Category Archives: Inner Conflict

Character Motivation Revisited

Character motivation is not a new topic (see these posts) here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework. However, it’s such an important subject that writing teachers of all stripes discuss it from any number of angles. Nancy Kress, in Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint, goes so far as to say this:

Motivation is the key to your entire story. I’m going to say that again, because it’s so important: Motivation is the key to fiction. You can create fascinating characters, with vivid backstories, appearances described in perfect verbal pitch, and settings so real we can smell them, but all of them will remain sketches, vignettes, or travelogues unless your characters do something. And they won’t do anything without motivation. (Emphasis mine.)

family-521707-mSo what precisely creates character motivation? There are a number of possibilities. First, a character is motivated by how she was raised. Was her home loving? Did she receive encouragement from her parents? Was she caught up in a vortex of sibling rivalry? Or was she the product of the foster care system? Was her father an abusive drunk? Did her mother leave her with her grandparents to raise? All these growing up circumstances play a part in molding a person, and therefore should play a part in molding the characters that inhabit our fiction.

A character might also be motivated by a life trauma: witnessing his cousin gunned down in the street, breaking his back in a diving accident, being erroneously arrested and imprisoned for robbing the Seven-Eleven. These kinds of traumatic events change people and can contribute to why a character acts the way he acts.

They are not the sole motivators, however. One person who watches his cousin die in a violent way might join a gang in order to reap revenge. Another might decide to become a cop in order to stop senseless violence. What determines how a person reacts?

One factor is the character’s worldview. Is she prone to seeing life as a victim? Does she hold tightly to religious values? Does she believe that God has a purpose even for the hard things in life? Has she embraced an eye-for-an-eye philosophy?

Of course a character’s worldview doesn’t crop up on its own. Rather it’s an amalgamation of experiences and beliefs that lead her to what seems like a reasonable way of understanding life.

Patty_Hearst_takes_part_in_the_April_1974_Hiberna_bank_raid_with_other_SLA_membersConsequentially, it would be inconsistent to develop a character who has been pampered, loved, and protected, but who suddenly begins a crime spree. Something in her experiences would have to trigger behavior that goes against her norm. Some ideas, some belief system, some key influence must have countered all those years of happy home life. Unless the happy home life was a sham.

Another factor dictating how characters respond to events in their lives is their personality and temperament. Much study has gone into understanding the qualities with which a person is born. Some, such as Dr. David Kersey (Please Understand Me II) and a host of others who derive their ideas from the ancient belief in four rudimentary humors, hold to the idea that there are four basic temperaments, with either a variety of manifestations or blends. Others broaden the scope, but there appears to be agreement that people have innate ways of interacting with the world:

Children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things — their temperament. In the late 1950s, temperament research began with the work of Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and associates. The New York Longitudinal Study identified nine temperament characteristics or traits. The researchers found that these nine traits were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life. By observing a child’s responses to everyday situations, the researchers could assess these temperaments. Temperament is stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experiences, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. (Excerpt from “Understanding Your Child’s Temperament” by Kathy K. Oliver, M.S., Family and Consumer Sciences Agent)

One more factor contributing to motivation is influence. People often determine their behavior and beliefs based on the people they emulate, either individuals or a group. Consequently, a young man who otherwise is not bent toward violence, might commit a violent act because his peer group demands it; a rich heiress might leave her inheritance to marry the chauffeur because she loves him; a woman whose politically connected husband has been caught in an illicit affair might stay in the marriage because of the pressure from his cronies.

The most interesting stories are those in which a character’s motives are at war with one another. The heiress loves her family, but she loves the chauffeur too. The governor wants to make a difference for the people who elected him, but he has to keep happy those who financed his campaign. The Senator’s wife hates infidelity but loves knowing the “right people” who invite her to the “right parties.”

The “what will happen” which drives a story forward becomes entangled with the “what will he do” question, proving Ms. Kress’s point: “Motivation is the key to your story.”

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PowerElementsOfStoryStructure500On a separate note, I’d like to announce that I’ve published an ebook based on the writing tips here and on my personal blog. Power Elements Of Story Structure is the first in the series entitled Power Elements Of Fiction and is available only on Kindle or devices with the free Kindle download.

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Filed under Character Developmet, Characters, Inner Conflict, Motive, Worldview

Characters And Their Struggles

Cinderella-Offterdinger_Aschenbrodel_(1)A story needs characters, and generally one stands out as the central figure, the person about whom the events will revolve.

I suggest the above description of a main character is a recipe for an unpublished novel. While it may be true, it misses key points regarding characters who appear in well-read fiction.

First, the definition implies a disconnect between the events and the character. In page-turning stories, things ought not happen to a character. Rather, the character ought to go out and make things happen. The events aren’t centered on the character as much as the character is causing the events.

Secondly, the character as agent develops because of his wants and needs. These twin motivating passions have to do with both external and internal desires.

The external refers to something a character perceives will solve a problem, fulfill a longing, advance a goal. Harry Potter needs to attend Hogwarts, Cinderella longs to go to the ball, Dorothy must return home.

The internal has to do with an inner desires fueling a character and may be things she doesn’t realize at first. In fact these passions may be so ingrained in a character, she doesn’t understand these are motivating her. Harry Potter wants revenge, Cinderella longs to be loved, Dorothy wants to be loving.

Often a character reaches a point of revelation and comes to a place of clarity. She might then embrace what she finds or she may determine to change. Scarlet O’Hara determines she will never go hungry again, Bilbo Baggins embraces his role as “burglar,” Lucy Pevensie realizes she should do what Aslan tells her even if no one else believes her.

Internal and external wants and needs motivate the main character to action. He makes a plan and determines how he should go about acquiring what he perceives to be his greatest need. His plan may be involved, it may lead to a second plan or a revised plan, it may unfold in stages. The point is, the character is not passively waiting for things to happen to him. He is an instigator.

He is not the only instigator, however. The story also has antagonists who act. They are bent on foiling the main character’s plan or changing his intentions. They create obstacles that delay or derail his plans, causing him to revisit his goals and readjust what he’d hoped to accomplish.

Dorothy wants to go home but learns only the Wizard of Oz can help her. Her plan, then, is to go to Oz and put her petition before the Wizard. When she at last gains an audience with him, he promises to help her only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a new goal. Throughout the story Dorothy alters her plan and aims for something different as a stepping stone to her ultimate goal–returning home.

In essence, that desire drives the story, and the events that make up the story stem from Dorothy’s efforts to accomplish her goal. Put another way, Dorothy’s efforts are the story. The key is, whether succeeding or failing, Dorothy is striving to achieve what she wants.

She may succeed or fail in her efforts, but readers are firmly behind her, hoping the best for her because she’s active. She struggles to accomplish what she believes the circumstances require.

Dorothy doesn’t act alone. None of the characters do. Cinderella attended the ball only because of her fairy godmother’s gifts, Gandalf provided Bilbo with the help he needed to unite the Five Armies, and the Weasleys showed Harry Potter how to reach Platform 9 3/4 where he would catch the train to Hogwarts.

But the help these characters received in no way canceled out their need to struggle against the obstacles and work toward their goal. After all, that’s what a story is about.

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The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

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Compelling Books – Inner Conflict

A quiet book, my friend said, and yet something makes you want to keep reading. She was speaking of the new middle grade novel, A Diamond In The Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Last night I discovered for myself just how compelling this book is. Yes, last night, because I began reading after 8:00 and devoured all 242 pages before I had my morning coffee. (OK, it is middle grade and there is a significant amount of white space, but for this slow reader, finishing so quickly is notable!)

Yesterday I started using Donald Maass’s excellent Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook in my own work, and came upon the element I believe is the key to Kathryn’s writing: creating inner conflict. I’ve studied Maass’s Workbook before, but I don’t think I realized how true and powerful inner conflict can be until I read A Diamond In The Desert, with Donald Maass’s words fresh in mind.

He defines inner conflict as a character with

two goals, needs, wants, longings, yearnings, or desires that are in direct opposition to each other. Wanting two things that are mutually exclusive means having inner conflict, being torn in two directions, and that is what makes a character truly memorable. (p. 19)

In Kathryn’s book, the main character, a teenager held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, comes to a point of crisis when he wants to play baseball, the only semblance of “normal” from his life before the camp and a great love, but at the same time must care for his little sister, who he also loves, while his mother is at work.

Two things the character wants — one a passion, the other a responsibility. And he takes his responsibilities seriously, especially because the family has been separated from their father. The struggle doesn’t last long. The character must make a choice. But the resulting consequences drive the action from that point on. The decision may be a done deal, but the character must learn to live with it.

As I thought about this inner struggle that made this quiet book a story I didn’t want to put down, I realized that Kathryn had also masterfully created inner conflict in her debut novel, The Year The Swallows Came Early. In that one, the protagonist loves her father and to her horror, he is arrested one day while they are walking together. Worse yet, she finds out the person who filed a complaint against him is her mother, who she also loves. Inner conflict.

In one part of Maass’s Creating Inner Conflict Exercise, he says

True inner conflict involves wanting two things that are mutually exclusive. It is most effective when it tears your protagonist, or any character, in two opposite directions. (p. 24)

Can you love both your mother and your father when one seems to be hurting the other? Can you satisfy both your passion and your responsibility? These are struggles the characters in Kathryn’s books faced, struggles which made their story compelling. What would they decide? How would it affect them?

It’s the same struggle Frodo Baggins faced in The Fellowship Of The Ring. Would he shoulder the responsibility of destroying the ring or return to his home in the Shire? As this book neared its conclusion, the conflict shifted to his facing the responsibility alone in spite of his fear or turning aside and remaining with his companions. Two things at the beginning and at the end that can’t both happen — or apparently so.

In stories that end happily, it seems authors find a way for the two to both take place, or for one to turn out not as good as it first appeared, or for one to be proper and appropriate to give up as a way of maturing. In the latter, there may be sweet sadness, the sense of necessary loss, and the story still ends on a positive note.

Quiet books are built largely on these kinds of inner conflicts. But what about adventures, thrillers, science fiction, even romance? Certainly those stories have external conflict that drives the story, but an author who also incorporates inner conflict — as J. R. R. Tolkien did — has a memorable character to go along with action-induced edge-of-the-seat tension.

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