Category Archives: conflict

Writing Personal Conflict

At some point in the story, the conflict must become personal. 

A simple enough #writetip but one that sparked a heated discussion, and so I thought perhaps the topic deserves greater exploration than can be achieved in 140 characters.

The counterargument was that in an historical conflict around a war, the protagonist has no personal beef with the opposing king.
Of course not. Well, you could write it that way, depending on who your protagonist is – but assuming your protagonist is a mere soldier, then no, that would be artificial.

Don’t confuse your setting with the conflict. A war, historical or otherwise, is a setting. Perhaps an important part of the setting, and perhaps one that breeds conflicts, but it’s not the story. For example, my WIP In the Company of the Dead occurs during a siege, and although that’s part of the story, it’s not the story.

Another example is disaster stories. Impersonal, right? Wrong… The setting is the tsunami, the blizzard, the asteroid… The conflict is what it means for our protagonist, what it stops him getting, and how it will affect him. That’s personal.

The day after tomorrow by MarkinhoO. Impersonal storm – very personal conflict

Stories are about people not events – as opposed to history, which is largely about events. You know those chronological lists of dates with what happened on those dates? Yawn…. That’s history.

A story takes a person and tells us about them. You may learn some history along the way. I know about the Battle of Culloden because of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, but the story is not about Culloden or the Scottish emigration to America or the revolution or the Declaration of Independence or any of the other true historical events depicted in those books. No, the books are about Claire and Jamie Fraser. It is their story. And their story is very personal. Their conflict is not the Battle of Culloden, but the risk they may lose each other – a risk heightened and deepened by Culloden.

The Battle of Culloden (1745) by David Morier, oil on canvas.
Setting or conflict?
Making the conflict personal simply means the protagonist has some personal stake in the outcome of events. If he doesn’t – if he is a dutiful soldier, who goes off to war because he is told to, does his job, and comes home an unchanged man – where is the conflict? Why do we, the reader, care?

We don’t. But maybe he has gone to war in place of his conscripted brother whom he loves too much to let die. Or maybe while he is gone, he risks losing his sweetheart to another man. Ah – now it’s getting interesting.

A related concept is motivation. If there is no personal conflict, what is the protagonist’s motivation for seeking to resolve the conflict? What are his goals? He doesn’t really have either.

If we take this back to goal, motivation and conflict (which I discussed earlier in April in How To Use GMC Charts to Plot A Novel), the goal is what the character wants, motivation is why he wants it, and the conflict is what is stopping him getting his goal. Looked through this lens, it’s much easier to see why these should be personal. Wanting something is inherently personal. Being stopped from getting what you want is also inherently personal. Your motivation is why you will keep fighting hard to get it and that drives a story. 

Any story with personal conflict will be stronger than one that is impersonal. 

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If You Don’t Know What Professional Means…

Look it up!

If you are a writer putting a book out there, or an editor offering editing services to writers, then you are purporting to be a professional. I say ‘purporting’, because that’s the expectation, but not always the reality.

If you are putting yourself out there as a professional, then you should be holding yourself to a professional standard. There are some obvious issues that always get bandied around in these discussions, including:

  • Having a book cover that doesn’t look like it fell off the back of a truck;
  • Ensuring the book has been edited to within an inch of its life;
  • Making sure the book has been thoroughly proofread;
  • Ensuring the book is properly formatted, particularly ebooks, where all sorts of formatting pitfalls await; and
  • Having a professional website (for writers and editors).

There are, however, two issues that are less discussed:

  • The way you comport yourself – this means behaving with a certain level of dignity in the public sphere. It doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with someone, but for god’s sake, don’t get into flame wars with trolls; and
  • Conflicts of interest.

Public Behaviour
This means don’t engage with someone regarding a review they wrote of your book, or a book that you edited. Don’t attack them. Don’tmass your fans to attack them. Don’tcall them a troll. And if any of this happens completely independently of you, demand that your fans stop. If it’s your editor who attacks a reviewer, then rein them in!

Part of being professional means that you accept that the work you wrote, or edited, is out there in the public eye. You can’t stop people reviewing it. You can’t stop people giving it bad reviews. Just accept them with good grace, learn from any valid criticism that may be contained therein, and move on. Your book should have been through so many beta readers, editors and proofreaders that your skin should be thicker than dragonhide. If it hasn’t, then there’s every chance you deserved those bad reviews. 

There may be rare occasions where it is appropriate to address someone’s concern but do it in private, and with due courtesy and grace. Never engage in a shit-throwing contest in a public forum.

Conflicts of Interest
What are they, and what should you do about them?

A conflict of interest is where you have some personal stake that influences your judgement or assessment of something in a way that is contrary to the making of a proper assessment or judgement.  In the writing arena, this usually relates to reviews. If you write a review, and something influences the way you review that book other than the actual merits of the book, then you probably have a conflict. 

 Some conflicts should be avoided all together, and others need to be managed. 

Here are some examples of conflicts of interest:

  • Writing a review on a book you were paid to edit – because you’ve been paid, you are predisposed to give it a good review. Impartiality is difficult (or impossible). I would suggest that you never do this;
  • Writing a review for money – even if you aren’t guaranteeing a particular outcome (which is just dishonest, misleading, and potentially fraudulent) again the fact of payment may influence you to write a more favourable review than you would have if you weren’t paid. This one can usually be managed by disclosing the payment (prominently) so then the reader can assess the review in light of knowing that a payment has been made. Legally speaking, this practice may not be allowed at all in some jurisdictions. If you are posting the review on a site other than your own, you should check the allowable practices;
  • Review for review arrangements – as bad or worse than being paid for a review. Writers have been known to hold reviews hostage until they get a good review for their own book, and even honest writers may be motivated to write a good review for someone else to avoid receiving an undeserved bad review of their own book. Should be handled with care;
  • Sponsored blog posts – if someone pays you to write a blog, you may be inclined to say nice things about them just because they are paying you. Like a paid review, the fact of payment should be disclosed. Check any applicable legal requirements in your jurisdiction;
  • Reviewing the book of a friend or family member – you are unlikely to be completely honest for fear of hurting the writer’s feelings;

You might look at these and think there’s not necessarily a conflict. For example, an editor might be capable of being honest about a book they edited. This is true, but:

  • Even if the editor can be honest, there is still a perception of a conflict. A perceived conflict is just as bad as an actual conflict – remember, perception is reality.
  • An editor might not give a 5 star review, but they might give 3 stars, instead of the 2 they really think it deserves, because they don’t want to upset their client, or because they hope to get repeat business from that client.

If you aspire to be a professional, then you have to think about conflicts. 

What sorts of unprofessional behaviour have you seen from writers? Can you think of more examples of conflicts?