I hate conflict, so I wasn’t surprised when I had trouble putting my characters into difficult situations. When I set out to write a novel, I wanted to create a town filled with people that I loved. Couldn’t I write a story about a bunch of people who cared about each other? Isn’t the world filled with enough trouble as it is? Don’t we read to escape stress? Needless to say, my first draft was light on conflict (and, unfortunately, on tension and plot). So when I saw a writing workshop titled Conflict For The Conflict Averse, taught by the fearless writer Michelle Hoover, I signed right up.
I had the pleasure of asking Michelle some questions about conflict in the novel. Here is what she had to say.
Does conflict play a role in the novel, other than plot?
I don’t really see a difference between the two. If plot is about pitting your character’s desires against his/her fears and flaws, and the antagonists that embody these things, then conflict is what naturally evolves. There are some short stories that can survive without much conflict. They usually become set pieces or slices-of-life (and are often rejected as such), but novels cover a much larger span of time or even a short span of time in a much larger chunk of pages. You need your characters moving forward to cover that distance. For us to want to follow that character, to become engaged, those movements can’t be haphazard and flighty, at least not entirely. But you also need those fears and antagonists to slow your character down and to make their journey matter. That’s conflict and plot at the same time.
When you are beginning a new novel, does the conflict usually come first?
I always begin with character. I can’t imagine not doing so. And I do a lot of pre-writing work to understand my characters as best I can. Otherwise the writer is in danger of creating paper cutouts on the page instead of people. You find a character who excites and puzzles and intrigues you, and then you follow that character as they step into the greatest test of their lives. There’s little reason to write about a time in a character’s life that doesn’t exhibit the character at his or her rawest, his or her most honest, the moment in time when the character reveals herself to us in the purest—if even the most difficult to watch—form. I often find myself repeating Flannery O’Connor’s idea: Your story is finished when the mystery of your character has been revealed. Without that revelation, you don’t have much of a story, let alone a novel. You want to offer your readers a glimpse of your character’s humanity, not simply more disguises, unless the disguise is really what your character is about. That’s a different kind of revelation for your reader.
Have you ever had to put your characters through something that you didn’t want to?
My characters usually lead me to their disasters and trials. If you’re really being true to your characters as individuals, and being true to their foibles and flaws, then they’ll probably get themselves into trouble intellectually, emotionally, or physically—sometimes all at once. I find that writers usually protect their characters more than necessary, and in protecting them they don’t allow them to be truly human, and therefore don’t allow them to truly be. Writers tend to be observers. We arrange things to create meaning. We aren’t too good at putting a toe in the water. But people do. More often they throw themselves in without even thinking. If you let go of yourself and your own ego as you write, let go of whatever ideas you want to prove or whatever prettiness you want to be admired for, then you’ll be able to slip into the skin of your character. Your character will take you where he/she needs to go to. And if the character is living and breathing, he/she will run up against others who are living and breathing, and that will lead you naturally to conflict.
Have you ever regretted putting your characters into a particular conflict?
Not really. I so often work with repressed or reticent characters. I find them fascinating, and they’re also the kind of people I grew up with, the kind that make the most sense to me. But when I started my second novel, Bottomland, I got tired of my tight-lipped Midwesterners. So I allowed the characters to do whatever they wanted, with no societal pressures to make them behave. I wanted to see who they really were, what they were hiding. And what they were hiding was kind of hilarious. Here you had a family isolated on their own farm, suffering from the anti-German sentiment of the Great War and afterwards, and suffering from each other and their own maddening habits, fears, and losses. And so what happened? They just started slapping each other. They’d get in a fit and slap each other. It’s what they really wanted to do: to strike out, to be seen, to matter, to find release. Of course, in revising the book, those actions went underground. I don’t think there’s a single slap left. But that’s the undercurrent. I had fun finding it. In doing so, I also discovered the desperate way they loved each other, the desperate dependencies they had on each other. It’s a scary thing to love and depend on another person, and so we’ll often try to protect ourselves, which usually turns into anger or jealousy or sorrow or worse. It’s a mess. Let your characters get messy. Follow their longings and fears truthfully. I don’t think you can find a character’s happiness unless you discover their sadness, not in a deep and real sense. I really don’t.
What advice do you give to writers who avoid conflict?
I think the majority of writers are conflict-avoiders. I myself am a huge conflict avoider. I would far prefer to pretend that everyone is getting along rather than raise my voice, as if by pretending I could make it happen. But of course it doesn’t. Writers tend to be introverts. We prefer to keep our heads between pages. Or to stand back and watch life in all its strangeness, sadness, and humor, and be the ones to chronicle that. So we also have a hard time forcing our characters into conflict. But I think many writers have the wrong idea when it comes to the word “conflict.” It implies an all-out battle to them, full of fists and swearing and physical pain (and slapping). But that’s just the easy kind of conflict. The basest kind.
In The Scene Book, Sandra Scolfield tries to rectify this problem by using the word “negotiation” instead of “conflict.” Most of the time, your characters are trying to negotiate some compromise between their divergent desires or even between their differing visions behind similar desires. Take for instance The Great Gatsby. Gatsby and Daisy have the same desire—they want to be together. So what could possibly go wrong? How could they have conflict? Well plenty goes wrong, because Fitzgerald is paying attention to the nuances of human desire. Gatsby wants Daisy to forget her past, to claim that she never loved her husband. That’s the only way he can assure himself that she truly loves him and that his past mistakes can be forgotten. His flaws and fears are blocking him. But Daisy can’t forget the past. She can’t understand why he’d need her to do so. And she’s not willing to lie. She simply wants to move forward, into the future. That’s their conflict. Once Daisy and Gatsby have found each other, the majority of their scenes are about negotiating these different visions of love. These negotiations have to do with the subtleties of their power dynamics as well as the social customs of the time, money, sense of duty, and class. Again, it’s messy. It’s human.
We might like to think we’re better than this, but we aren’t. And we certainly don’t like to read about perfect characters with perfectly balanced psyches and all their desires met, all their striving over, sitting prettily on a beach chair with nice teeth and a nicer tan. Readers distrust that kind of thing. We expect that person to be deluded or psychotic or waiting for a fall. We’ve had troubles. So why don’t they?
Michelle Hoover is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University and teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. She is a 2014 NEA Fellow and has been a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and a winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Her second novel BOTTOMLAND will be published by Grove Press on March 1, 2016. For more information about Michelle and her books, please visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.