Search This Blog

Internal Obstacles

For the month of December, I am reissuing a few of my favorite posts. This post was originally published on April 1, 2012.

Internal obstacles are supplied by the protagonist’s own mind. They are difficult to overcome because most characters lack objectivity and insight into their subconscious motivations. Rarely are characters self-aware enough to know their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers. Friends and foes hold up mirrors so the character can see himself better. Friends and foes reinforce these obstacles or help overcome them. All characters have emotional triggers and cause explosions by pulling other people’s emotional triggers.

Internal obstacles prevent a character from achieving his overall story or scene goal due to:

[ Internal resistance based on temperament to things that go against his natural inclinations.

[ Fears and phobias that keep him from going where he needs to go or taking the action he needs to take.

[ Desire for a personal currency that tempts him to do the wrong thing or sidelines his efforts.

[ Low self esteem, arrogance, or pride that keeps him from doing what needs to be done or makes him do things that are better left untried.

 [ Psychological factors, such as conditioning, belief systems, mental illness, anxiety, depression, and addiction keep a character from seeing the situation clearly or keep him from making healthy decisions about what needs to be done or said.

In Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, we explore six types of obstacles, and different types of responses, that help you craft believable conflict. We meet and warp sixteen characters and take them from cradle to grave. We will continue to explore the concepts from the Story Building Blocks Books in this blog. To learn more Story Building Blocks II is available in print and e-book format through Amazon.

Conflicts of The Hunger Games

Studies have suggested that groups of one-hundred or less are pretty good at self-regulation. There is no need for organized law enforcement in such a small community because the members all know each other and are able to keep tabs on one another. If one member commits an act that is detrimental to the group, the other 99 are willing and able to kick their butt. Even in a small community, there are rules that are agreed upon: a social contract.
It isn’t in the group’s best interest if they can’t trust one another. If someone is lying, stealing, killing, or lusting after someone else’s mate, conflict will ensue and the transgressor will be booted out. It’s hard to survive in the world alone, especially if you suck at hunting or gathering.

In groups larger than one-hundred, it is imperative to have some form of social contract with rules that are enforceable and enforced. The golden rule of most societies can be boiled down into the loose statement: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This isn’t effective if you’re visiting a community of purple people eaters.

Ancient Egyptians had a long list of “I will not ...” in their Husia. The Jews and Christians embraced commandments which included admonitions to not worship different gods or idols, to not lie or bear false witness against a neighbor, to not murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet their neighbor’s wife. Hinduism’s rules of dharma encouraged patience, forgiveness, self control, honesty, sanctity, control of senses, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness and absence of anger.

In your story world, your characters will be subject to the rules of their society's contract. If Dick breaks those rules, there will be consequences. He may fight to change the rules or reveal the dark side to one of his society’s rules.

It is especially important in Fantasy and Sci-Fi when writing about alternative worlds that you consider what the social contracts of that world demand of the people in it. In a historical novel, it is important to understand what the social contract of the time and place required. Morals and practices changed over time and with geography. Small desert tribes had a different social contract than societies in king-ruled Europe and those of hunter-gatherers in Africa.

It is considered a plot hole if someone applies modern sensibilities to the people from an actual historical setting. That doesn’t mean you can’t take some artistic license. However, having Victorian girls behave like the cast from Jersey Shore does not work for most readers, unless you portray an alternate universe in Sci Fi or add a Fantasy twist. Errors of this type will, at the very least, make the reader cringe. At worst, your book will go on the to-be-burned pile.

The terms of the social contract in Dick and Jane’s world will put pressure on them to behave in certain ways. The constraints can make whatever they have to do to solve the story problem difficult, if not impossible. If Dick and Jane violate the social contract in their world, they will pay a price for it.

If you are writing fantasy, come up with your own ten commandments for your fantasy world. How are they enforced? What are the consequences for breaking them? Are some more serious than others? Are some ignored on a routine basis without consequence?

In the Hunger Games, the citizens of District 12 aren’t supposed to hunt outside the fence, yet Gale and Katniss do so regularly. Because they transgress, Katniss is better prepared to survive the Hunger Games, so breaking the social contract benefited her. Katniss and Peeta break the contract again at the end of the first Hunger Games which sets up the conflict for the second book in the series.

Think about your story. Have you directly or indirectly explored social contracts in your story world? Have you put it to work for you in terms of complicating your characters’ lives? Have you utilized transgressions and punishments?

Writing in Three Dimensions

For the month of December, I a reposting a few of my favorite posts. This post was originally published October 28, 2011:

When drawing your characters, there is more to them than where you tell them to go and what you make them say. A well-drawn character is fully fleshed as well as believably motivated. That means understanding that there are three dimensions of your character to consider:

 1) The way Dick really is. What kind of character have you created? What are the facets of Dick’s authentic self? Dick may be patient, kind, and giving but his situation forces him to believe he is otherwise. Decide what kind of person you want your characters to be. This is not limited to your protagonist and antagonist. This encompasses all of your main characters. What are their core traits and personality types? Are they introverted, extraverted, intuitive, sensing, thinking, feeling, judging or perceptive? Are they impatient, funny, wise, silly?

 2) The way Dick sees himself. Characters rarely see themselves clearly. They have their little conceits, their insecurities, and fears. They sometimes act against character when presented with extraordinary circumstances. And that is the point of fiction: to push your character out of their comfort zone. They are sometimes forced to act against character in their encounters with other people to avoid something or gain something. Think about your characters. How do they see themselves in ways that are different from their authentic self? If Dick thinks he is timid, show us in scene that he can be brave. If Dick thinks he is usually right, show us in scene that he is quite wrong. If Dick sees himself as kind, show him being a little rude and have Jane call him on it. When someone calls attention to the fact that Dick is different than he thinks he is, you have sincere conflict.

 3) The way others see Dick. Dick is more than the sum of his fictional parts. He exists in the world. The people in his world may not know the authentic Dick. They may be somewhat aware of the way Dick sees himself. They will take their cues by what he says, what he does, what he supports, and what he protests without knowing the underlying driving force behind them. The fa├žade that Dick shows to the world may vary quite a bit from both his authentic self and his perceived self. If what Dick does or says is contrary to his authentic self, others will view him either positively or negatively based on that encounter. Unless they are an intimate friend or lover, they may never meet the authentic Dick. When other characters have a false impression of Dick, you have multiple layers of conflict. Their treatment of him may strike him at the perceived-self level and the authentic-self level. If Dick feels he is being judged unfairly, it offers an opportunity for him to  prove the error by revealing his true colors.

Peeling back the layers until you reveal Dick's authentic self to the world, and to himself, is a powerful tool to show character growth in your story.

Conflicts of Project Runway

For the month of December, I have decided to rerun a few of my favorite posts from years past. This post was originally published on September 30, 2011.

I have to thank Project Runway for inspiring this post. Design competition shows are filled with creative personalities, which make them a terrific cauldron for conflict.

At some point someone decided to wear clothing, possibly to ward off the elements, keep warm or protect their skin from insects and thorns. Then Jane decided that if Dick could wear a bear skin, she could wear a lynx skin. Then Sally decided that if the others could wear skins, she could wear leaves and flowers. I doubt seriously anyone ever wore fig leaves. They would chafe. Nevertheless, the insanity, once begun led to Paris Fashion Week, America’s Next Top Model, and What Not To Wear.

In the case of Project Runway, clothing designers are given a challenge such as make a garment out of party supplies or garden plants. They are given a specific amount of time (usually little), a budget (miniscule), and are told to “make it work.”

In putting your characters through their paces, having them do something that involves a limited amount of time, materials, or options adds tension. For example, Dick may need to make a bomb out of items from someone’s garage in under ten minutes.

How the characters in your story address a challenge will vary depending on their personality types, life experiences, and level of ingenuity. If Sally, Dick, and Jane were competing on Project Runway, it might go something like this:

Dick quickly assembles the pieces based on a firm understanding of how things fit together. He will construct something fabulous and wearable. He will be focused on the construction of the thing. He will be secure in his talents. He will not be worried about what the rest of the contestants are thinking or even what the judges might want. He knows he can rock it. He is probably completely unaware of what the others are doing, though he may turn his critical eye toward their efforts when he is done early.

Jane dithers and worries and procrastinates until the last minute. She will be worried about doing the right thing. She will keep an eye on what everyone else is doing and change her mind five times. She will worry about whether the rest of the contestants like her efforts and fear the judges will hate it. Because she has wasted time, she will have to throw something together in a panic at the very last moment and hope it passes muster.

Sally will toss everything into a pile and stir it around a bit, admire the color and the sheen. She will enjoy the artistry of the challenge. Nothing is too wild or crazy. She will put together something completely different from what was intended with hot glue. It will be impractical and the model will require double-stick tape to keep it in place while she walks down the runway. It would not even occur to Sally that the others could fail to appreciate her genius. Her methods will feel like fingernails on chalkboard to the other contestants.

The fourth contestant, Ted, might ponder, consider, and plan the details down to the final stitch before he ever picks up shears. When he finally starts, he will work the plan and end up with a finished product as the clock strikes done that is sturdy and workable. He will be confident that his attention to detail will pay off. Ted will be completely oblivious to everyone until he is done. He will disdain both Jane and Sally's garments and think they are idiots. Ted will be hurt when the judges tell him that his garment is too fussy and lacks imagination.

When assigning your character a challenge, think about how they usually go about doing something. What are their strengths? What are their usual methods? Then take all their crutches away. Force them to work at something they are uncomfortable with. Force them to work with people with opposite approaches. The result will be conflict.