I know that this is an unpopular opinion. Truthfully, there are countless people who are smarter and more successful than I am, who believe the exact opposite. Up until a few days ago, I believed that of all the elements of a story the concept of character was, by far, the most integral element of a narrative. I am not saying that it is unimportant, but rather the idea of conflict has more power in creating a compelling narrative. It drives tension, creates depth, and is pervasive in every element of skilled storytelling. To kick off this discussion, I want to present my view of character.
Character: The Lens of the Reader
Characters are representations of people who have a role in a story. I argue that in order to qualify as a character, the person depicted actually has to engage in some sort of activity relevant to the Point of View or plot. Technically, all of the people in a crowd are characters, but if your story is told from the POV of a lead singer, the crowd at a concert has more in common with the setting than a main character. I believe the literary term for these types of characters is one-dimensional, though I could be wrong about that. By narrowing the focus only to characters with some sort of agency, there are two types remaining. The stronger of the two uses conflict to achieve the results.
Flat or 2-Dimensional Characters
When writers first press the keys and start the next bestseller, almost every single character they write is flat whether they intend for them to be or not. I know that I struggled with this when I first started, and the feedback on my early work was rough. A flat character is a term to describe a blank slate. They have no real personality, or their entire life seems to revolve around the story.
To get a better idea on this, think of some of your goals. We often have several things that we want to achieve but can’t for some reason or another. My ultimate dream is to make a living as a novelist; if I were a flat character, that single drive would dominate my entire life. Instead, it is one of many different motivations, some of which include finishing this post, making sure my one-year-old doesn’t break the candle he is trying to grab from the table, getting my transcripts over to my Master’s program, and feeling the need for some coffee or a nap.
Though I can work on most of the motivations without much trouble, if I decided to take a nap, wouldn’t that be counterproductive to my larger goal of being a novelist? Wouldn’t that waste a few hours that could have been better spent? Though this is only a small example, it demonstrates that real people often make choices that do not logically progress their goals or development. This conflict is the difference between a real person and fiction. When it comes to writing, good narratives reflect this truth.
Characters with Depth
The little reflections are the difference between writing a flat or deep character. Readers enjoy characters that a seem like real people. Ultimately, this doesn’t come from a snarky or witty character, but by presenting multiple layers that are often in conflict with each other. Which is more intriguing, an cold assassin doing their job or a slave being forced to kill for his master? In my opinion, the conflict in the latter example provides much more depth than the traditional rogue stereotype.
In addition, characters with depth often change as a direct result of their actions and the conflict surrounding him. By demonstrating how conflict affects their arc, a writer develops either positive or negative personal growth. A great example of this is Jamie Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. In the first couple of books, Jamie is depicted as an incestuous villain who tries to murder a child. By book 5, Martin illustrates the conflict he endured to protect others even though it meant betray his oaths. That conflict created the depth his character needed and resulted in Jamie Lannister being one of my all-time favorite characters.
Setting: The Mold Which Forges Your Story
Like I said at the beginning, I don’t believe that character is unimportant. I just think that it isn’t the MOST important element of the story. Of the major elements, conflict still improves how they function within a narrative. Perhaps, a subtle example of this is in the setting.
The setting refers to the time and place of your story. In order to suspend your reader’s disbelief, the setting has to be fully realized. This includes having strong descriptions that elicit a mental image as well as ensuring the consistency to cultural norms of the region and time. Often, the setting determines the plot of your story and the characters who fulfill it. It is pretty hard to write a WWII novel, if you have it set in the 1700’s.
Poor use of setting is seen when the author doesn’t make the effort to place the characters anywhere other than the page. They may say that it is set in modern day New York, but without consistent reminders, the background fades to white until the readers have no sense of anything other than the characters. If the author suddenly presents an important piece of information, but the readers didn’t track where it came from, the result is confusion. If this happens too often, the reader will give up on your book.
Let’s say last the reader knew the main character had stepped into the lobby of a skyscraper. Bad guys had surrounded him, and he must fight his way up to the top floor. The setting, a massive skyscraper, adds conflict to the story because you can assume he will have to fight at each floor.
A poor fight scene might only focus on the actions of the characters. At first your protagonist might do some cool punches and maybe a roundhouse kick. They grab a fire extinguisher from the wall and blast some baddies in the face. Next, they squeeze into the elevator just as the doors close and listen to some soft jazz on their ascent.
The lack of setting detail, even in such a simplified example, makes the passage a bit disorientating. Was the fire extinguisher next to the door? Also, did they have to run across the lobby to get to the henchman? Maybe, the bad guys were standing next to the entrance. Also, was this like three guys or a room filled with people? How the hell did the hero get to the elevator, and shouldn’t it take longer for it to get to the ground floor? When a reader gets lost in a story, it often has to do with the lack of setting detail.
A good setting provides specific concrete details throughout the narrative, not just when they are important to the conflict at hand. In addition, these details are influenced by the character that is perceiving them. For example, a parent might walk into a restaurant and notice all the chairs are barstools and the tables are higher than normal. A single guy might focus on the attractive guy or gal pouring drinks behind the bar. Though the setting is the same, the conflict in each molds the characters decisions and ultimately the plot.
Plot: The Events Within a Story
The two biggest camps in this argument usually result between the stances of character vs. plot. For many, they might believe conflict is plot, but it is not. As I have already demonstrated, conflict pervades every aspect of a story, not simply the sequence of events.
The plot of a story is a term used to describe the events that take place. This is such a broad term that it becomes difficult to pinpoint where the plot stops and where other categories start. Is the character’s quest for vengeance part of the character or is that the plot? Is overthrowing an oppressive regime a result of the plot or a reaction to the setting? In my opinion, both of these examples are conflicts. When most people talk about plot, they really mean one of two things, pacing or twists.
Pacing: The Rhythm of a Narrative
A story often follows familiar beats. In middle school, I remember one of my teachers describing story structure as exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action. This description is too simplified to be accurate. Really, stories consist of several, small, rising actions that progressively culminate into a single massive event that encompasses everything. How a writer handles these little rising and fallings plots determines the pacing of their book.
Thrillers are often written at a breakneck pace the pulls the reader from the first page to last. This is achieved through ensuring that each rising action complicates something else so that the characters maintain a sense of urgency until the very end. Small tricks, like cliff hangers, help add to the sense of urgency. The problem with this method arises when the reader feel like the story never gives them any answers. Lost is an example of a show that did a great job of raising questions, but dropped the ball when it came to answering them. The pace that they maintained eventually exhausted the audience because they never had the time to savor the characters’ victories. This is one of the primary reasons why most thrillers have around a 60,000 word count.
Epic fantasies are notorious for their massive size. Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance has over 400,000 words. This is more than all three Hunger Games books, as well as the first Harry Potter book, combined. With such a long work, it becomes necessary to give the reader closure throughout the narrative. This allows them to be satisfied that the entire novel will be worth the effort and allows them to have resting points along the way. This creates a narrative cycle called the scene/sequel format (I would talk about it here, but this post is getting really long. I’ll come back to it in the future; in the meantime check out this post by Randy Ingermanson. It’s an awesome read and well worth the trouble).
Poor Pacing = Deathly Slow or Unbelievably Fast
A poorly paced book will either push the characters in a direction too quickly (movies based on books do this often), or it will drag for so long that you get bored and put the novel down without finishing it. There is no right answer for this, and it takes practice to know when to skimp on the details and when to elaborate. Aside from flat characters, pacing problems are incredibly common with newer writers.
Twists: Awesome or Cliche?
From an auidence’s viewpoint, a unexpected, yet inevitable, twist at the end of the story can make it seem like a masterpiece. When delivered, twists often siginfy that the entire plot worked flawlessly, and are a good thing. When you can guess the killer from the 9th page, not so much.
A good plot doesn’t need a twist. It needs to be satisfying. Awesome plots introduce powerful conflicts that hook the reader into finding the answer and deliver that answer like an emotional sucker punch to the teeth. Ultimately, the conflicts inside a story is far more important than a twist or anything else inside a narrative.
In Summary: Conflict is King
While this post is based on my opinions, I respect the fact that you have your own. My words shouldn’t change how anyone approaches writing, because what works for me might not work for you. If you are having trouble with one of these areas, it might considering looking into the conflict (or lack thereof) tied to the areas in question. Make everything clash like a troll on Facebook. Conflict is the force that creates depth and compels the reader to turn the page. Since it is applied to all other major forms, I believe conflict is the most important element within a narrative.
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