Mistake 35: Using Contrived Conflict to Bring Your Characters Together

70 Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by Bob Mayer, from The Writer’s Digest Writing Kit


Why this is a mistake: Jennifer Crusie, a novelist (and my coauthor
on Don’t Look Down), sums up contrived conflict as: “I hate you. I hate you. I love you.” One of the problems of the heroine-as-protagonist, hero-as-antagonist plot is that he can’t be horrible, or why would she love him? This leads to wimpy conflicts like the ones romance novelist Teresa Hill describes as “rudeness and minor misunderstandings. It’s so annoying, and the characters just come off seeming unhappy or spiteful or mean.”

Example: The hero and heroine meet in an airport fighting over the same unlabeled bag from the carousel. Instead of recognizing that both have a reason for grabbing it and finding a solution, like seeing whose key fits the lock, he assumes she’s a thief, she assumes he’s a bozo who doesn’t know what his own bag looks like, and they each treat a stranger so rudely that I don’t want to spend a book with these people. Add to that the TDTL (too dumb to live) heroine who picks a fight or goes out into the dark night to see what all the screaming is about, and you have the basics of contrived conflict.

The solution: Go back to basic conflict analysis. Who is your protagonist? What does she need above all things? What must she have to protect her sense of self? Who is the antagonist? What does he need above all things? What must he have to protect his sense of self? How do their needs cross each other, bring them into a direct conflict from which they cannot resign? How does each character’s move to achieve the goal make the other character’s life more difficult,
make the other’s goal more distant?

Conflict is not people arguing on the page, conflict is people struggling with goals that are huge and vital to them, and by extension, to the reader who cares about the people. 

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