This is the fifth of six observations on writing craft
When reading contest entries I often find myself impressed with the character conflicts the writers have developed. They are deep, simple conflicts rooted in character and in the premise of the story.
But I also find that once the characters meet on the page a whole lot of extra, superficial conflict is chucked at them – misunderstandings, inexplicable assholery, snap character judgements, overwhelming instalust etc.
I think this happens when the writer either doesn’t trust the inherent conflict to carry the scene, or hasn’t clearly identified what the conflict is. The effect is messy, confusing and unbelievable. The characters often have to act in irrational, self-deluded ways to allow for these superficial conflicts, and so I find myself liking them less and finding it harder to suspend my disbelief.
My feeling is always: Let these two characters meet, and give their conflict space to play out.
What a fantastic opportunity for us to learn more about them as characters. People are interesting and unpredictable in conflict. It brings out feelings and behaviours that we don’t see at any other time. And if you have built a solid conflict, your characters can both come across as self-aware adults and still participate in a tense, unresolved scene.
I say all that as though it’s obvious, but this, of all my observations, is the one I struggle with the most in my own writing. I find it difficult to slow down into a scene and allow the characters to speak for themselves. I’m writing a scene at the moment where two characters are in a tense negotiation and I had to tell myself to let one offer the other a cup of tea. They are completely opposed, but the refusal of one to offer the other sustenance isn’t where the conflict resides.
I saw an outstanding example of character conflict done well recently. I’ve been watching the British drama The Split, which I loved. (It’s currently on iView, for Aussie viewers.)
The scene I’m going to describe has some mild spoilers, so stop reading now if you don’t like to be spoiled at all!
The protagonist, Hannah, is a family law solicitor and she comes from a family with tense, entrenched, contradictory dynamics. She is married with children, but has a decades-long attraction to one of her co-workers. He had been married, but was divorced two years previous. We find this out when his ex-wife Lauren is the solicitor opposite Hannah in a pre-nup settlement – and that’s also when we find out Lauren is pregnant, and that they split up because he never wanted kids.
The pre-nup settlement becomes emotionally charged when Lauren’s team leaks detrimental information. Hannah confronts her outside the court, but Lauren doesn’t give an inch.
Then, incredibly, the conversation turns away from professional things into personal. Hannah asks about the baby and they connect on a mum-to-mum level. But like, not in the lame way that sounds on paper. They are grown women who contain multitudes – who can fight their professional fights one hundred and ten percent and still relate to each other as people outside that fight. It’s so unlike almost all other TV that it’s just electrifying to watch, this concession to the complexity of people.
But because it’s an excellent show the professional dynamics do leak into the personal dynamics in subtle ways, and vice versa. Hannah gains the upper hand in the pre-nup settlement and is righteously indignant – but Lauren, who has been slowly percolating information, is devastated by the realisation that she’s that Hannah. The reason her ex never wanted to have kids with her.
The conflict in these scenes didn’t land because the characters were at odds with each other – it landed because they were both acting in good faith, from the most mature, professional place they knew how, and they still couldn’t resolve it or protect themselves against the way it hurt them both.