Thursday, February 18, 2010

Monsters and Mayhem, Part 4 of 6

What can I say, I'm in a devilish frame of mind right now. I'm reading Joe Hill's novel Horns, I'm writing about the devil (one version of her, anyway) for my Monsters & Mayhem class at Grub Street, and I'm re-listening to Mur Lafferty's Heaven series (note that Season Two is called "Hell"). Hanya protected me as I was growing up, and now her mask protects my daughter (and scares visitors), so I thought I'd start off this post with her image.

The fourth class in the M&M series was taught solely by Sue Williams and was subtitled, Plot is Conflict. If you liked my Character is plot post from last year -- and I know a lot of you did --you should have fun with this.

Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.

Those of you who've read (or listened to) Stephen King's On Writing know that he thinks that "plot" is slippery and untrustworthy, and that he prefers situational storylines. Sue, however, cleverly pointed out that all of the "what-if" situations presented in King's book are in fact CONFLICTS:
  • What if vampires invaded a small New England town?
  • What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone? (Etc.)
It all loops back to the theory of plot-as-character, because if the reader doesn't care about the people in those small New England and remote Nevada towns, s/he's not going to care about all the exciting things that might happen there. But it's not character alone. Observe:
  • What if there was a writer who went to a small New England town, hoping to face down his childhood fears?
  • What if there was a boy who learned a lot about God and loss when his family got trapped in a remote Nevada town?
That's far less interesting, isn't it?

So. How do you find this conflict if, starting out, you only have your character? Read that short definition of plot again: Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires. In order to really know your character's fears or desires, you have to know your character. More than that. You have to love your character.

From Sue's class handout:

You must love your characters, even if they are hell beasts. See things from their point of view, even if it's broken and dark. This way you will learn what they truly care about.

Tomorrow we'll talk more about loving your characters... especially the bad ones.

REACTIONS? Tell me your theories about plot, character, and conflict.


  1. Absolutely. I can't get into any story no matter how well written or presented if I don't like/sympathize with at least one character involved.

    They can be a despicable villian but I have to at least like them somewhat-this was my biggest problem with Watchmen, for whatever reason I didn't really like any of them.

    Then a little closer to Hanya, I like every character in Kurosawa's SANJURO (for what they are) just my two bits.

  2. Amen. I love this post. I love ambiguous evil, and questionable heroism.

    Or maybe I just subscribe to the redeemable villain theory of romance-writing...