Richard Skinner (novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and head of the Faber Academy fiction programme) hosted a workshop at a character and conflict retreat in 2015. He focused on conflict being the heart of your novel and what drives the plot, character development and the entire story.
Richard, why is conflict so important in creating characters that readers can relate to remember?
If plot is the engine of a narrative, its heart, then the idea of ‘conflict’ is the heartbeat. Put simply, without ‘conflict’, there is no story. If the fact that a character will find success is never in doubt, there is no interest or involvement for the reader. The gap between desire and its fulfillment is what drives the story and keeps us glued to the page.
Does conflict in novels have to be on an epic scale?
The conflict doesn’t have to be on a grand scale—war, for instance—and every decision doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Conflict can be internal and much quieter, existing on a quotidian level, small scale, as it does in Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac, but it must be there.
Which novels do you think use conflict really well to develop character and drive the novel forward in synch with each other?
Conflict within a novel can work on many levels. First of all, there is ‘personal’ conflict, the fight a person has with themselves. This may be the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, as in the case of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or it might be the result of a dissatisfaction (as it is for Emma Bovary), or a ‘disaffection’—Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for example.
Secondly, there is ‘interpersonal’ conflict, the conflict between two people who, for whatever reason, do not see eye to eye. This kind of conflict is at its most heightened when it is based on a protagonist and antagonist who have mutually exclusive goals, so that, if the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, it is at the expense of the antagonist, and vice versa. One very common example of this kind of conflict is the story of the ‘hunter and the hunted’, which is the template for countless Boys’ Own adventure stories. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Javert mercilessly and relentlessly pursues the reformed convict Valjean.
A more recent novel that is a good example of conflict is Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994). During the novel, Billy Parham crosses the US-Mexico border three times: the first time to release a wolf back into the wild; the second to recover his father’s horses; the third to search for his brother. Each time he crosses the border, he loses something—the wolf, the horses, his brother—and he returns home empty-handed. In turn, each loss necessitates that he cross the border again. It is a magnificent novel and one of the best embodiments of pure conflict that I know.
Finally, there is ‘social’ conflict, which arises between one person and a whole community. In general, this type of story is the result of differently held views, whether it be an individual’s non-conformist approach to life (Crime and Punishment, for example), or the result a person maintaining their integrity in the face of great hostility, as in Twelve Angry Men. The permutations are endless, but all stories with this level of conflict have in common the idea of ‘one person against the world’.
There is another level of conflict, namely that between man and his environment, but as the subject of these stories is usually some form of natural phenomenon, they typically don’t pay much attention to character. This kind of conflict is to be found in movies such as Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, etc.
What does your teaching focus on to help writers get deeper inside their characters and develop different levels and layers of conflict?
I look at ways of putting obstacles in the character’s path to make life difficult for them. When placing obstacles for the characters to overcome, one important point to bear in mind is to ensure that those events don’t just happen to your characters, but that they happen because of them. It is easy, and tempting, just to hurl random impediments at characters, but they should in some way be the result of a character’s actions and decisions.
If something ‘just happens’ to a character, and they are not seen to act on or react to it, your character will be cast merely as a passive victim of circumstance rather than being an active generator of incident. In this instance, you need to ensure that character determines plot, not the other way round.
What are the three key things writers should know to develop conflict?
1) If you want a character to become rich, the first thing you do is rob them. 2) A character should achieve their success, not just acquire it. 3) Characters must pay some kind of price for what they desire and that cost is our investment in their story.