Wednesday, August 7, 2013

CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT


 
“I have been in love with story all my life,” says Gayle Roper, the award winning author of more than forty-five books. “Give me a story with strong characters and a captivating plot, and I’m one happy reader. Or writer.”
 
Among Gayle’s awards are the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award, the Carol Award from American Christian Fiction Writers, two Inspirational Readers Choice Awards, and three HOLT Medallions. She has been a Christy finalist three times and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times Book Report.
 
For her work in training Christian writers Gayle has won special recognition from Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, St. Davids CWC, Florida CWC, and Greater Philadelphia CWC.  She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania. She enjoys reading, spending time at the family’s Canadian cottage, gardening, and eating out every time she can manage it.
 
CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT
 
Several years ago at a writers conference a woman came up to me all excited about her novel.

“Will you read the first chapter and summary for me?”

Since I do this at writers conferences, I said, “Sure, happy to.”

The novel was the story of a nurse. In chapter one we met her. In chapter two we met the doctor she falls in love with. In chapter four they’re engaged. In chapter six they’re married. In chapter—well, you get the idea.

When I spoke to her, I asked the crucial question for all fiction. “Where’s your conflict?”

“Oh, it’s in the people who come to the ER where she works.”

Ah, no. It doesn’t work that way. That would be like watching Grey’s Anatomy or Royal Pains for the medical problems. Conflict has to come from the main characters, not the in and out, secondary ones whose main purpose should be to show us more of who our main characters are.

Consider the TV shows like Castle, NCIS or Blue Bloods that run for a long time. Sure, the mysteries are interesting, but we keep watching because of the continuing characters and their story lines.

When constructing a series, it becomes important to pre-think the problems you will give your lead characters. The problems must be strong enough that your characters can struggle with them for several books. Once your leads have no more inner struggles or inter-personal conflicts, your series goes flat.

Consider two general market series: the Mrs.Pollifax mysteries by Dorothy Gilman and the JD Robb series about Lt. Eve Dallas and Roarke.

The first two of the fun Mrs. Pollifax mysteries were very strong as Mrs. Pollifax, an older widow who has lost her way after her husband’s death, finds fulfillment and new purpose working for the CIA.  Once the inner struggle to find who she now is concludes, the series turns stale.

JD Robb on the other hand has created back stories for Eve and Roarke that are full of conflict and have taken 30 plus novels to sort out. Abandonment, abuse, patricide, criminal history, nightmares, and foster care are played out so slowly and thoughtfully, the series remains vital even after all these titles.

Most of us won’t write series of such long standing, and we probably won’t use as many inner issues as JD Robb, but we need to think carefully about what baggage our leads carry. We don’t want nurses whose lives fall into place easily, even if we wish our real lives would be so cooperative. After we create the inner problems and the inter-personal conflicts that will continue to nip at our people, we need to think through both the psychological ramifications and the Biblical perspective on the issues.  As we seek to be accurate with things like weaponry and police procedure, so we are want to be accurate about people issues.

The crimes in our books may be fascinating, the suspense tense and nail-biting, but the truth is the personal conflicts will make or break our series.

 

 

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