Sunday, 3 May 2020

Character and conflict

I’ve just read the brilliant ‘Uninvited’ by Liz Jensen (thanks to Helen for the recommendation). The book is described as: ‘A masterclass in creepiness – as unsettling as Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro’.

The protagonist, Hesketh, has Aspergers and during the novel is thrown into situations of constant chaos and change, aspects of life he finds difficult to manage. Hesketh is at ease with Venn diagrams and fact, rather than the strange, murderous events which unfold throughout the novel with, seemingly, no logical basis.

The ‘Uninvited’ is a masterclass in how to put your character into conflict, and something I think we can all learn from.

A good story always has conflict at its core, either external (a difficult relationship or a physical obstacle) or internal (fear) and that conflict must have a satisfactory conclusion.

Ways to create conflict include:
  • Pitting your character against themselves
As in the ‘Uninvited’, part of the conflict is within the character and the character must face their fears or limitations.
  • Pitting your character against another person
In Harry Potter, the obstacle is the loss of his parents and his awful step-family. He must escape them to find his true nature.
  • Giving your character legal conflict
Many historical novels use women’s rights as an obstacle for conflict. How will your character succeed in an era where the law is against her?
  • Physically trapping your character
You might use a prison or an island - somewhere the character needs to escape from.
  • Using nature
In Jaws this is the man-eating shark. It might also be a tidal wave or a volcano erupting.
  • Using technology and science as conflict
Frankenstein is a good example of the destructive nature of science, as is Jurassic Park. Humans using science to create monsters.
  • The supernatural/unknown
The War of the Worlds is a good example of using the unknown to create conflict. Who are the alien species and why are they killing humans?

The most successful novels combine internal conflict and external conflict, as well as showing the cost of that conflict. In the Uninvited, the personal conflict is Hesketh’s battle with his Aspergers. The external conflict is him trying to find the reason why the human race is imploding, before it becomes apocalyptic.