Dealing with Conflict in Writing (Or, learning how to be bad and good at the same time)

A few weeks ago I took my son to see Wreck it Ralph. Aside from being the only person in the theater to get the Final Fantasy VII reference, I really enjoyed it and I think Daniel did too. However, throughout the movie I noticed he would bury his face in my arm and whimper at certain parts. Not the scary parts, mind, but at the strangest places, like when Wreck it Ralph meets King Candy for the first time. Or right after Ralph and Glitch bake her car. Finally, I asked him what was wrong.

"He’s gonna get in trouble!" Daniel said.

"No, he’s not," I said. "See? Look. Glitch likes her car. You have to watch and see what happens."

"Oh," he said. "I thought she was going to get upset and yell at him for making an ugly car."

And that was when I realized something. My son wasn’t scared of conflict, per se. He was scared of people getting into trouble. When Ralph ran into Candy Land even though people told him not to, he was Breaking the Rules. Which meant he would Get in Trouble, and that made Daniel uncomfortable enough that he didn’t want to watch Ralph Get Consequences.

I get it, because I am very much the same way.

Maybe it’s a first-child thing, where we were always told we were the oldest, so we have to set an example for the younger kids to show them how to do things to go the right way. Maybe it comes from being a Christian, where we hold ourselves up to such a high standard, we can’t even contemplate doing something wrong before telling ourselves it’s sin. (I tell you that verse, whatsover is pure, whatsoever is holy, whatsoever is righteous…etc etc…has made my life as a writer a tightrope). Or maybe it’s due to conflict-avoidance, something I do at every chance possible.

I want all my characters to travel the least resistance. I want them to be happy. I want them to achieve their goals the right way.

But that’s not how stories work.

I’m working on a scene in Willow now where one of my characters lies to another character. I originally didn’t do it because, hey, this character is basically a nice guy, and I really liked him. But as I edited, I realize that he wasn’t doing what he was ordered to do, which was to break up a relationship between the main characters. Which meant that he would have to lie. It makes me squeamish, because there will be consequences from this, really bad consequences.  And the guy knows it. But he does it anyway, which will mean alas, this guy isn’t as nice as I want him to be.

But that also makes him more human.

I will admit, there is a small part of me that makes me want to bury my face whenever conflict or trouble or any sort of uncomfortableness rises in my stories. There’s that part of me that cries, if she does that, she’ll have to suffer the consequences. But if there is no conflict, there’s no growth either. Characters need conflict to learn. They need to test boundaries. They need to stand up for what they believe in, even if they’ll get in trouble for it. Wreck it Ralph wanted to be treated nice, so he went outside of his game to get a medal, which was against the rules, yes, but to him, it was taking a chance to get him some respect. He suffered some dear consequences for that, but he learned a lot about himself. And by the end, we were rooting for him to succeed. That what makes a great story.

As writers, we need to show the good and the bad, the angels and the demons, the unbreakable and the rule-breakers. It’s how we connect with the characters. If you struggle with it, just tell yourself, watch and see what happens, because sometimes (though not always) it all pays off in the end. 

You can also play chaotic evil characters in RPGs, which is what I’m doing. Which is not as easy as you think. Do you know how long it took to get up the nerve to steal something in Skyrim? I mean, sure, you can put a bucket over the shopkeeper’s head, but it’s the principle of the thing…

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One Response

  1. Thank you for writing this LaShawn. I appreciate your openness about your struggle with/reluctance to writing Bad Things that will lead to Consequences. I have to tell myself it’s okay to write Conflict and Bad Decisions (it can be a really difficult sometimes). It’s helpful to hear the go-ahead from another author. Thanks!

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