Characters causing Unexpected Confict

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January 20, 2013 by jcfarnham

I recently decided to re-read Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Digest book, and almost immediately I’ve happened upon something that’d be good to talk about.

Characters causing conflict.

Within the first paragraph of his section on story construction Card quite rightly identifies that characters have the power to drastically alter the feel of your story.

Your basic premise may stay the same, but the addition of a single character can cause a new kind of conflict, humanising the plot, adding all important emotion depending on how you set it up.

Card’s example follows the main character Jia, who “discovers that a race of desert scavengers on this planet, called Scabs, are actually sentient … creature deserving protection. Yet at the same time, her team of xenobiologist [have] succeeded in developing a biobomb that will wipe out the scabs to save the colony’s crops.” He then adds a complication in the form of Jia’s younger sister, Wu Li, who gets the final say on releasing the plague that wipes out the creatures.

He could have had Wu Li, the villian of the piece, be a complete jerk, but now a new conflict arises in the form of the sister’s background together. They know each other well enough to understand both sides of the conflict, and by extension, now do we.

For a writer, this is an important lesson to learn. It would be almost too tempting to stick to your original plan of the story, but by being flexible and allowing your character’s inate interpersonality to come out and play, you could stumble across the one element that puts that perfect spin on an otherwise enjoyable but “played out” story.

Never underestimate a character’s ability to complicate things. Trying to ignore the internal editor saying “but you’re the master of this story, you’re job is to control everything” can be a great lesson.

Erin Morgenstern found this complicating factor in the process of writing her fantastic novel Night Circus. The annecdote is that her original plan for the story was rolling along nicely, until she decided to send her characters to a circus… the circus was so intriguing that she twisted her original plan to suit it and an almost entirely different plot emerged with new focus characters, new twists. Arguably that made the success of her book, and if she had remained a slave to her plan who knows? She may never have gotten published.


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