I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict. I prefer to avoid it in real life, but must heighten it in my fiction. My teachers at the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars said, “Give your characters more trouble!” Every good writing manual says, “Conflict is the heart of fiction.” Characters without conflict are nice people we might like to meet for lunch but wouldn’t compel us to turn pages when reading about them.
Lesson: Trouble comes in many forms. Imagine the possibilities!
Author Nancy Margulies invents troubled characters —“strangers” for whom she feels “compassion for their predicaments and gratitude for their honesty.”
As promised (see my post of November 25, 2013), Margulies has written a group of stories titled Sudden Friction. They comprise a chapter in her book of short shorts Animal Husband, where she dishes out all kinds of conflict. Her inspiration comes from one-word prompts—such as patient, bridge, final act—given by her writing group.
Here are a few characters: the six-year-old girl who can’t speak but conveys love to her mother: seven-year-old Millicent and Michael, conjoined twins separated at the age of four; Rose, a repentant arsonist; Ralph and JoyLee, whose marriage stinks; Francie, who tries to deconstruct her horrific childhood; Maggie and Peggy spilling secrets about their high school days; Marsha, who follows in the footsteps of a man on a beach; Grandma Nell, who believed a bracelet would protect her; a daughter hospitalized because her father commanded her to dive; a beat-up teenager who knocks on his aunt’s door.
Lesson: Let the reader be the judge, not the author.
The process of writing “whatever comes to mind without judging or editing” allows room for the compassion needed to conjure such misfortunate characters onto the page. Margulies sketches them vividly for us to witness. Will we like them or care about them? Maybe, maybe not. Do they even like or care about themselves? Not always. But most of them come to life after only a few paragraphs or pages. And many of them stick in the mind and heart after meeting.
These people could go anywhere—they’re fiction! Margulies takes them briefly into imagined circumstances and offers unexpected, wise, or open-ended resolutions. If we follow them beyond the stories, dig deeper into character, what would we discover? Some of her characters experience similar troubles and a few characters reappear. Margulies explores themes of abuse, abandonment, secrecy, confrontation, and acceptance. “Bad Daddy” show up in many guises, bad deeds go unpunished, and people hope for the best.
Lesson: Let there be rays of light in the darkness!
In Margulies’ stories, truth is mercurial and promises vanish, but otherwise bleak circumstances are gifted by her humor. Even the most despicable characters or ones that might in other hands beg for our pity, receive her comic relief. These people open their closets and shut their mouths. They threaten, murder, betray, repent, apologize, and forgive—not necessarily in that order. They witness magic; they look on the bright side. When a crystal horse come alive in Macy’s and quickly disappears, the clerk makes the best of being left with horseshit, not a magic horse. The crystal turds “are stunning,” after all.
Lesson: Explore a range of real emotions & find out what your characters need.
If we are loved and nourished, educated and accomplished, where’s the problem? If we are safe and have self-esteem, what is the real need? Is hatred, shame, terror, or longing the most powerful emotion to explore in fiction? Is sex or justice a more compelling goal for a character to seek? Each of us lives in our own skin, as do our characters, and any range or amount of troubles can be authentic and compelling. Any need can be intriguing. It all depends on our ability to write characters, and their ability to carry the story.
For my Read to Write Books workshops, I develop visuals to aid writers in their craft. Recently, I’ve been struggling with a protagonist who is, by her own admission, flawed and forlorn. I envisioned her narrative arc from feeling deadened inside to full of life, from grieving to gracious. But the problem is, her troubles aren’t interesting enough to keep the reader turning pages. I need to re-imagine her flaws, up the ante on her problems, heighten her losses and gains. Below, I’ve posted visuals I created for the Love & Emotions workshop. I’m re-visiting these schematics to give my protagonist more conflict and depth. And I thank Nancy Margulies for her example of compassionately imagining and presenting troubled characters—ones we may come to love or hate, but who eagerly claim the right to take up space on the page and in our hearts and minds.
May all your troubles be interesting!