Conflict. It’s an element of life that directly translates into fiction, and not in the way that most people think. In life, we want to avoid conflict. We want to circumvent hardships and obstacles. We avoid difficult conversations or telling hard truths. We want to get where we want to go the easiest way possible. We want our silver-bullet solutions and our miracle-pill panaceas. There’s some justification for this: why purposefully make life more difficult? However, what we often fail to see is that conflict, though difficult, is the best path toward success.
Let’s take two hypothetical examples:
One: A recent high school graduate doesn’t plan to go to college or the military. His life goal and passion is to own his own restaurant. He busses tables and gets promoted to waiter at a local diner. But, he’s not making as much money as he wants. So, with his current experience and know-how, he gets a better job at a nicer restaurant. He works there for a few years. Then he becomes the manager of that restaurant. Throughout, he saves his money. He spends the money he does have wisely. His credit score goes up. He gets a loan and starts his own restaurant.
Two: A high school graduate goes to college (doesn’t work while he studies), gets a degree in hospitality management (though doesn’t cater or wait tables ever), gets his family to invest in his restaurant, and he starts as the owner.
Which person has the advantage here? On paper, it’s the college-educated person. However, the man who struggled through waiting tables is likely going to understand his employees’ struggles personally, and not just as products of a bottom line. He’ll be a better boss because of it. The man who had to pinch every penny to save for his restaurant is going to be more conscious (and perhaps savvy) when it comes to restaurant finances. There are many benefits to a college education (I’m not knocking that path, not at all), but early struggles can create later advantages.
Now imagine the two scenarios as two books. Which story do you want to read? The story of a hardworking man struggling to earn his way up? Or the story of a guy who starts in the middle with someone else’s money?
Conflict is a learning opportunity that causes change. Change makes stories interesting.
Consider this with the characters in your own writing. I often edit stories in which the author clearly loves his/her characters like children. While on the surface this is nice, it’s harmful to lavish your characters with advantages because it makes a boring story. On the flipside, just smashing your character with fault after fault is equally boring. The fun in reading comes from watching how a character achieves a goal despite lacking the skill that makes the goal easy.
Avoid making your hero/ine very attractive, super-smart, super-strong, or always right. Never let your hero/ine receive help that solves their problems. Never let your characters solve their problems on their first attempt. Conversely, don’t pound your character with failure after failure. Don’t make their problems insurmountable. Give your characters the latent skills to succeed and make them struggle to develop those skills. That development is the story.
If you spend years protecting your children and handing them everything they would ever need, they grow incapable of helping themselves when they’re on their own. Your characters cannot be blessed with all advantages (because that’s just not real), have all the help they need, and then easily succeed once they’re left on their own. The character must struggle and fail and work and work and finally gain the strength and capability to succeed when things really get tough. Or, the opposite is possible: your characters can fail because they deteriorate and lose the powers they once had.
This is all true even in the mere act of writing. Struggle is a part of the writer’s everyday life. Writers – like all other humans – don’t want conflict, don’t want to learn by struggling. They want to sit down, type 300 pages, and then ship the manuscript off to their agent and collect royalties.
That’s not how writing works because that’s not how life works.
Three hundred coherent pages do not make a good book. If you are not willing to struggle with your own writing (refining language and ideas, embracing outside feedback and critiques, answering difficult questions, fixing structural complexities and character inconsistencies, finding time to write, et al), you’re not going to improve. Worse, if you don’t understand that writing itself is a struggle, you’ll never create characters that struggle. Just like the man who started as a busboy and ended owning a restaurant, it takes years and years of struggle (some Gladwell-ians will tell you it’s 10,000 hours) to become good at something. Translation: your characters can’t be amazing from page one and can't develop without conflict.
The next time you’re faced with a struggle, embrace it. Hate it and love it at the same time. Ask yourself only one question: When I’m done with this struggle, will I be closer to where I want to be? If the answer is Yes, continue struggling (of course, if the answer is No, get out of that situation as fast as possible). And being “done” with the struggle does not always mean the euphoric feeling of accomplishment. Sometimes success against struggle is the tired answer “yes” to questions like “Can I make this better” or even something as small as “Did I write today?”