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.
Last summer, my mother-in-law visited 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 that really did take place.
“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?