Friday, May 28, 2010

Conflict! FIGHT!

I'm currently reading THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville, and is full of internal conflict, told in first person. This style lends itself to the traditional Banvilleian style of page-long paragraphs and ruminations on the beauty of bird eggs, but hidden in that fabric is the over-arching metaphors of internal conflict that turn the screws of tension so subtly, you become entranced in the plot without even meaning to be.
I thought it might be fun to spend a little bit of time talking about some aspects of story-telling, as opposed to my other bromides which go on and on without ever reaching any sort of denouement.  So, today I am going to follow after one of my blogging idols, Anne Mini, and talk about Conflict!  I know, intrepid readers, we are sailing into some frothy, jaunting waves for sure!  An actual discussion on craft?!  Cry the shipmates from the crow's nest of my Blog/Galleon, Dear God, Captian Ken!  Are you trying to capsize the old girl?

"No!" says I in a particularly jaunty pirate accent, "I am bringing her into her own!  Now wrack the garders, spool the tanks, swab the poop-deck, and hard to starboard!  We are venturing into forbidden lands!"

"But captain," says my first-mate, "think about the the families who may be torn asunder by such an ill-advised romp into such tremulous tides!"

"Ar," says I, "that I have Good Mister Common-Sense, that I have.  And after a long discussion within meself, I came to the conclusion that I do not care about you!  Yes, 'tis true!  For you are nothing more than a fictional construct of ubiquitous characters which I have created specifically for the purpose of spooling tanks, and gibbing the rafters.  So get to it!"

The first mate's shoulders slump and he glares at me.  "We do not know what 'spooling,' 'gibbing,' nor 'wracking' is, sir."

I put my foot up on the stern of the ship, peering out into the waving luminescence of the open sea.  "Nor do I, Good Mister Common-Sense.  Nor do I."

And that was some weird meta-lesson on conflict.  Bam.  Didn't know you were learning about conflict while you were reading some of my internal monologue did you?  Well, there you go.  Now, let me break it apart a little more with an example that is about as far away from pirates as you can get....

John Banville.  This guy.

Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea, and all around Irish badass.  I bring him up because of his ability to create conflict in places where one would not necessarily place conflict, namely in each and every character.  "But Ken," some of you say, rolling your eyes, "lots of authors have conflictual characters.  Characters conflict with other characters all the time, in fact, that's what conflict is."  True, true.  That is, but what I'm talking about goes far beyond two characters arguing or fighting, or one character battling within himself, what I'm talking about is having every character being a conflict within theirselves.  Right now, I am reading a book of his called The Untouchable.  Perhaps not as regaled as The Sea, but I don't think you can go wrong with either one of these books (or his newest work: The Infinities).  Let me try to explain this a little better...

There are many examples of this throughout the text, but I'll start here, for the sake of clarity, with perhaps the most obvious.  The party scene at the beginning of the novel (near the beginning of the second chapter) the narrator (Victor Maskell) concludes that "So what we were frightened of, then, was ourselves, each one his own demon."  Here we have the beginning of this meta-lesson, much more elegantly written than my poor excuse above

I think that's the kind of conflict that I most enjoy, and it's one that I see the least of. There tends to be this over-arching theme of protagonists being almost completely "pure" in that they will do good for good's sake, and leave out rumination as a gaudy excuse for waxing poetic, but I think it can be done correctly.
Characters should always be a conflict within themselves. Going back to the Banville example -- an anti-semite Jew; a ladies' man who lives in squalor; a beautiful woman, lovingly depicted as wearing a dress like "the carapace of a scarab beetle" -- we get these great examples of meta-conflict that all orbits around the main pillar that stands morbidly in the center -- the knowledge that Maskell was a Soviet spy.

It's really an incredible book. One point of conflict is important, but the main character should have at least, say, three different factors that should share the reader's brain, otherwise the work will seem, at least to me, rather disengenuous. Main characters, or POV characters need these extra layers in order to keep a reader guessing, and keeping them on edge. Keeping characters lying, and keeping your protagonists on shaky moral and ethical ground will lead to a much more satsifactory denouement.

Hm, this post kind of started rambling, but I think it stands for itself: keep characters interesting, and witholding secrets (for a logical, plot-driven reason) and coveting something that is, in itself conflictual, and you will have something that can fall into rumination on pidgeon eggs and get away with it... as long as it continues the plot.


  1. Nice post. I've read about The Sea, I just haven't actually read the book.

  2. Thanks Amanda. I would HIGHLY recommend it; it's incredible.