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.