Tag Archives: conflict

How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

1 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

When you begin a novel, it’s easy to find a detail that pulls you into a character or plot line, and then another detail, and then another, and then one day you look at the accumulated pages and think, “What is this?” One response to this question is to create an outline, a big-picture snapshot of what’s in a novel and where it’s going. The problem, of course, is that outlines don’t create order; they only reveal what’s already there. Figuring out plot and character and what happens next is still the writer’s job. There are no shortcuts, except for maybe this one.

If you can identify a single, driving impulse in a character—a fundamental need that colors every aspect of his or her behavior—then sometimes a story will snap into focus. Hasanthika Sirisena does exactly that in her story, “Ismail.” It’s included in her new collection The Other One and was originally published at Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Ismael is the story’s narrator, and his story begins like this:

How to explain why my brother Harry and I stood in my best friend Abdul’s backyard at two in the morning carrying five large Mason jars filled with milk and turkey parts we’d bought at Fairway?

From the first line, we know the characters’ motivations will be complicated. Abdul is Ismael’s best friend, and we soon learn that the Ismael’s brother Harry is in love with Abdul’s sister. And yet the two brothers are wrecking Abdul’s house. The situation, as the first line suggests, demands an explanation, a big Why? This ought to be easy, right? Ismael must have a good reason for an action that will have serious consequences. The writer simply needs to let the readers know what that reason is.

The problem is that Ismael is smart—perhaps not book smart, since he “nearly flunked tenth grade,” but he’s observant and self-aware and emotionally astute. These are all great traits for a narrator. (I’m a believer in making narrators as smart as their readers.) But it also presents a challenge that can be summed up in a line a lot of us heard as children: “How could someone so smart do something so stupid?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Any factual statement that starts with “Because So-and-so…” is likely to fall flat. Readers are like your skeptical parents. They have no time for thin excuses. But when we’re pressed to really explain ourselves, we often draw blanks. People rarely act rationally. Instead, we respond to deep-seated desires and urges and then rationalize the behavior that follows.

As writers, then, we need to identify our characters’ deep-seated urges. Here is how Sirisena does just that:

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For a time, that’s what knowing Abdul felt like. I’d been okay without him, but once we were friends I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose him. There were days that thought alone—the thought of that loss—left me knocked out on the floor, chest caved in, gasping for air.

Notice the imagery that ends the passage: “gasping for air.” It’s an image of suffocation or drowning, and as anyone who’s ever taken lifeguard training knows, a drowning person isn’t capable of rational responses. Instead, they thrash about and grab hold of whatever object presents itself. That’s the sort of deep-seated desire you’re after: a desire equal to the desire to not die.

Of course, you might be thinking that the lack of sex, money, and love are not the same as the threat of death. But here’s what’s important: the desire doesn’t need to literally be equivalent to dying. Nothing is. It just needs to feel like dying. For Ismail, losing a friend after not having had one feels like dying, and so when it happens, he thrashes about and latches onto whatever seems to keep him afloat: in this case, vengeance.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s find a character’s motivating, deep-seated desire, using “Ismail” by Hasanthika Sirisena as a model:

  1. Start with the action your character must defend. It’s not always the case that action is the best place to start, but it’s probably the place to begin thinking about character and often what draws a writer to a character in the first place. The character is going to do something drastic, with consequences, something that demands an explanation. What is that action? Don’t worry if it doesn’t yet make sense or seems out of character.
  2. Give the character figurative parents to defend it to. This can be as easy as posing this question to your character: Why did you do that? Let your character offer up a list of responses, and then swat them down, if possible, just as a parent would. The goal is to move beyond the easy, unsatisfying explanations until the point at which the figurative parent (you, the writer) can demand, “How can someone so smart do something so stupid?”
  3. Let the character do some soul searching. He might search his past for clues or his family or the other people who surround him: their values or fears. Think in terms of change: the dread, based on experience, that something will change and wreck everything or that nothing will change and everything will remain the same. If you’re familiar with the canon of Western literature from, say, James Joyce to Richard Ford, the statements that results from this soul searching will feel an awful lot like an epiphany. Generally speaking, we’re skeptical of epiphanies now because they’ve been so overused, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared from stories. The passage from “Ismail” could have been an epiphany except that it occurs in the first half of the story. What statement of causation (I acted because) can you draw from your character’s deepest fears or needs?
  4. Make the character defend the action to someone in the storyOne of the biggest mistakes writers make early on is doing everything I’ve just discussed—but doing it all inside a character’s head. Stories like these consist entirely of characters sitting and drinking/smoking and thinking big thoughts, which is boring. So, force the character to defend the action to some other character. Ismail, for example, must defend his actions to his brother. The defense matters, and the impact it has on their relationship matters. That’s where story and plot come from. Who is that other character in your story?

The goal is to figure out where a story is headed by better understanding what motivates a character to act in the first place.

Good luck.

How to Use Conflict to Give Your Novel a Sense of Direction

23 Aug
Idea Novey's debut novel, Ways to Disappear, has been called a "tour de force" and "seared to perfection" by reviewers.

Idea Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, about the search for a vanished Brazilian writer has been called a “tour de force” and “seared to perfection” by reviewers.

Anyone with small kids is familiar with this situation: they argue over (take your pick). One says, “I want it.” The other says, “No, I do.” Or one says, “Let’s do ___,” and the other says, “No, let’s do ___.” As a parent, you can step in, which you often do. But sometimes you don’t. You think, “Let them figure it out.” You tell your partner, “They’ll either figure it out or they won’t.” Then, you listen to the fight continue and wait to see which way it will go. If the argument’s loud enough, you can feel your muscles tense as you wait for it to resolve itself—or not.

This is misery as a parent but a great strategy for fiction writers, and Idra Novey uses it to great effect in her novel Ways to Disappear. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a famous Brazilian novelist who vanishes and her American translator who sets out to find her. Early in the novel, we’re introduced to the translator’s conflicted relationship with her boyfriend:

Miles told her she spent too much time fretting over unanswered emails. His preferred subject of late was when they might get married, and whether they had to invite everyone in their Road Runners group. He said he was leaning toward an outside venue regardless.

Emma, on the other hand, was leaning toward never.

She had yet to express this.

In this passage, the conflict is as clear as when kids fight over a toy: he wants to get married and she doesn’t. Either they’ll figure it out (and get married), or they won’t. Not only is the conflict laid out clearly, but so are the possible resolutions. That’s step one: a map that shows the plot’s endpoint.

Novey doesn’t stop there. The passage continues with “She had yet to express this,” which introduces a stop along the way to the end of the plot. This is as important as the conflict itself; a novel needs stages, steps, obstacles (choose your preferred word). It needs stuff to fill out the pages between the beginning and the end, and that’s what Novey has done so concisely in these three short paragraphs: clearly laid out the beginning and end and one part of the middle.

As you read the entire novel, you’ll quickly see that it’s formally inventive, with pages devoted entirely to a single dictionary definition or a single email or a radio dispatch. At one point, a chapter is written in verse. It’s also a heady novel about translation and, as a critic in The New Yorker wrote, “the nature of personal agency in life and fiction.” And it’s a comic novel with real villains and dramatic twists and turns. In short, it’s a novel with a lot going on, and part of the reason that Novey is able to stuff so much into the pages is because of how clearly she lays out the conflict at the beginning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up conflict and possible resolution, using Ways to Disappear as a model:

  1. Find a single issue on which two characters disagree. Novey uses marriage. One of her characters wants it, and the other doesn’t. Of course, the issue can be absolutely anything. Whatever you choose, try to state it as clearly as I was able to state the issue in Ways to Disappear: The issue is ___. One character wants ____, and the other character doesn’t or wants ___. You’re also laying out two possible resolutions. It’s a blunt, direct statement, and this may feel odd. As writers, it’s tempting to latch onto subtlety, to want the reader to figure things out. But it’s important to know which things ought to be subtle and which should be direct. Ways to Disappear contains all sorts of smart, subtle lines about translation and agency. But it lays out the plot clearly.
  2. Flesh out each of their stances. Novey does this with Miles in particular, describing his plans and anxieties about the wedding. She doesn’t just say, “Miles wanted to get married.” She shows him wanting it and assuming that it will happen. She does something different with Emma. Rather than showing us her thoughts, we’re shown her voice: leaning toward never. It’s a line that Emma might have said while confiding to a close friend over coffee. The line is understated, not bombastic or intense or meek or whatever. So, try both strategies. Show us one character working on the assumption that his or her stance will win out. For the other character, try writing a line that sounds as if it has been spoken to a confidant. You can even write it as such: She told her friend…
  3. Create an unknown. Novey does this by revealing that Emma hasn’t yet told Miles that she doesn’t want to get married. The unknown, then, has two parts: Miles doesn’t know something, and the reader doesn’t know when he’ll find out. That’s a great way to approach plot: one character knows more than the other, and the plot is built, at least in part, around when the other character finds out or catches up. So, what information might one of your characters keep in reserve? It might be his or her stance on the issue. Or, it could be a plan that is related to that stance. It could be an emotion or memory. In essence, it’s a secret. 

The goal is to chart out a general direction and plot point for your story or novel by introducing a point of conflict, two possible resolutions, and a piece of information that one character knows but the other doesn’t.

Good luck.

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