WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON IN THEIR HEAD?
We all know that without fictional conflict you haven’t got any kind of real story, just characters doing boring, everyday things with nothing whatsoever to inhibit them. Pretty good reading if you want a book at bedtime that will help send you to sleep quickly, but not much cop for anything else.
So what’s the best way to stir things up a bit?
A fight isn’t always the answer
Obviously, conflict equals a struggle of some kind. And while this at times can quite literally mean hand-to-hand combat between hero and villain, inner conflict can work equally well. More often than not, even a thriller or action story will encompass a good degree of both.
Seeing as how I know them so well, let’s use a few of my own characters as examples.
Take Steve Ryan, a central figure featured in the novel In the Long Run. Sent from England to South Africa to play a backseat yet vital role in the killing of a world famous American entertainer, the fervently anti-apartheid Ryan justifies his actions by allowing himself to be convinced that his victim is a money-grabbing racist whose lone death will ultimately save countless other lives. But when he arrives in Durban and meets his intended victim face-to-face, Ryan quickly realises that the man is nothing of the sort. His every instinct cries out for him to cut and run back to England. But Ryan is deeply involved with very violent people.
Then raise the stakes even more
Our man’s in a tight spot all right. Even at this late stage though, given a large slice of luck, Ryan might still just be able to escape back to England before his change of heart is discovered. But by this time he has also become very emotionally involved with a South African girl who knows nothing about the true reason for his visit. If he does not carry out his part in the proposed killing of the American, his oppressors threaten to kill the girl die instead . It is a threat that they appear all too willing and capable of carrying out. Six thousand miles away from the safety and familiarity of his home, Ryan’s mental anguish over what to do next increases with every hour that passes.
Which way to jump?
During the early chapters of another novel, Buried Pasts, Stafford’s badly crippled Lancaster bomber has very little chance of making any kind of safe landing back at base. But he is forced to attempt this hazardous landing anyway for the sake of his severely injured rear gunner, who is unconscious and now strapped securely into a stretcher.
In order to minimise the danger for others, once safely over home territory Stafford orders the remaining members of his crew to bale out. But the bomb aimer, his best friend Jimmy, argues. Jimmy is uneasy about jumping, and this, coupled with his powerful sense of loyalty to Stafford, makes him demand to be allowed to stay on board and take his chances with his friend and the injured gunner.
The wrong choice?
One half of Stafford yearns to allow his friend this choice, but he simply cannot bring himself to agree. The severely damaged condition of the plane, coupled with a premonition of impending disaster that won’t stop eating away at him, is too much to ignore. Hating himself for doing so, he is eventually forced to threaten Jimmy with a court martial if his friend refuses the order. A reluctant Jimmy finally jumps, setting off a chain of events that will torment Stafford for years to come.
Also in Buried Pasts, we have Siggi, who has suffered terrifying first hand experiences of sheltering underground during the numerous bombing raids on Berlin during WWII. Years later she once again finds herself trapped deep under ground, this time in the darkness of an abandoned iron ore mine. A combination of claustrophobia and painful memories threatens to overcome her completely. But she cannot allow this to happen. Trapped with Siggi is her is her eight year-old niece who she loves dearly. For the little girl’s sake she must somehow smother her own fears and present a confident front. As time passes and their hopes of being rescued diminish, this inner struggle threatens to engulf Siggi completely.
The nightmare returns
Siggi’s predicament is a useful ploy to remember. By establishing fairly early on in a story that one of your leading characters has a secret fear or weakness (via a dramatic scene if possible), readers will empathise with your character when he or she is forced to confront this same fear once again much later on. The tension and drama that an author is able to create out of such a situation can be very powerful indeed.