The trouble with characters

When you’re writing a novel,

the novel becomes a magnet for everything that happens in your life.

-John Dufresne

Last week I taught a class on a book called The DNA of Relationships by Gary Smalley (or as Punk calls him, “Smallballs”).
Establishing effective communication  was the seminar topic. Solving relationship dilemmas. But novelists don’t want to solve problems. We want to create them. We want to push our characters to the breaking point, force them into seemingly unsolvable disasters. We don’t want them figuring things out or patching things up too soon.
Smallballs probably never anticipated his book would be used to create conflict. But it turns out that’s where the gold is. His lists of fears, wants, and reactions are excellent references for writing conflict into novels. Check out the Core Fears Test.
Another good resource is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While the “Core Fears” list is longer and specific to relationships, Maslow can help you cover the basics, like air, shelter, employment.

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Back to Smalls.
We all want something from our relationships– love, acceptance, validation, success, attention, satisfaction, honor… The list is long, but can basically be boiled down to two categories: connection and control.
What does your character want?
We all fear something. Usually the fear is the opposite of the want. If I want to succeed, I fear failure. If I want attention, I fear being ignored.
Depending on the fear, your character will feel either a loss of control or a loss of connection.
These depend on your character’s personality. Does she cry, yell, pout? Does he clam up, throw things, threaten?
Stiffy and Prissy are in a committed relationship. Stiffy wants to hump, but Prissy wants to go out on a date. Stiffy feels rejected and unloved, but says nothing. The silent treatment makes Prissy feel ignored and  neglected. She gets angry and yells. Stiffy feels belittled. His manhood threatened, he retreats to his doghouse. Prissy feels abandoned and throws her collar across the room.
Each one has hurts, wants, and fears. When those buttons get pushed, each reaction escalates the conflict. No one wins. No one is happy.
The stuff that makes life hard makes stories great.
When two of your characters are really going at it, or they should be but you’re struggling to write a killer knock-down-drag-out fight scene, spend some time exploring.  What do they want? What are they afraid of? How do they react when their buttons get pushed?
Stiffy and Prissy work things out in the end, but not until after Stiffy goes hiney-sniffing down the street and realizes Prissy is his soulmate after all. Prissy wants to trust him again, but finds it hard to forgive. Eventually she admits her anger is what drove him to it. She throws Stiffy a bone. They lick and make up, doggie style.

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