Category Archives: Mary Pletsch

Conflict: when characters interact

Character versus character is, of course, not the only way to bring conflict into your story.  Other avenues include character versus nature (dangerous terrain, wildlife, storms, floods…) or character versus self, where the character must overcome an aspect of themselves, such as their fears or the beliefs instilled by their upbringing, in order to be successful.  Still, in stories with multiple characters, watching their personalities strike sparks off one another is a realistic and intriguing way of developing conflict.  And conflict is the fuel that drives a plot – without an adversary to overcome, heroes sit around doing nothing.

The most obvious form of character versus character is hero versus villain.  Other blogs this month talk about what makes a good villain, so I will add only this:  a good villain sparks an interesting conflict with the hero.  This statement encompasses both evil masterminds whose machinations drive the plots of whole series, all the way down to the minion who perhaps doesn’t survive his first and only interaction with the hero.  Even that one-encounter minion can be memorable.  Perhaps the hero realizes she can’t defeat this minion with strength, and has to use cunning, or endurance, or ask for help, instead.  Perhaps it’s the first time the hero has ever had to kill in battle, or the first time she’s ever lost someone under her command.  This conflict can involve both the fight itself (physical action, mental strategy, or both) and the aftereffects (emotional fallout; fatigue or lost gear heightening the hero’s conflict with her environment; the time delay heightening tension; etc).

Some of the most interesting conflicts are conflicts between protagonists.  Just because a group of people are on the same quest, or in the same military unit, or working toward the same goal, doesn’t mean they’re going to all like each other.  They may not even get along with one another.  Aspects of their personalities are going to grate on one another.  First impressions may create misunderstandings; past beliefs may shape prejudices or preconceptions.  Different desires may set members of the same group working at odds to one another, or tempt one to betray the group; or threaten to splinter the group.  These dynamics can lead groups to a vast array of outcomes, depending on the pressures placed on the group by the plot, and the choices made by the characters within the group.  All that, and a villain besides!

Previous posts this month have dealt with romance, and one of the most elegant conflict generators – the love triangle – hinges on romantic attraction.  If two characters (I’ll say a girl and a guy) like each other, there’s only so many ways to defer that mutual attraction before it’s acted upon.  But if a girl likes two different guys, the writer has now set up two additional conflicts:  the girl is forced to make a choice between the guys; and the guys are set in an adversarial relationship, competing against one another for the girl’s attention.  Like any formula, this one can be tinkered with:  for example, the girl who likes a guy who’s oblivious to her and doesn’t notice the second guy who dotes on her; or the “triangle” that becomes a square with the addition of a fourth character.

Love triangles don’t suit every story-category romance, for example, favours one hero and one heroine, and a story that illustrates how they overcome the obstacles in their path to a life together.  Perhaps their conflict is generated by secondary characters:  the disapproving family members; the crazy ex or jealous outsider, sowing misunderstandings to sabotage the relationship; the character who represents duty, such as a child, military unit or business obligation.   A writer doesn’t even need romance to torment his hero with secondary characters such as these.

Without conflict, characters have nothing to do.  Without disagreement, readers become bored watching the Happy Hero, and his Happy Friends who always act and think and feel exactly like their leader, wander on their Happy Way.  But once the Happy Hero faces off against the Cunning Villain, with nobody at his side except:  the alien with questionable loyalties; the attractive gunner who can’t get along with the equally attractive navigator; and the cranky sergeant who hates the villain only slightly more than she hates the hero; well, then the hero’s not always so Happy, and then you’ve got a story.  A story that keeps readers hooked, wondering how those conflicts will play out.

Book Review: Upcoming Releases

Book Review:  Upcoming Releases

Step into my time machine…  Welcome to my book review in reverse.  Instead of writing about a book that I’ve read recently, I’m going to be writing a book coming out later in 2013.

But wait! you say.  Online bookstores don’t permit readers to submit reviews prior to the book’s release date!  How can this be, and can we borrow your DeLorean?  Many avid readers have experienced the tension of waiting for a hotly anticipated release to hit the shelves.  In most cases, there’s something about the author, the series or the subject matter that has these readers excited.  I’d like to share a book I’m eagerly anticipating, and some of the reasons why.

Kitty Rocks the House, Carrie Vaughn’s eleventh Kitty Norville novel (not counting the short story collection) will be released in March 2013.  Kitty-a werewolf talk-radio host with a most improbable name-is the main character of this ongoing urban fantasy series.

One of the major strengths of Vaughn’s novels is that while each book contains a satisfying plot arc, the series is also building towards a major climax.  With each book, another piece of the grand design falls into place.  Vaughn has mastered building tension not only within the novel but throughout the entire series, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

Vaughn has also shown the growth of the main character throughout the series.  To be able to keep a character growing and evolving through so many books has been a major accomplishment.  The secondary cast are just as strong:  they are changing and growing as well.  Even minor characters from previous books show up again several books down the road, and it’s always a treat to recognize a familiar face from a past story.

The Kitty books are fast-moving and often amusing as Kitty tackles the challenge of being a werewolf and public figure, and are one of my first choices for light entertainment.

My greatest regret is that I don’t have a blue police box that I could take a few months into the future, go to the bookstore, come back and settle down with it this afternoon.


Waiting for the Muse?

The romantic image of a writer is often that of a solitary genius, communing with his muse and waiting for inspiration to strike.  When it does, he writes like a fiend, hammering out a fantastic story in a mad rush of glory.   And, yes, I’ve had the experience of waking in the middle of the night with a burning urge to write and a story that won’t let me be until I’ve recorded it in its entirety.  The fire of inspiration is an amazing experience, obsessive and surreal and fantastic.

But, like many of life’s other marvels, it’s not an everyday occurrence.

Anyone aspiring to be a professional writer cannot afford the time to wait for a muse to slap him upside the head and tell him to start writing her story already.  What does one do with one’s time while one waits?  If you’re anything like me, you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, fritter away your spare time with other hobbies, and then, on New Year’s, realize that the only thing you wrote all year was that one story from that one weekend where you couldn’t sleep because the muse had taken control of you.  That was the year I realized I wanted to write, professionally, and also the year when I realized that waiting around for inspiration was not the way to meet my goal.

If writing is a hobby for you (and that’s okay if it is-I know people who write, well, but prefer to direct their time and passion elsewhere much of the time) then it’s perfectly fine to wait until you’re really in the mood for some writing.  But if you hope to make a career of writing, to be a professional writer as opposed to writing solely for personal pleasure, then you can’t afford to wait for the muse to strike.   You need a body of work that you can shop around to publishers, agents, markets.   To create those stories, you need to make writing a habit.

Set aside time on a regular basis to write.  Prioritize writing-don’t cut short your writing time for socializing, housework, or other hobbies.  Create space and time in your life to write and use it.  If you’re stuck on one part of a story, try another part-or another story.  What you’re writing is not as important as the fact that you’re writing.  You’ll find out that the more you write, the easier it is to write; the less you write, the harder it is to get started or keep the momentum going.

Yes, inspiration has its place.  There are times when I’ve needed to set a story aside and spend some time thinking in order to get a grasp of a character’s motivations, to pick between two or more alternate plot twists (each of which would lead the story to a radically different ending), or to stop a short story from bloating itself into a novella by picking out what themes and ideas are the vitally important ones.  There are times I’ve needed to sleep on it, clear my mind by doing something other than writing, or hope to be ambushed by my muse in the shower or while making dinner.  Stories, after all, are powered by ideas.  But we cannot wait for an idea so strong that it wrests control from us; such ideas are too few and far between.  Instead, we need to make writing a habit, in order to create fertile ground for new ideas to be born.

Feeling Tense: Part 1

Feeling Tense

Part 1:  First Person

Lately I’ve been experimenting with telling short stories from different points of view and in different tenses than my usual preferred method, and wanted to share some of my perspectives.

First person past tense

“I felt the damp air of the cave close around me like a shroud.  Beside me, Tina gasped in surprise.”

First person feels…well, personal.  The reader is very quickly drawn into the main character’s world.  The intimacy of a viewpoint taking place from behind the main character’s eyes lets me easily imagine how it would feel to be that person.  On the down side, first person-past or present-means we have only one window onto this world.

It’s often awkward to switch between first person narrators, which is why most stories written in first person are told entirely from one character’s point of view.  This can prove a trap for the writer if s/he needs to convey something to the audience that the narrating character can’t possibly know.  If major events are happening out of the narrator’s knowledge, it can seem contrived or confusing when their effects are suddenly revealed.  There are also no opposing viewpoints to counter your narrator’s ideas and perceptions.  Make sure your first person narrator is interesting enough to deserve a whole story about “me, me, me!”

I admit, I love unreliable narrators.  That moment when as a reader, I pick up on little hints in the narrative suggesting that the narrator is mistaken/missing something/mentally unsound just give me the shivers.  Unreliable narrators are difficult to do well, though-making the distinctions between the narrator’s perception and the actual reality can feel heavy-handed if done too obviously, while if it’s done too subtly, many readers might miss it entirely.

First person present tense

My high school English teachers made a point of “curing” their students of the urge to write in first person present tense, for example:

“I run into the mouth of the cave.  My heart pounds and my lungs constrict.”

During my university years, first person present tense became the language I used while roleplaying, acting out my character’s words and actions literally as they happened.  I never would have thought to write a story in this tense.

Imagine my surprise when I opened The Hunger Games.

Today, trilogies from the Hunger Games to Fifty Shades of Grey are written with this sense of the immediate present.  In a novel like the Hunger Games, the present tense adds to the sense of urgency, creating the illusion that the narrator might die at any time-after all, this story is being related as it occurs, as opposed to a past-tense framing which would make the story sound like a tale told by the narrator after the fact.  If your story needs that urgency, first person present might work for you, even if it’s less common than past tense.