I've been struggling with a current work in progress, His Unexpected Muse: Berkeley Square Book 3, because my characters are way too ordinary. I've been trying to imbue some darker aspects into them, and it's just not happening.
For me, being a non-violent person (read mile-wide yellow streak down my spine) I often find it challenging to write conflict into my stories. Murder mysteries and thrillers with graphic content tend to make me squirm or give up reading or watching them. That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate good writing or great acting, just that I’d rather not have my sleep disturbed by bad dreams after experiencing it, thank you very much. Yes, folks, that’s just how much it can upset me.
However, conflict is a must-have to write a good story. Without conflict, there really is no story. I think of an example I have given to writing classes in the past of a couple cleaning their teeth. Let's call them Amelia and Roger. They go into the bathroom. He takes the cap off the tube of toothpaste, squeezes it in the middle to get the required amount of paste on his brush, then gives the toothpaste to her. She does the same and, as soon as her toothbrush is loaded, she screws the cap back on. It's routine and boring. Nothing happens, and it does not move the story forward. Heck, it isn't even a story.
BUT – what if they don't go into the bathroom together? What if Roger goes in first, showers, shaves, cleans his teeth? What if he squeezes the toothpaste in the middle and she likes to press it from the bottom, rolling it up as each part of the tube becomes flattened? What if he always throws it on the side of the basin and leaves the cap off, allowing just a bit of toothpaste to escape and make a mess on the porcelain which causes her to yell at him? And he bellows right back "it's only frigging toothpaste!" What if this happens every morning until she could just shoot him? Oh, oh. Did I say ‘shoot him’? This is not routine or boring. We have conflict. We have a story.
What I have just described is external conflict, but that can lead to internal conflict as well. What if Amelia now struggles with herself? If she feels so strongly that she could shoot Roger, does that mean she doesn't love him anymore? Or does it just suggest that because he has not paid any attention to her constant requests for him to replace the cap on the tube of toothpaste, she is just totally frustrated with him? Her internal conflict could escalate to the point where she could convince herself that she has to shoot him for her own sanity. And if she really could fire a gun at him, where would she get it? Is there one in the house? Does she have a license to carry? If she did actually shoot him, what then? Would her shot kill him, or just wound him? Or, her internal conflict could go in another direction altogether. What if this is the one small thing that finished their relationship? What if she decided to leave Roger instead? What horizons does that open up?
In these last two paragraphs what I've shown is person versus person conflict and then the internal conflict of one of the characters. Other types of conflict in writing could be a person against nature as in the movie about Aron Ralston who, after trapping his arm under a boulder in a Utah canyon, went five days without food and water before breaking his arm and amputating it with a pocketknife to get free. Or it could be a person against society as in any dystopian fable. A person against fate makes that person's freedom of choice seem impossible as in The Handmaid's Tale. A person against the unknown opens the door for all sorts of situations, I'm thinking Stephen King here. What about a person up against technology? Does anyone remember Hal the computer in the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey?
So now I am going to do interviews with my characters and hope that something dark emerges from each of them so that I can build it into a conflict between them. Hm. Actually, after writing this post, I can already see some possibilities with fate.