Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writing the Novel: Intertwining Plot, Conflict, and the Tapestry of Character Development

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Novels are complex creatures. They involve a complex weave of characters and events which must still fascinate the reader from the first page to last.

The key to unlocking your novel lies in integrating the personal conflicts of each individual character with the central conflict of the whole novel.  The goal is to help the reader sympathize with your characters as they struggle not only to "solve" the core problem of the novel, but also as they try to face the dangerous facts of their own lives.
(more examples coming soon!)

The Central Conflict Drives the Story Forward
From the very first page, your novel should have a question that needs to be answered.  It should be a relatively simple question - something along the lines of "Will Darth Vader and Emporer Palpatine Rule the Galaxy?" or "Will the Bennet sisters find suitable husbands?"  The question should be simple because the you want the reader to know what your novel is about, and you want the hints of this central conflict to appear on page one of the novel - ideally, somewhere in the first paragraph, if not in the first sentence.

Click for more details on Crafting Your Novel's Central Conflict (coming soon!)

The Novel: It's About People
One mistake that many beginning novelists make - especially writers in genres like science fiction and fantasy - is to make the entire novel about the central conflict.  However, novels themselves are not about that one main conflict - that main conflict is only present in order to provide unity and tension to the work. The novel itself is about people.  It's about the characters inhabiting your pages and their responses to that central conflict.  For a novel to be truly interesting, it must be peopled by fascinating characters, the kind of people who struggle to succeed in their everyday lives, the kind of people who will not have easy answers to the central conflict of your story.  And each one of your characters will face his or her own personal challenges which appear unrelated to the main conflict of the story itself.

Naturally, these conflicts should be deeply personal.  They should be the kind of conflicts that afflict ordinary people every day.  For example, the Hero of the Galaxy will still have trouble getting her mother to agree to a nursing home.  To make these conflicts especially real, use very specific details.  Let us smell the bedpan odors of the mother's room and here the insistent buzzing of the heroe's "Time to Save the Universe" pager.

These personal conflicts should not have easy answers - if they did, they wouldn't be plaguing your protagonists through the whole course of their lives.  Just because you own a transtellar frigate with photon deathpedoes doesn't mean your mother cares what you think about nursing homes.  The uncertainty in the outcome helps build the tension to hold the reader's attention.

Click to learn about Personal versus Central Conflicts (coming soon!)

The Changing Situation Leads to Changes in Perspective and Outlook
As your novel progresses, your main characters will learn new details about themselves and the world around them.  As this happens, their personalities and perspectives must change in order to keep up.  This is a critical component of good storytelling - just as the novel is more about the characters than it is about the single conflict, a story about characters must be a story about change over time.  We expect people to grow and evolve as they face new experiences - this is how we ourselves discover what it means to be human in the challenging and ever-shifting environment called life.

A Novel Chronicles the Changing Personalities and Relationships of Your Characters
These personal shifts in perspective lead to major shifts in the relationships between your characters.  Over time, it's natural that your main characters will find new friends and discover new enemies - often, characters who appeared as a friend or an enemy at first glance will switch to the other side based on their own views of the conflict.

Ideally, we need to see the strain on character relationships from the very first page.  The central conflict of your novel will hold a different meaning for each of your characters.  For some characters, the "problem" isn't a problem at all.  They may like things just the way they are.  Other characters - usually your protagonists - will find this central conflict unbearable.  They must "fix" the situation in order to survive.  And then there are the antagonists, your "evil-doers" who are inflicting the core problem for their own benefit.

As the characters change their views, their relationships with one another will also change.  If we examine Harry Potter's interactions with Snape and the Dursleys, for example, we see that the antagonists of The Sorcerer's Stone are seen as allies - whether willing or unwilling - by the time we reach The Deathly Hallows.

Click to see how Relationships Evolve Between Fictional Characters.  (coming soon!)

This is the point where you want the deeply personal conflicts to play a role in the resolution of the single overriding conflict.  It isn't enough that a character "fixes" the world - that character's personal problems should play a role in how he or she fixes the world.

Click to see how Personal Conflicts Affect the Main Conflict.  (coming soon!)

12Writing: Write Your Inspiration


Nonoy of Cebu said...

I love this article.

I always wanted to write a novel but I just don't have the time. Many ideas and titles have already come up but I just can't materialize because I am now engaging myself in blogging.

It is very true that characters is the crucial point when writing a novel. When you write a novel, you got to love your characters. One technique is to spend time with the characters by scribbling notes in a notebook. Spend a lot of time with them, especially the main character. Your character got to have his/her favorite food, favorite color, favorite shirt his/her mom gave him/her on his/her birthday.

When you start loving your characters, the rest of the story in the novel comes easier, and will run smoothly.

Ryan Edel said...

Thanks, Nonoy! Glad to hear you liked the article. Your suggestion to spend time with the characters is right on - the best way to really "get in their heads," so-to-speak, is to scribble away as often as you can. Often, this unstructured can reveal new facets of your characters, and this can give you some fresh directions to take your writing.


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