it’s the change I’m talking about here, I will definitely let you know.

 

*dad joke

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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Publishing News: my publisher is still working on Developmental Edits. Also, we’ve had two authors’ support group meeting thus far. It’s going well, for a bunch of introverts talking about stuff they’d rather not. I’ll have a blog post about it soon.

This time I thought I’d touch on how I develop characters. This goes hand-in-hand with creating a scene with the W’s, but this is focused specifically on the character, rather than the character’s relationships and actions in a scene. Just as there is tension inherent in every scene, there is tension within characters, between their Position and their Interest.

So what are Position and Interest? Picture yourself in an everyday situation, like, say taking your car in to be repaired. Your mechanic tells you that your car needs a lot of work, and fixing everything will cost $2000.

  • Your Position is that you want to get out of that shop as cheaply as possible.
  • Your Interest is that your car doesn’t break apart on the highway and kill you.
  • The tension between your Position and your Interest will likely lead you to ask the mechanic to set a priority on the repairs, and tell you which ones are a major safety issue versus which ones are nice to have and can wait. You can live with a slightly-dangerous vehicle if it saves you cash in the short term.

Let’s alter that scenario slightly. Instead of taking your own car for repairs, you’re accompanying your grandmother. The mechanic tells her the same thing, $2000 to fix everything.

  • In this scenario, your Position would probably be that you don’t want your grandmother to get ripped off, but it’s also not your money she’s spending.
  • On the other hand, your Interest is in making sure she has the absolute safest ride on the road.  You love your Nana and want her to stay around as long as possible.
  • The clash between your Position and Interest would likely lead you to tell your grandmother to spend the cash – all $2000 – to make sure she’s safe and protected. Your need not to get ripped off is trumped by your more pressing need to make sure your grandmother is driving a safe car.

All your characters have the same tensions between their Interest and their Position. In my novel, for instance, there’s a main character, Sam, who’s been arrested for a murder that he may or may not have committed. His older brother is a petty criminal, and has told Sam what happens to snitches in jail. Sam’s attorney visits him and presses him to come clean about what happened the night of the murder. Sam refuses to cooperate. Why?

  • Sam’s Position: he’s in jail, without bail money. He’s stuck there for the foreseeable future, and he knows what happens to squealers.
  • Sam’s Interest: to get through another day in jail without getting beaten up or killed. He’s not telling anyone anything, even if he’s innocent.

I usually only outline Position and Interest for main characters, maybe for certain secondary characters. That guy who appears in three or four scenes to drive the plot along? He’s not important enough to warrant that kind of time or effort. His position and interest are the same: to get the main characters from point A to point B.

Do you need to state or reveal the Position and Interest of every character? Absolutely not. The truth will come out eventually, but almost never as clearly as ‘I don’t want to get beaten up in jail so I can’t tell you anything.’ Sam’s sitting in the interview room, bruises on his face and cuts on his knuckles. He’s angry and scared and trying to pretend his first time in jail is no big deal. Your readers will know.

I encourage you to think of Position and Interest in your writing, it’ll make your characters’ interactions deeper and more nuanced.

Next time:  who knows?  I have a promotion coming up to get the word out, maybe I’ll talk about that.  We’ll find out together.

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Publishing News: they’ll start on the Developmental Edits before too long. Probably next week. There’ll be back-and-forth with me for over a month on this part. I’ll let you know what’s happening and how it’s going as soon as I have news.

I recently got involved with the #writerscommunity on Twitter. I recommend it, even if you never post anything or respond or even make yourself known other than following other writers. It’s tough out there on your own, and most writers are absolutely on their own. Friends and family might be supportive (or not), but that only goes so far. You need to interact with people going through the same things you are, and modern social media certainly helps. A lot. If you’re not already part of it, get on Twitter and find the threads. You are not alone.

I noticed a definite trend in the #writerscommunity postings, of writers who are ‘stuck.’ That is, they’ve come to a certain point in their work and they can’t see a way forward. A variation on that is writers who reach a certain point in their work and realize they’ve been going down the wrong path and have to regroup and start over. I’ve been there, and I know exactly why this happens. Some of you are going to agree immediately, and some aren’t going to like this next sentence at all.

You don’t know what your story is.

I’ll try to soften this by saying again, I’ve been there. I’ve done this. You have a really great hook, or a really great setting, or a really great main character, or a really great theme. With this really great thing in mind you dive into the deep end and start writing. The problem is, you haven’t done the very basic work you need to do in order to write a book: Understand thoroughly the story you’re trying to tell.

‘I’m not a plotter,’ you protest, ‘and I don’t work the way you do. I let my story sing through my fingers on the keyboard. Don’t shackle me with your notecards and plot points and character arc notes. I do things my way.’ Fair enough, but I’m not talking about how you do your work, I’m talking about the story you want to tell.

At its most basic, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a writer gets stuck, it’s because they’re missing one (or all) of these parts. This is the ‘and then…’ excitement you get when you tell a story to child. This happens, then this happens, then another thing happens, and then… and then.. and then…

If you don’t have an ‘and then…’ all the way to the end, you don’t have a story.

Twenty years ago (yikes!) South Park had an episode that was an indictment of the booming pre-Y2K tech bubble in the stock market. The allegory was gnomes who were stealing underpants with the aim to make a profit. The only problem was the gnomes had no idea how to connect stealing underpants with making money. They had a beginning and an anticipated end, but no middle at all.
underpants-gnomes-business-plan.png

This exact thing is happening with writers who don’t know what story they’re trying to tell. They’re trying to connect the thing that excites them – their hook, character, setting, or theme – with a finished book. They don’t understand the middle part, the actual story, at all, and that’s why they’re getting stuck, or having to rework it, or abandoning it altogether.

So what’s the fix? What do you do when this happens? You’ll have to find what works for you, but when I’m working on a story, I talk it out. I tell the story, just like Homer did 2,800 years ago, out loud, over and over and over. It helps that I live alone. Talking out the story, telling the story, helps me get a handle on it, to understand what I want to say and how I want to say it. Pretty quickly I also get to know what I’m missing. Once I know the story then I can get to the technical parts and start constructing the narrative.

Maybe next week I’ll have details about the developmental editing process? We’ll find out together.

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