Claire King

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Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Posts Tagged ‘Conflict’

Misery Loves Company

Posted on: February 17th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

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?

Characters, Conflict and Psychology

Posted on: November 8th, 2010 by Claire - 1 Comment

Brad and Lolita stood side by side on the hotel balcony, looking up at the stars.

“I’m cold,” Lolita whimpered.

Brad took off his tuxedo and draped it over her shoulders.

One of the great pleasures of writing fictional characters, for me, is figuring out what makes them behave the way they do, and then developing that consistently throughout the story. So, I’ve brought you here today to talk to you about psychologist Dr Eric Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis (1958).

From a personal point of view, Berne’s theory can help us understand why our communications with others don’t always go smoothly, and can help us ‘re-programme’ ourselves to be more conscious (and hopefully therefore more successful) in our interactions.

From a writer’s point of view, Transactional Analysis can help with both character development and motivation, as well as form the basis for conflict in their reactions with other characters.

The theory, in a nutshell, is that we all have three ‘ego states’ based on the concepts or truths that are ‘recorded’ onto our brains, as shown in the diagram below:

Parent: concepts taught to us in (roughly) the first five years of life. Learned from parents but also other adults, teachers, television etc. These can be things like ‘Always look left and right before crossing the road’ or ‘I am a lazy person’.

Adult: learned concepts from evaluating experiences or information. These responses can start around 1 year old and can include things like ‘When I tip my drink on myself I get wet’ or ‘The boss was right, carrying business cards is important’.

Child: felt concepts, emotional, experienced internally. Examples could be ‘I was scared by the barking dog’ or ‘My husband drives me nuts’.

We all play all of these ego roles during our daily interactions (stimulus/response) with others, moving between them frequently, depending on how we are feeling, who we are interacting with, the situation etc.  And so do our characters.

Character Development

When we understand (or create) a character’s Child and Parent ‘recordings’ as background to our story, we can then show/imply a lot of backstory without actually telling it. And we can show character and relationship developments as the interaction types change.

Conflict

Even more exciting are the interactions between characters. The simplest interactions are Adult talking to Adult, which may explain why in a conflict-rich narrative we don’t see very much of those. A common interaction played out in a lot of fiction (and a lot of real life relationships) is the Parent talking to Child/Child responding back to Parent.

For example, in the short scene at the top of the page. Brad is complicit in this interaction – the communication is smooth – Lolita’s Child speaks to Brad’s Parent and Brad responds with his Parent back to Lolita’s Child. So the interaction is a complimentary one. It tells us a lot about the situation but there is no conflict.

But I could have decided to have Brad decided to respond like this:

“I’m cold,” Lolita whimpered.

“Jeez. I can’t do anything to make you happy!” snapped Brad.

This is what Berne called a ‘crossed transaction’: Lolita sent her communication to Brad’s Parent, but Brad’s response came back from his own Child. Et voila, conflict.

It could be that by consciously recognising and writing the stimulus and response types in our characters’ interactions, we have one more tool in our toolbox for writing authentic characters.

For more information on this, read Dr Eric Berne’s book Games People Play or see the original article here on his website.

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