Friday, October 26, 2012

And Now For A Little Conflict

Frankie here. I am now two weeks into the four-week "Introduction to Mystery Writing" course that I am teaching on Sunday afternoons at a public library. Last week we were discussing creating characters, and I talked about the importance of both internal and external conflict. I commented on how useful it is to create characters who by virtue of their personalities are naturally going to be at odds -- e.g., Felix and Oscar, the original "odd couple" (the neatnik and the slob).

But it has occurred to me that I should have added -- actually, I hope they realized -- that, within those categories into which we place people and characters, there is much variation. Take dog lovers. Different from cat lovers, but also different from each other. For example, the "lap dog" lovers (who prefer a small, cuddly dog) versus those canine lovers who want what one of them described to me as a "real dog" (who won't suffer serious damage if you step on him and can hold his own in a brawl).And then there is the "bed/no bed" debate. Even two dog lovers who agree on a breed of dog might be at daggers drawn about whether the dog should sleep in their bed.

Last week's discussion about character development and this week's reading of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (about a wife gone missing and a marriage gone bad) have me thinking about such conflicts. I have been relying on conflict through the five books in my Lizzie Stuart series to avoid having my lead characters fall prematurely and permanently into romantic bliss. Five books in, they are in love and engaged, but they are not two people who will be able to live together without ripples and tensions.

Barbara's post on Wednesday made me really think about what having two characters who are together means with each new book. I am not planning to kill one of them off, but I am now at the point where my list of secondary characters is becoming long. Although Lizzie's grandparents who raised her are both dead, they aren't silent. They sometimes pop into her head with folksy observations. And then there is her mother, Becca, the femme fatale, who was long-gone, but then was temporarily found. Lizzie also has a best friend, who lives in Chicago, and her best friend has a toddler, a new boyfriend, and an ex-husband. Lizzie has a neighbor who I like a lot, colleagues at school, a favorite student, a benefactor who gave her a house for her institute, and an elderly woman, Miss Alice, who owns a restaurant and was Lizzie's grandmother's childhood friend. Quinn, too, comes with his family, friends, and acquaintances. His best friend Wade, who has a wife, a former soap opera star, and a child (Quinn's godson). The friends were the focus of the last book. Quinn's family -- mother, step-father, half-sister, sister's husband and children -- make their appearance in the next book during a Thanksgiving gather.

I'm already getting anxiety attacks about that wedding that's supposed to be coming up. Where is it going to happen? How do I juggle all those folks?

In the soap operas that Barbara mentioned, when the characters and their stories start to pile up the writers get them all in one place -- at a wedding, for example -- and clean house with a fire, a bomb, or a building collapse. The body count for such catastrophes tends to be surprisingly low, with few characters killed off and most of them gathering in the hospital waiting room where they take stock and mend fences.

No solution there. My wedding problem remains, looming two books in front of me. Maybe Lizzie and Quinn will argue to a stand-still about where the wedding should be held and who should be invited and then compromise by eloping. That would certainly solve my problem about all those wedding invitations to send out. Except my engaged couple are much too reasonable and sensible to disappoint everyone by heading to Las Vegas. Oh, for a little conflict when you really need it.

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