The Worst We Can Do

I don’t know why it took me so long, but I’ve dis­cov­ered a kind of dark sto­ry­telling mag­ic that occurs in con­flict.  Bad things hap­pen­ing to (some­times) good peo­ple?  Yeah, that’s where the juici­ness of sto­ry is cre­at­ed.  That’s where char­ac­ter arcs are born and raised.  That’s where it all hap­pens.

Nes­tled into the folds, pinned to its edges, lay­ered three stra­ta deep, con­flict is the sto­ry.  It’s what push­es every­thing along. It’s the under­pin­ning of fic­tion­al uni­vers­es.  Inter­nal con­flict, exter­nal con­flict, both/and.  My favorite recipe is a lot of both, with nice­ly com­pli­ment­ing fla­vors and a side of suc­cess.

The trick is to make it mat­ter, to make it rel­e­vant.  I find this is hard­er to do in game plot­ting than it is in nov­el plot­ting, because play­ers are an unruly lot.  It took me far longer than it should have to fig­ure out that if my players/readers don’t have buy-in to the stakes, my intri­cate plot won’t mat­ter.  And if the indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters don’t have buy-in, the players/readers won’t have buy-in.  The cen­tral con­flict has to be rel­e­vant for each and every per­son par­tic­i­pat­ing.  Read­er or gamer, it’s exact­ly the same.  They have to care.

And yet we want our char­ac­ters, play­ers, and read­ers to be hap­py, and most peo­ple aren’t hap­py when faced with oppo­si­tion.  So we don’t go there.  As writers/plotters/schemers we soft ped­al, we make nice, we let our char­ac­ters be com­fort­able, we don’t kick up the sand­box … and it ends up being bor­ing.  There are no stakes in “nice” except the one of los­ing what you have, of mess­ing up the sta­tus quo.

That’s our job as sto­ry­tellers though, to embrace the Destroy­er arche­type, and make the sit­u­a­tions dire, to give them every­thing and to take it away, and to let them reach for some­thing new in turn.  It’s our job to push char­ac­ters beyond their skills, beyond their means, beyond their com­fort zones, and to not be afraid if they hate us.

Because when they succeed–in small ways in the mid­dle or huge­ly at the end–that’s the pay­off.  That’s where the accom­plish­ment comes in.  That’s where char­ac­ter and play­er and read­er say, “I made it, and I’ve grown, I built some­thing new, and this real­ly mat­tered.”  That’s where the sat­is­fy­ing rich­ness is born.  And they can’t get there with­out hav­ing first been to hell-and-gone.

I was think­ing of my very first “favorite” book, Jane Eyre.  From the out­set, Bronte placed Jane in a sit­u­a­tion where she had noth­ing going for her but her indomitable spir­it, and her truth to her­self.  She’s giv­en friend­ship and sup­port, edu­ca­tion, true love (now I think it’s high-hand­ed manip­u­la­tion, but that’s a whole dif­fer­ent issue), sta­bil­i­ty, mon­ey and pas­sion.  Time after time, it’s all ripped away.  In the end, she’s giv­en every­thing she orig­i­nal­ly thought she want­ed … and has to make a choice between it (the social sta­tus quo), or who she is and what makes her hap­py.

It’s her strug­gle to get to that point which is the sto­ry.  If she had every­thing she want­ed to begin with, she’d have stayed with Mrs. Reed, John, Eliza and Geor­giana.  No sto­ry there!

What is it your char­ac­ters have that you can take away?  What makes them strug­gle?  What makes them unhap­py?  What push­es them past the edge of who they think they are?  And the impor­tant flip side … where can they suc­ceed?

Do it!  What’s the worst you can do?  What holds you back from cre­at­ing deep and mean­ing­ful con­flict?  I’d love to know.

Please, share your thoughts.

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