Meet Mr X.
He could easily be described as too content. He has a kind of Panglossian optimism that drives most people around him crazy. In a nutshell, he’s happy.
It’s challenging throwing decent obstacles at this guy, because he takes them in his stride, looks on the bright side and carries on as usual. Of course I plan to crack him. In the next 80,000 words I’m going to make him miserable and then pull him out of the other side. Why would I do this to him? Well, because it’s fiction, and that’s what we do to our characters. No-one likes to read about people who start happy, end happy and are happy during the middle parts too. Right?
Today I read a blog post along these lines, which asks the question ‘Are happy characters boring to read?’ Why do we feel the need to drag them through conflict situations in the name of good fiction?
1. Why do stories need conflict/unhappiness?
Because misery loves company. Our lives are not, in general, blissfully happy. Hearing stories about how others overcome problems helps us understand we are not alone, perhaps learn ways of managing difficult situations. Not only do we take vicarious pleasure in others’ suffering but it is good to hear that others face conflict and prevail. There is hope for us too. The troughs of unhappiness emphasise the peaks of success.
From a very early age, in the stories we tell to children, we introduce danger, evil and conflict and we show how it can be beaten, how even the most unlikely hero can triumph against all odds.
2. What kind of conflict?
While I was thinking about conflict I pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with this theory you can read a summary here. My character, Mr X, has met his physiological and safety needs and he’s not particularly interested in moving higher up the pyramid. He’s content at a fairly basic level. My challenge, in introducing conflict, is either to take away some of his safety/physiological satisfaction or to make him aspire to the other elements on the pyramid. Whilst I was plotting this out, I came up with a hypothesis. It’s a great generalisation, but I’d love to know what you think:
When you read a book where the conflict in concentrated in those areas (family, sex, love, self esteem, confidence) – who tends to have written those stories? Would it be too much of a generalisation to say women writers have a strong focus in these areas?
Now, look at the top tier of the pyramid – the self-actualization – and the bottom two. Would it be fair to say that male writers tend to focus conflict in these areas?
And if we can (if we can) make those generalisations, can we follow it through to conclude that an audience of female readers enjoy books whose conflict/conflict resolution is in the ‘female’ areas? And male readers in the extremes of the pyramid? I know this is not a very politically correct hypothesis, but there it is on the table.
What do you think?