Saturday, September 1, 2012

Crazy Familes=Character Conflict

Guest post by mystery author Terry Ambrose

Are these my real parents? Have you ever asked yourself that question? If not, then perhaps you’re a member of a perfect family where nothing ever goes wrong or everyone is always understanding. If you do live in that wonderful world of family dynamics where nothing ever gets misconstrued, misspoken, or feelings hurt, I say “how nice for you.” But, as a writer, I find those types of family dynamics downright boring. There’s a boatload of material that can be used as the driving force behind a novel in family dynamics. And that driving force is, of course, conflict.

Conflict. The “C” word. Many writers hate it, but others embrace it with open arms. I say, “Yippie! I found the conflict between the characters!” Let me be clear, I hate conflict in my real life, but I love it in fiction. In fact, I’m on the hunt for it constantly. And that’s why I find the differences between generations so important. Love, hate, and guilt are equivalent to little plastic shovels and buckets in my writer’s sandbox. They’re among my tools to pull out and play with.

Right now, my mother-in-law is visiting us to escape the heat in the desert, where she lives year-round. This has become an annual visit that is filled with mother-daughter rituals, just like this one at the coffee pot the other day.

“Mom, I saved the last cup for you.”

“Oh no, dear, you take it.”

“You always have another cup. I’ve had mine. I’m done.”

“I can drink instant. You don’t like instant. I do. It’s okay.”

“But I don’t want another cup! I saved it for you!”

And so it went until my mother-in-law took that last cup of coffee. If I hadn’t been laughing so hard—in the other room like the big chicken that I am—I’d have been tempted to walk in front of both of them and finish it off myself. But that would have put me in the middle of things, so no thanks.

In real life, these friction points tend to be overlooked. True, they cause a build up of sensitive points that people either dwell on or avoid, but there’s generally a cap on the level of frustration. And then, there’s fiction.

Ah, yes, the fictional world. The world where emotions run high, people harbor grudges, and things (hopefully) go over the top. Being a mystery writer, I looked at this innocent incident from a different perspective. What if this same conversation became a daily routine? What if it masked a deeper conflict? Could the daily coffee argument serve as camouflage to prevent my characters from talking about deeper problems?

When I’m reading or reviewing a book, I look for those types of character dynamics. I subconsciously categorize the different ways in which the characters become obstacles for others and themselves. I give the author extra credit when the character’s inner conflict starts overpowering her dealings with others. For instance, when the daily coffee incident causes the character to do something that creates her own personal disaster, I say “bravo!” In most cases, that is. There are, however, times when I’ll take away those points.

Creating conflict is much like building a house. Lay a strong foundation and I’ll believe that a character will do almost anything—even to her own detriment. The reverse is also true and that’s why I’ll sometimes take points away from an author. If there’s no solid foundation, if the author simply throws a big conflict at the characters, I’m not going to find the conflict, or the story, credible.

One of the best opportunities fiction writers have to gather material about building conflict is when family members are around. The daily incidents, the little things that make you crazy, but that you dismiss, that can help lay the foundation for solid, escalating conflict in fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother-in-law. I just wish she’d have taken the damn coffee right away. But then, if she had, I might not have had this post. So, there you go—family dynamics. For me, a great source of inspiration.

Where do you find your inspiration? Do you enjoy conflict in fiction? What kind? How much?


  1. I get much of my plot inspiration from real crimes. As for my family in novels, Passions of the Dead (featuring the Walker family and its connections) is my most biographical work. I know (and love) all those people.

  2. I know what you mean, LJ. Those that are closest to us often provide those moments of inspiration when they least expect they're doing it. The coffee pot incident was hysterical to me and gave me the opportunity to say, "what if..." and escalate from there.

  3. Great post, Terry! There's no doubt about it, conflict drives fiction. No tension = no story, and one of my jobs as a fiction editor is to make sure there's tension on every page. Otherwise, the readers will stop turning the pages.

    I enjoy your guest posts here at CFC, and look forward to the next one.

  4. Family dynamics are a great source of conflict, both on and off the page. This is where we come from. This is our core. There is always conflict, and the more perfect the family appears, the less perfect they probably are--at least in my books, they would be.

    I love the subtle nuances, and I love the one in your coffee story. One of the keys to good storytelling is showing that there's Another Message Just Below The Surface. It adds dimension. It adds interest. These are the things that bring characters to life and keep them from appearing wooden.

  5. Oh, the beauty of dysfunctional families!

    I'm not saying mine was or is dysfunctional but I will tell you that my mother was seriously upset with my sister because in the novel she'd written, the mother was dead.

    Mom wasn't around to read mine, but I wonder what she'd have to say about mine? The mother of the female MC is dead in Red Tide. Not a lot of conflict in "dead" unless that is where a lot of the current conflict began. In The Missings,the mother-in-law of the detective is one serious b*tch.

    Conflict is a necessary element in fiction. Sometimes it's overt and sometimes it lays down between the words, but it's there. External, internal… that's what makes the characters and the story interesting.

  6. Well said, everyone. And thanks for the warm (re)welcome! It's fun stopping by here. I've recently learned about a whole new side of our family that neither Kathy nor I knew about. Every time we get together with her (new) cousins we get stories...lots of many that my head is exploding!!! But, I know that someday, somewhere, one or two of those super-funny stories is going to surface with a few changes to fit a situation where I need to create or break up the conflict.

  7. "You're so vain... you probably think this song is about you..."

    I think of that song often when I think about writing my fiction story, knowing that, because it takes place in a school, there will be some who are looking for themselves in the story (I was a teacher for 30 years.)

    I'm never sure whether to admit to them that it never occurred to me to use them as a character model. So I just smile evasively, and remind them that the writer owns some of the story, and the reader's perceptions own the rest.

  8. I love that Terry! I have friends who think they see me in Red Tide. Well, I wrote the thing but I'm not sure I agree with them. And then they wonder about the other characters… I'm so gonna use the reader perception thing!

  9. You are so right about reader perceptions, Terry. We all filter everything based on our frame of reference. And Peg, you could always glare at them and say, "yeah, and I'm coming after you next!" That might stop 'em! LOL


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