You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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Evening over San Miguel de Allende, Minutes Before a Storm Busted Loose

Writers are reliant on conflict in their stories; something must be surmounted (or not), questioned, circumvented, abandoned, left to wither. So much of reader engagement is the revealing of the layers of resolve (or not) in a character as they push against existence, whether their challenge or their adversary is some part of themselves, an acknowledged enemy, a societal crack, an unseen force. How the characters engage with their nemeses (or not) and the consequences of that engagement are at the core of most novels, whether literary or commercial.

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine yourself as the character in one of your novels, tilting your lance at battlements, or perhaps at the laundry. Besides the difficult suspension of disbelief there, the problem with accurately envisioning yourself as a novel’s character is that much of your time might be spent with dealing with a balky mouse, wondering if that modest pain you have in a molar is a cavity, and facing that laundry. The challenge of the laundry must be met, but it’s not quite like Huck Finn sailing down the river to flee from those dunderheads trying to sivilize him.

That real-life stuff isn’t all that novelistic. As Elmore Leonard said of his work, “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” We all want to skip the laundry.

But when you travel to a place that you’ve never been before, particularly a place that is vivid, dramatic, and not that of your native land, the setting alone can provide an exotic backdrop or stage for a character’s choices. How do you behave there, where you’ve never been? How do others behave, walk, talk, gesture, argue, kiss? Since I’m house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinarily colorful city of deep history and picturesque sights, it’s easier to fantasize that I’m in a novel, perhaps one by Graham Greene, where a shady character’s gesture with a cigarette in a lively café implies there will be a mysterious death tonight. Or at least some exceptional margaritas.

A Character in a Balmy State of Suspension

Novels often go in pulses of dramatic action and lull, charges and retreats, tension and release. Last night, my character’s place in the exotic city was in the balmy state of suspension. My sweetheart Alice and I walked down the winding cobblestone roads from our place high above the city center to a nice hotel restaurant just off the main plaza. Alfresco dining in a bright courtyard filled with tall, fruited trees, flitting birds and beautiful stone arches supporting the second floor, all painted variants of a washed tangerine.

A great meal, with cognac after, since that’s what characters in novels do (or not). Because the hotel housed a nice tobacconist, and I was in Mexico, where where they don’t fear the corruption of Castro’s commies, I was able to buy a lovely little Habano cigar, a demitasse Montecristo. Up, up the winding cobblestones at dusk, big clouds gathering. Up, up the tight, treacherous third-floor inner staircase to the deck. Down, down on the deck swing. Stogie lit, check. Malbec accompaniment, check. Incredible view of the city below, lights beginning to twinkle, clouds roiling, check. La vida es buena.

And then, the unexpected conflict: winds suddenly whipping, and a blasting downburst of rain, orchestrated by sky-filling, snapping lightning and a cracking series of thunderclaps like a bomb going off. Flee! So, my character, smug in his full-bellied comfort, ended up smoking his coveted cigar in the first-floor courtyard, hunkered under a concrete garage overhang which steadily dripped down on his muttering head. But it was a Cuban—I had to finish it.

Later, back in the steamy house, I did enjoy the thought that my novelist didn’t want my character to get quite so comfortable. Where’s the narrative interest in that?

By the way, today I really did do the laundry. Sometimes the joke is on your character, sometimes it’s on you.

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4 thoughts on “You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

  1. This poor boy needs a kinder author.

    Unless, I must consider, he’s due some payback for heinous conduct earlier in life.

    Nah; we’d all be under a dripping eave if that happened.

    Next trip I take, I want you to write about it afterward so I’ll know how much fun I had. You have a talent for setting which I envy.

  2. Joel, I undoubtedly will come back as a fly speck (or a fly speck’s fly speck) for all my misdeeds, but I will be in the company of many fine reprobate fly specks, so at least we can start a choir.

    I will be happy to write about all of your trips, if I can basically make it all feel like the Yellow Submarine movie. (That’s not far from your real life, right?)

  3. Dang…setting can be used to guide the pulses. Action or lull. I never thought of it that way before.
    My next story (in progress) needs a downpour. Or volcano.

  4. Rick! Sorry I didn’t respond earlier. I have been deep in a Central Mexico state of mind. Yes, lulls can be important structurally, like the pauses in music. Of course you need downpours and volcanoes too—but sometimes just in the characters’ minds, which can have a similar impact as those external disruptions/eruptions. (Not to be confused with eructations.)

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