This week: Conflict Makes Great CharactersEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about using conflict to make characters jump off the page.
“First, find out what your hero wants.”
~ Ray Bradbury, novelist
“Self-discovery. This is an acceptable motivation for a category hero, though the writer must not get bogged down in long paragraphs of character analysis and lose the storyline in the process. The hero should only uncover truths about himself through his reaction to plot developments, not through any long, detailed soul-searching.”
~ Dean Koontz, Horror author
"I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope."
~ Stanley Elkin, novelist
Conflict Makes Great Characters
Plot vs. Characterization
Many authors have no problem plotting a story. Ideas come, and they think, “Oh! This would be so cool!” They throw the main character into a scary situation and make him fight his way out of it.
That’s good, but it's only halfway there.
The secret of a great story is characterization. A reader can think the plot is interesting, but won’t really care unless your character comes to life and gets their sympathy. If the character is flat or boring, the reader will be less invested in the outcome -- they won’t care if the character lives or dies.
Characterization Comes From Outer and Inner Conflict
While the plot is how the character overcomes problems, the character’s Outer Conflict is the why behind the actions. It's the character's own personal goal, the thing that gets his emotions churning and matters more to him than anything else.
For instance, if your story idea is a ghost killing people in an old house, then the plot will be about how the main character faces it and destroys it.
But why does the character do this?
You say, “Because he’s the Hero, and it’s the right thing to do.”
I say, "Not good enough!"
"The right thing to do" sounds all altruistic and brave, but it’s not realistic. Even if the character is a comic-book superhero, he needs a better reason than “I fight evil!” He needs a personal goal -- something that forces him to continue even if he’s been beaten down , is facing death , and has lost all hope of getting out alive.
Examples of Personal Goals (using the killer ghost plotline):
Love: The mc (main character) has a girlfriend or friends or family members trapped inside the house, and he must free them.
Revenge: The ghost has killed someone close to the mc, and he wants to get revenge.
Sympathy: The ghost is someone the mc loves, and he wants to get them to “cross over.”
Guilt: The ghost is someone the mc knows, perhaps even someone he accidentally killed, or a family member, which makes him feel he must take on the responsibility of exorcising it himself.
Duty: Because he’s in a ghost-busting family or group, and they’re counting on him as part of their group. If he makes a mistake, they’ll die.
These personal goals invoke very strong emotions in the character. It’s emotion that will give him determination and force him to carry on no matter what. Emotion is what will make the reader identify with and care about the character.
Your character must have a personal goal.
Inner conflict is the opposite of Outer Conflict -- it isn’t what drives the character forward, it’s what holds him back. It’s his fatal flaw. The thing that keeps making him fail. It’s psychological problem that he must get over if he’s going to succeed in the end (this is also called Character Arc).
Examples of Psychological Flaws:
Fear: The character had a traumatic experience in his past and has such fear it makes him freeze, run away, or do irrational things.
Low Self-esteem: The character is overly self-conscious of a physical flaw (either real or imagined), or the character has being bullied by others who convince him he’s not good enough. The character’s lack of self-confidence makes him hesitant, indecisive and half-hearted when it matters the most.
The Follower: The character believes someone else is better qualified to do the job than he is. Instead of accepting the mantle of The Hero, he lets others decide things and take the lead.
Obsession: The Moby Dick Syndrome: The character is like Captain Ahab. He becomes so obsessed with succeeding he takes unwise risks, endangers others, and refuses to listen to anyone else’s ideas.
Pride/Arrogance: If the character is overly self-confident, he'll charge into danger without thinking, will make mistakes, and alienate his companions. “Pride commeth before a fall.”
Getting the character over his flaw and onto a successful end to the story is rather like dealing with a drug addict.
First, the character must admit to himself he has a flaw. "Who, me?" Then he must realize this flaw is keeping him from succeeding. He must try to overcome it and fail. (This proves to the reader it’s a hard flaw to overcome.) Finally, with ultimate effort, the character conquers his fatal flaw and saves the day! Woohoo!
Your character must have a psychological flaw that keeps him from succeeding (until the end).
When figuring out an idea for your story, don’t just plot it out and forget the importance of characterization.
The two things that will make your characterizations have depth and attract the reader are Inner and Outer Conflict.
The character’s Outer Conflict is the pull between the difficulty of the situation and his personal goal. The personal goal is the reason why he wants to succeed, and it’s a very emotional force that keeps him going no matter how difficult the situation is.
The character’s Inner Conflict is the psychological flaw that’s crippling him from within. He cannot succeed until he recognizes and conquers his fatal flaw.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Scary Folktales" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
dwarf2012 submits "Invalid Item" and writes: I just researched and wrote a story about a scary monster/folklore from Portugal: kinda like the Portuguese boogey man! Great newsletter.
I bet the Portuguese boogey man is awesome and creepy!
Vampyr14 writes: Those are some scary looking monsters! And I've never heard of any of them. Thanks for finding them for me....
Pictures help get the scare-factor across. Thanks so much for commenting on my NL!
BIG BAD WOLF Is Thankful submits "What Happens at the Barracks; Stays" and writes: Watch out for werewolves.
billwilcox writes: I love folklore, especially when it's about your own folks. Come on, we've all got horror stories about our families, right?
You always crack me up, Bill! Thanks so much for commenting!
Mark Allen Mc Lemore writes: Wow, what an exciting newsletter. And, YES, I just today at my other favorite site- Lovecraft eZine- discovered the Owl Man, a mythical beast of the Scottish Highlands. They had a movie posted there, it has a Lovecraft theme, Lord of Silence or something?
Since watching a show investigating the strange death of Meriweather Lewis (The Lewis and Clark Expedition) I have been pondering his little circular trip up the Marias River on the return voyage, with some Souix, which ended up violently, Souix tried stealing guns, two were killed, etc... Been wondering about the possibility of something else up there in the Rocky Mountains...
The mountains are a great place to use unusual and legendary monsters. I hope you come up with a great story about Lewis (or any adventurer) up there in the Rockies!
Taniuska writes: Great newsletter, as always. Thanks for the mention to Not sure I could pick a favorite legendary creature... love them all. But the Marchosias has always interested me.
You’re welcome -- I love looking at the weird and unusual monsters you research and put in your posts! Marchosias sound cool.
Phoenix writes: Cool new creatures! The anka makes me think of a phoenix . I think you're absolutely right about looking at the monsters/creatures from around the world for inspiration when writing. I've often found myself thinking about the wealth of inspiration available in the stories of the past. My personal favorites are the Greek and Roman Gods. Plenty of jaw-dropping creatures to jump start your muse Great newsletter!
Doing research can lead to all kinds of interesting info and great food for your muse! Thanks so much for replying to my NL.
Nixie 🐈 writes: Great job with this newsletter; the images themselves gave me the creeps, and now I have a new avenue to pursue for inspiration.
Thank you for commenting, Nixie! I think the Domovoi might be up your alley as he's more of a tiny house guardian than a monster -- though he gets mad if you don't respect "his" home!
Specter writes: From out of the void to LJPC - the tortoise,
I give you the grand hand for the awesome pictures to fill out in our leering eyes. Bravo!
How does the eerie ink of fear spill out on the white sheets of reasonableness? Perhaps into gross monstrosities that lurk in the submergence, parting its way from conscious thought. Until, at long last, a twinkling spreads its morbid form into the imagination. Etched into time, a faint shape of something familiar . . .
Folktales could be a crack into reality, the mindscape of ancient actuality. In what we never understood, we call magic. We do live in a bickering but strange generation where anomalies zoom by unseen. And a devil may appear as no more than a blot of dust.
See here, now.
If you want to see a ghost, just look in the mirror. The ghost runs through you like the breath of life. Life is haunted and you’re it. Transition? Only a glimpse away. Please don’t crumple the mirror. Remember, the reflection you see may not be your own.
Maybe my paranoia leaks in two directions: The questions involved in being a human creature; likewise, those questions inquired in what is a ghost? But it does seem that a common link connects both¾an energetic force called life.
As thin as shadows, the world swarms with phantoms.
Very interesting and imaginative, Slick. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
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