DON’T TALK ABOUT IT—Drive the Flaw to the Surface for Great Fiction

Image via the movie 28 Days by Columbia Pictures.

Image via the movie 28 Days by Columbia Pictures.

Creating a core story problem is essential for any kind of fiction. Dimensional characters should have an inner want, a desire. The story problem is what shoves them out of that comfort zone and dares the character to try and maybe even fail.

There is a great quote in David Corbett’s The Art of Character:

One of Constantin Stanislavski’s key innovations was recognizing the central role of desire in our depiction of the human condition. The fundamental truth to characterization, he asserted, is that characters want something, and the deeper the want, the more compelling the drama. Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict.

It is not enough for a protagonist to sit and think about how she really needs to be a better team player, to have a home, to find love, to overcome addiction, to fit in.

SHOW IT

This can be easier when the plot problem is clearer. In murder mysteries, the goal is to find the killer. In thrillers? Locate the terrorists and stop the bomb. But what about the more existential stuff? This is where a lot of writers can get lost and end up navel-gazing instead of writing great fiction.

Man Against Himself

Your antagonist will often represent the shadow side of the nature your protagonist wants to overcome. If she is an alcoholic, then her old boozing best friend, her alcoholic family, or her heavy drinking coworkers are all antagonists (either scene antagonists or the core antagonist—Big Boss Troublemaker—responsible for the core story problem in need of resolution by Act III).

The BBT creates the story problem. In 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but a PROXY—a judge who’s job is to punish drunk drivers—sentences the protagonist Gwen Cummings to rehab (creating story problem). If Gwen doesn’t complete rehab (ticking clock), she goes to jail (stakes). Yet, though the judge creates the problem and the stakes, he’s not seen more than a couple times.

The real force of tension her being placed in a position where she must choose between the hard-partying boyfriend, Jasper (who represents ALCOHOLISM), who wants his girlfriend to go back to being fun (drinking) versus counselor Eddie Boone (represents SOBRIETY) who offers her the path to a sober life and authentic love. Drinking and Jasper allow her to numb the demons, whereas Boone forces her to face the real reason she drinks and challenges her to a sober life.

BUT…if Gwen hadn’t gotten busted for DUI (story problem), her demons could have remained happily trapped inside her as she partied with Jasper. The STORY PROBLEM forces the internal demons to the surface and grants Gwen opportunity to succeed or fail.

Without being sentences to rehab, Gwen could remain in pain, drinking the demons into silence.

Without being sentenced to rehab, Gwen could remain in pain, drinking the demons into silence.

In your current WIP? Is there a CORE STORY PROBLEM in need of resolution? Can your protagonist fail? What are the stakes? What are the consequences?

Man Against Nature

No, we are not interested in a 70,000 word book about bad weather. Nature is often the backdrop, the catalyst that drives the interior flaws to the surface for the character(s) to succeed or fail. Often Man Against Nature will also be a Man Against Man (The Perfect Storm) often coupled with Man Against Himself (Left for Dead–My Journey Home from Everest).

Man Against Society

Again, what issue are you (the writer) wanting to tackle? If it’s how blacks are treated in Southern white society of the 1960s? Create a protagonist caught in the middle of this dilemma (The Help), and an antagonist who represents all this protagonist is fighting against.

Celia Foote (antagonist) represents the repression the protagonist is battling.

Celia Foote (antagonist) represents the repression the protagonist is battling.

An aspiring (female) author, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, decides to write a book about the struggles of the African American women who rear and care for so many of the wealthy white children. This story forces the protagonist onto a battlefield where she will be forced to choose sides and answer these tough questions as stakes grow steadily higher.

In Footloose, the BBT was religious fundamentalism that forbade dancing, represented by the town preacher (and father of the love interest).

Writers can tackle major societal issues. It’s what we do and how we’ve been changing the world for centuries. Yet, to really connect with a reader, it’s a good idea to focus that issue in the manifestation of something tangible. Fascism is evil, yet hard to wrap our heads around. Ah, but fascism represented by Adolf Hitler? THAT places fascism in context and focuses our emotions and repulsion.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Did this clear up some of your struggles? Or are you more confused than ever? What are some of your favorite books or movies that addressed deep human issues, and how did they do it?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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  1. #1 by Helen Landalf on May 20, 2013 - 12:43 pm

    Excellent post! I often struggle with creating antagonists because my novels are usually of the “man (or in my case, girl) against himself variety.” The idea of a proxy really helps.

  2. #2 by Ensis on May 20, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    Insightful as always! (Commenting for the critique entry, but I love your articles)

  3. #3 by nicolegrabner on May 20, 2013 - 1:15 pm

    It doesn’t address a “deep” human issue, but I really love the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I love how the girl, Roberta, is a little star struck by what she imagines the life of Susan is like when she reads the advertisements in the paper. I sympathize with her character because I think there is always a moment in time when we all crave a little adventure even if we can’t comprehend what we are getting ourselves into.🙂

  4. #4 by Laurie Boris on May 20, 2013 - 1:47 pm

    This is difficult sometimes for writers of character-driven fiction. Now I want to ferret back through my WIP, making sure the stakes are high enough.

  5. #5 by cicampbell2013 on May 20, 2013 - 1:53 pm

    Very helpful post, as usual. Thank you.
    Christine
    cicampbellblog.wordpress.com

  6. #6 by Dennis Langley on May 20, 2013 - 2:01 pm

    I think this is an area many writers take for granted. Surface conflict is relatively easy. It’s the deeper conflict that takes more thought and work that makes a story great.

  7. #7 by Christa Wojo (@webbella) on May 20, 2013 - 2:57 pm

    Thanks so much for this little tidbit. It is overwhelming as a writer to try to encompass complicated societal struggles without boring the reader to death or losing your whole theme along the way. Wrapping it up in an antagonist seems so much easier and more fun. Will def try!

  8. #8 by Liv Rancourt on May 20, 2013 - 3:08 pm

    I’m trying my hand at a full-length contemporary romance, and am finding that developing interesting conflict is harder than it looks. I mean, if you’re writing paranormal and one of your characters is a vampire, you’ve automatically introduced the life-or-death factor. Your post does a nice job of articulating what I’m struggling with, and gives me more to think about. Hmm…

  9. #9 by Christopher on May 20, 2013 - 3:52 pm

    An excellent blog. Helped me to recognize and hit the target on my character’s deepest want and greatest fear: the lens from which he sees his world.

  10. #10 by Jess Witkins on May 20, 2013 - 3:56 pm

    Awesome examples! Especially The Help’s Hilly Holbrook. She’s a Stepford wife villain. All charm on the outside and nothing but piss and vinegar on the inside.

    Have you seen the movie Sinister yet? I just blogged about it because I thought it was such a great example of good plotting. You could add it to your list of examples you share!

    Hope you’re recuperating from the last conference you spoke at! Rest up and enjoy being back at home!

  11. #11 by rwwrites on May 20, 2013 - 4:11 pm

    Great article. When writers in my workshops struggle with conflict, I suggest that they ask themselves three basic questions: What does your main character want? What/who is getting in their way? and What do they do about it? Translated broadly, this refers to the protagonist’s goal, the obstacles and the action taken. Every story can be broken down to this formula and we have fun dissecting everything from Moby Dick to The Twilight series!
    Thanks for your insights.

  12. #12 by Solomon on May 20, 2013 - 4:38 pm

    I really liked this and I especially value posts like this that deal with craft.

    Thanks Kristen, sorry I missed you in Denver

  13. #13 by Shea Ford on May 20, 2013 - 5:36 pm

    I know I’m growing as a writer because everytime I read one of your craft posts, I think, “I really could have done with more (or less) of that in my first book, but I’ve pretty much already got it for my WIP.” Though you never cease to inspire me to delve deeper into these craft topics.😀

  14. #14 by Marilyn Hudson Tucker on May 20, 2013 - 5:48 pm

    great post, as always. Linked on FB for SARA and SAWG

  15. #15 by Iris Gonzalez on May 20, 2013 - 6:15 pm

    This was very helpful, thanks! I confess I was on the verge of writing my character into navel gazing, rather than using an external struggle to symbolize what needs o be addressed. Thanks!

  16. #16 by Cate Russell-Cole on May 20, 2013 - 9:15 pm

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    I am keeling over with the flu and a migraine, so I am going off on sick leave. In the meantime, here is another critical piece of the writing puzzle from Kristen Lamb. Cheers everyone and many thanks to Kristen for her inspirational blog posts.

  17. #17 by ontyrepassages on May 20, 2013 - 9:44 pm

    Thank you. In reading this post I concluded two things. First, I was pleased to recognize I have all of the above present in my story. Second, I realized that although what I needed was present, I wasn’t developing it as well as I should. After I’d finished reading your post I spent ten minutes writing an essay detailing how all this worked in my book. The essay isn’t like the final coat of paint, but it is like realizing I had the right color all along. This won’t change much, but because I’ve gained this conscious recognition means that I can tweak the writing here and there to better exploit the story’s strengths and bring it all into better focus for the reader.

  18. #18 by danielocceno on May 20, 2013 - 9:47 pm

    Say hello to Sandra for me. I have not seen the alcoholic on rehab. I am sure that it is a good story. I was going to mention a favorite movie. But I decided to look up her list. I like her action movies. The one movie (forgot title) where she came back after multiple stab wounds I used on a male bodyguard (not hero) for a future president.

    Looking at the list, I wish; I could afford DVD rentals.

    “he asserted, is that characters want something, and the deeper the want, the more compelling the drama.”

    Maybe it is the reason why murder detective stories, especially violent crimes, bring up the psychological profile of the killer desiring to be caught and is intentionally leaving clues.

    YES, yes, he can fail. Emotional trauma. It could ruin his life.

    Good topic.

  19. #19 by anniebabs on May 21, 2013 - 1:38 am

    This!

    I have never encountered the idea of a proxy, but it makes total sense.

    On a related note (kind of), I love when you use the term BBT. When I was in middle school I called this character the “Big Baddie” (not to be confused with the scene antagonists or “Mini Meanies”). Needless to say, I was a weird kid, and thought about these things quite often. I doubt my middle school self (or present self, for that matter) could explain these things as well as you do.

    I always love your posts, but this one is just what I needed to hear.

    Thank you!

  20. #20 by charmaineclancy on May 21, 2013 - 2:57 am

    I think it really clicked for me with the example from ‘The Help’. To see how the antagonists mirrors the inner demons of the protagonist, as with the inner battle of suppression being expressed outwardly through the medium of a representative of the society.

  21. #21 by worldsbeforethedoor on May 21, 2013 - 5:43 am

    Good article! I love a story that has a little of both, and I think many of them do. One of the things I love about Lord of the Rings is it has man vs. man: everyone trying to stop Sauron. Man vs. Nature: They are literally hiking to Mordor. Man vs. himself: Many of the characters struggle with the internal mental battle not just with the ring, but the consequences of their own actions. It’s a hard thing to pull off, but worth it if you can apply yourself.
    Thank you also for pointing out the need for an antagonist in every scene. Very helpful!

  22. #22 by Deb Scarfo on May 21, 2013 - 7:22 am

    Great post today, Kristen! As always, your advice is on the spot, and so very helpful! You do realize you now have a standing role in my novel’s acknowlegements section! But I’m sure it isn’t the first time for you! Thanks again! Looking forward to your next post!

  23. #23 by gretchenwing on May 21, 2013 - 10:29 am

    SIgh. Why are you always making me rethink my scenes, Kristen? But yeah, I love you for it. By the way, in The Help, it’s not Celia Foote who’s the antagonist, right? She’s just another victim of The System. The real antagonist is Whatshername, the rich witch whose former boyfriend Celia married.

  24. #24 by julitownsend on May 21, 2013 - 2:09 pm

    Very informative, and it always makes me feel good when I realise I’ve done the right thing in my novels. I was once very worried about my story because I didn’t feel it had an antagonist, and yet, people got ‘into’ it quickly and wanted to read on. Then someone pointed out to me that ‘Life’ was the antagonist. He was right,

  25. #25 by dogleadermysteries on May 21, 2013 - 2:12 pm

    Great truth in this post. I never can keep reading fiction, no matter how high the action or “stakes” if the character is not DRIVEN to want his or her goal. Even villains need to want something, and not just be bad to be bad.

    Adding your a link to your post now.

  26. #26 by MarcelleLiemant on May 21, 2013 - 6:11 pm

    This is so difficult to get right. I really need to focus on this. Thanks!

  27. #27 by Athena Brady on May 21, 2013 - 7:41 pm

    Hi Kristen, here you are again making it all sound so easy. I love the fact that you make me think, really think that you challenge us to be the best we can. I find your post roll around in my head long after I have read them. now some of the stuff is beginning to stick… thanks.

  28. #28 by cicampbell2013 on May 21, 2013 - 7:54 pm

    With me too. I go on thinking about what you’ve said for ages and, yes, Athena, it begins to stick! So helpful.
    Christine
    cicampbellblog.wordpress.com

  29. #29 by billgncs on May 22, 2013 - 2:34 am

    I picked up “the hunger games” and started to read it, and the plot is rife with conflict and tension – and I realized this is what you are talking about.

  30. #30 by Barbara Rae Robinson on May 28, 2013 - 12:33 pm

    Excellent post. And I just ordered The Art of Character. I hadn’t heard about that one yet.

    Barb

  31. #31 by Willamette Food Adventures on May 30, 2013 - 9:40 pm

    Excellent points as usual!

    The judge in 28 Days is never shown and Eddie Boone is a fellow addict in rehab. The counselor is Cornell played by Steve Buscemi (which was brillent against the mold casting). The movie is an excellent example of your points.

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