Writing Excuses 13.6: External Conflicts for Characters
Key points: External conflicts, aka person versus nature? Disasters. Anything outside the character that gets in their path. Make it personal, make the world provide conflicts for the characters. Think about how the person connects to their environment. Threaten things that main character cares about. Not just disasters, smaller stories, also, can have external conflicts. Acne, broken elevators, a food shortage. Try crossing two conflicts and see what happens. Mix an overarching conflict with day-to-day conflicts. Look at the cracks between how society labels a character and how they identify themselves.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, External Conflicts for Characters.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] And we’re going to talk about external conflict. This is the classic person versus nature conflict. What do I even mean by that?
[Mary] Well, asteroid coming out the earth and things like that. These are all of the disaster films. Most of the time. I mean, these are… Disaster films fit neatly into this. Although I don’t think that they… External conflicts are limited to disasters. But Joe versus a volcano, castaway…
[Amal] Leningrad versus the ants. I think that was his name.
[Mary] Well, it sounds plausible.
[Amal] Those were… My first encounter with this idea was in high school, where there’s a short story… I’ve totally got the guy’s name wrong, but he’s trying to get cattle across the river… No, he’s trying to stop an onslaught of like fire ants from devouring his cattle. So he has to like… He builds a moat. Then the ants keep coming across it on the corpses of their brethren. It’s very intense.
[Brandon] I’ve read that. I read that in high school or something. Yeah.
[Mary] I think that was assigned reading for all of us.
[Mary] But that’s a great example of this implacable force that… It’s not an antagonist necessarily… Most of the time. Although I think you can have an external conflict that is an antagonist.
[Brandon] Well, how would you do that?
[Mary] So, the… So, okay, we just talked last week about villain, antagonist, and obstruction. Most of the time, when you’re talking about an external conflict, you’re thinking in terms of an obstruction, some kind of thing. But really, what we’re talking about is any thing that is not coming from within the character, it’s not the character sabotaging their self… Themselves in some way. It is something else getting in their path. So this can be the boss that fires you, this can be the car that cuts you off. These are all people, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be an implacable force of nature.
[Brandon] Right. When people talk about person versus nature, that’s usually what they talk about. But this topic is bigger than that. This is all external conflicts.
[Maurice] Well, yeah. When I hear nature, oddly enough, my brain goes to, “Oh, yeah. Or a zombie apocalypse…”
[Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.]
[Mary] That absolutely is a form of nature.
[Brandon] So how are you going to write something like this and make it personal?
[Maurice] Well… So. One of my favorite parts about writing… I mean, I have two fav… My two go-to’s for what I love about writing is world building and dialogue. So, for me, this is all a part of the world building. So, whenever I down to construct a world… One of the things I point out to my students is your world, it should be designed to provide conflict to your characters. It, in a lot of ways, is its own character, and one of its jobs is to be an obstacle for your characters.
[Amal] I love that idea of the environment being its own character. I think that’s a really, really good way to think about it. I think of something like Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris city, where it’s like the city is a character and it’s made up of all these moving parts and all these different factions. But if you want to keep it in the nature aspect, like literally in a kind of… It’s not a static environment. But people are always going to have some connection to that environment. So I think the personal is going to be what is this person’s connection to their environment? If they’re in a city, what is their role in that city? How is that city stratified? By class, by location, by geography? Once you find the character’s place within that setting, then, I mean, I think the antagonism of it becomes… Arises naturally.
[Amal] As it were.
[Mary] Yeah. I would agree. I think that tied to that is threatening things that the protagonist, that the main character, loves. Or cares about. It can be them themselves, life and limb, or it can be, oh, my puppy…
[Mary] The… Just as a real-world example to kind of show you the difference between “Oh, this is a tragic thing,” and “Oh, this matters deeply to some… To people.” You read… As we are recording this right now, California is on fire. That is terrible. You can look at the pictures and you go, “Oh, this is terrible. This is awe-inspiring.” It’s not until you start reading the individual stories about the people who didn’t know that the fire was coming and got out of their house… Their house was already surrounded and they jumped into the swimming pool and stayed in their swimming pool for hours, coming up with just a cloth over the back of their head, just trying to stay alive until it was safe to run down the street in basically a sopping wet bathrobe.
[Amal] Oh, my God.
[Mary] Until you start hearing stories like that, it’s not… It’s not personal. That, I think, is one of the things that… It’s not enough for it just to be a terrible thing that is rolling over you, it has to be something that is affecting the character and inviting the reader to empathize with the character as they are experiencing this thing.
[Brandon] So, let’s take this a slightly smaller route. We’ve talked a lot about the disaster sort of thing. Can you… How do you put your character in conflict with… External conflicts in maybe a quote unquote smaller story? A story that’s taking place in an office building or a school or something like this? Like, what is the person versus nature quote unquote of a story taking place in a high school?
[Mary] I mean, although it is still your body, it is nature that is just wreaking havoc on every aspect of your life when you’re in high school. Again, it’s about understanding the consequences of that thing. If you don’t care, then the fact that your face is breaking out is no big deal. It’s just, “Oh, okay, my face is breaking out.” But in high school, that affects frequently where you stand in social structure, it affects your sense of self-esteem, and all of these things can have an impact on… It’s like, “Oh, doctors’ appointments that you weren’t planning on doing. Oh, you can’t go out into the sun because of the retinas… Or retinol, or whatever it is you’re on.” There’s all kinds of different ways that some small scale biological contaminant can do to you. I have, by the way, just discovered a science thing which is horrifying.
[Mary] Which is, apparently teenagers, and I can’t remember the name of it… But teenagers carry a specific bacterium that is actually… Can spread to grown-ups.
[Mary] But this is why… Part of the reason that their skin breaks out so badly, is not just what’s going on inside the body, but because of this bacterium that grows on their skin.
[Brandon] You mean that teenagers… There’s like an actual teenager disease?
[Mary] There is an actual teenager disease.
[Brandon] Oh, man. As if I need to be more scared of my children.
[Mary] If your skin starts breaking out when they hit their teenage years, that is apparently why this happens to a lot of adults.
[Amal] But… How… I have so many questions. I mean, why… How… Where does it… Is it just something that happens to everyone?
[Mary] all I know is that this is apparently a thing that happens. A friend of mine found out because her skin was breaking out, and her doctor told her this. My reaction was, well, what I need to know is that I just don’t interact with teenagers now.
[Mary] That’s how I deal with that particular external conflict, is just avoidance.
[Amal] I was going to dive into the idea of broken elevators. Because in part, I work at Carleton University, where there is one tall building on campus, Dunton Tower. I realized at some point as I was coming into campus that it took me as long, 15 minutes, to get from the parking lot to Dunton Tower as it took to get from the bottom of Dunton Tower to the top of Dunton Tower. Purely because the elevators are in such a dire state. You never know which of them is working, how many are working at a time. This is a 22 floor building with many, many people who need to get to their respective offices. So if you’ve got something set in an office, and it’s you versus the elevators, I feel… And this is literally autobiographical, I’ve felt every single day, how much time do I need to budget in order to not be late for my appointments on the 18th floor in this building. They’re now modernizing the elevators, which is my happy ending to my story. But nevertheless, it’s just going to affect the way that you move. Things that constrict your character, things that prevent them from doing the things that they want in their environment.
[Maurice] So, these days, I’m basically writing, on the short story front, only two types of stories. So one is all these Afro future type stories I’ve been writing. The other set have been these stories set in the same community, an inner-city neighborhood. There’s some magical realism, that’s a part of it. So part of it… So it’s like… The nature involved here would be the community itself in a lot of ways. Sometimes it’s the struggle of just the fact that hey, this community is in the middle of a food desert. What does it look like to frankly just figure out where I’m going to eat that day? Or how are we going to get food in? Part of it is there are forces beyond the scope of the neighborhood, like gentrification. That the neighborhood is now being targeted for gentrification. There’s this big thing that’s outside of everyone’s control looming over the neighborhood, a day-to-day battle. But then, internal, there are… There’s like an ethos to the neighborhood. So in any world, there’s a worldview. What does it look like, for an individual character to either be with that worldview, or to be set against that worldview? What are the stories that pop out of that?
[Brandon] I want to dig into that in a minute. But let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We’re going to talk about El is a Spaceship Melody.
[Maurice] Oh. That would be the other kind of stories I’ve been writing.
[Maurice] I’ve been writing a series of Afro future stories. So El is a Spaceship Melody is a story with Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s a novelette. It’s about… The premise… Just go with me on this. It’s about a starship powered by jazz music.
[Laughter] [That’s so cool]
[Maurice] The idea hit me, because I was just thinking about just what it means, what Afro futurism is, and then I got struck by the whole… By Sun Ra and his mythology he created about himself, about being from Saturn, and everything. I was just like, “This is so perfect. Why isn’t there a story set in his mythology?” So that’s what El is a Spaceship Melody is about, is a story set in Sun Ra’s mythology.
[Mary] Oh, my goodness.
[Amal] So he’s literally exploding with the possibilities right now. I can’t wait to read that.
[Mary] So, this is totally a tangent. But I just… The new… One of the new NASA projects is called Osiris Rex. In my head, this is a T-Rex that is cosplaying Osiris…
[Mary] I desperately want this T-Rex to go with Sun Ra and…
[Mary] Have adventures together.
[Laughter] [oh, my God]
[Brandon] So let’s go ahead and…
[Brandon] I’ll bet we are possible to turn this car around…
[Mary] I think we’re your external conflict.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about putting… Briefly, I don’t… This could be like a series of podcast on its own. But let’s talk about putting a character in conflict with their society. As you were talking about, Maurice, as an external conflict, where the external conflict is society or other people’s expectations of them. Have you done this? Tips and tricks?
[Amal] Yeah. So the story that I mentioned… Last episode, I think. Seasons of Glass and Iron, has… Basically the premise is that you got on the one hand, a woman who for reasons that we don’t understand at first is forced to walk in iron shoes for seven years. These iron shoes are magical as well. They enable her to interact with her environment. Like she… Conquer her environment, basically. She can travel across water. She can walk across like spaces between cliffs, so long as she’s in pain. So long as the shoes are hurting her, then she can cross anything. Eventually, whereas the other character in it is on a glass hill. She is safe from everyone and everything, so long as she doesn’t move. She has to just stay absolutely immobile on this hill. While she’s on the hill, she doesn’t experience hunger, she doesn’t experience pain or discomfort, so long as she is perfectly, perfectly still. Both of these characters start out as being kind of aberrations in their respective stories and environments. They’re both in very unnatural situations. Amira who is on the glass hill, is on this hill that is literally surrounded by men who are trying to climb it, because the fairytale of the Princess on the glass hill is that if you manage to ride your horse up the hill and claim the Golden Apple that the Princess is holding, then you get to marry her and inherit the kingdom and whatever. So there are constantly within her view these men who are trying unsuccessfully to ride horses up a glass hill, breaking their horses’ legs and their own, and hating her constantly and shouting horrible things at her. So like they are basically both already in conflicts. The movement of the story is to bring this unstoppable force in Tabitha to this unmovable object in Amira, and to see what happens when they interact. The reason I came up with the story in the first place is because I like the idea of one person’s curse being the means to another’s. So the fact that she’s got these iron shoes makes it easier for her to climb this glass hill. Just bringing two conflicts to kind of mash them together and see what results is, I think, one way of doing that.
[Maurice] So I have a book coming out in November called The Usual Suspects. It’s a middle grade detective novel. This is a bit of a departure…
[Maurice] So are you familiar with that trope of the smart guy who can always diagnose everything that goes on, or the detective who can observe everything?
[Maurice] Right. So I was like, what would that look like as a young black male? So we have this young black male, he’s in middle school, but he’s one of the usual suspects, in that any time something goes wrong in the school, they just round up the usual suspects and go, “All right. We assume one of you guys did it. So figure out who it does, someone’s gotta confess, or we’re just going to punish all of you.” That sort of thing. So the story follows my character Thelonious. So, yeah, you have this greater conflict of I have to figure out… due to this inciting incident, I have to figure out who this. So you have that at one level. At another level, though, especially being that smart… Smartest kid in the room sort of thing. He’s at war with everyone. He’s at… The school system itself. The school is there to… It’s designed to conform. To imprint conformity on you. He’s at war with that because he’s like, “I do not fit any of your molds.” He’s at war with his peers because one, he’s smarter than them, and he’s a bit arrogant about that. But at the same time, there’s an ethos of schoolchildren that he’s like, “I don’t really fit into that model, either.” Then he’s at war in his neighborhood. And then with his own family expectations of “You know what, you do have a responsibility to go to school. And do the thing. You have to do the thing.” So it… So, for me, it’s always about one having that greater series of conflicts… The overarching conflict, and then those series of conflicts that just keep tying into it both around him, but all of them still tying back to that greater conflict.
[Mary] I think one of the things that… This ties into something that I do, which I articulate in this way, that I look for the places that society tries to slot my character, the external labels that society places on them. And the cracks between those and how they identify themselves are some of the places that this external conflict can really start to fracture things for my character. So I find that people tend to define themselves by their role, which is kind of based on what their duties are. Like, I’m a podcaster, I’m a writer, I’m a teacher, I’m a puppeteer. Those are role things. Then there’s the relationships that I have, that I’m a friend, I’m a wife, I’m a mentor. And a mentor is different than a teacher. A teacher is a job, a mentor is a relationship.
[Amal] Ooo, I like that distinction.
[Mary] Then there’s your status, where you stand in the hierarchy. Then there’s your competence, what it is that you can do, what you have abilities at. So there are the things that you, your character has, that they identify as. But then there’s also the… When you’re asking for what are the societal external conflicts, the ways that we label people. So, with Maurice’s character, who is labeled as the usual suspect, that is the status that he has been placed in in terms of social hierarchy, which is in conflict with the relationship that he has with his peers. So I think that if you look at those, that a lot of times they demonstrate or reveal kind of natural stress points that you can exploit to find how things begin to come apart and break, when they have multiple things that they are trying to accomplish.
[Brandon] Awesome. Like I said, I think that we could probably do…
[Mary] An entire…
[Brandon] An entire season ongoing against your society, but we’re going to have to end here. I’m going to give us some homework. This homework kind of traces back to one time Mary was on the podcast early… One of your early appearances, you talked about this yes-but, no-and method of plotting. Which is where you start with a person having a problem, you ask if they solve it. You answer it yes, but you add something on top of them. If you answer it no, you add something else on top of them. I always had just heard this called break things.
[Brandon] So, I’m going to go back to the more simple version of the homework, which is you have a character. Start their day, and have things start breaking. Everything around them breaks. It can be literal. The coffee pot can just… The copy machine doesn’t work. It can be figurative. Stuff goes wrong, and you don’t fix any of it. It’s… A lot of times, in stories, it’s… You… A problem comes up, we fix that, a problem comes up, we fix that problem, problem comes up, we fix that. In this story, you’re not going to do that. You’re going to have things just constantly keep breaking, until the end, however you decide to end it.
[Mary] I have had that day.
[Amal] So say we all.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.