I learned something dramatic about character conflict by watching the pilot of Lone Star, a new fall TV series.
I normally don't watch straight dramas, and I'm not sure why I recorded this one. But it ended up being a lesson in creating a character that you can't look away from.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass talks about creating characters that have internal conflict. He opines that a character who is fundamentally in conflict with himself will keep viewers/readers glued to the screen/page to see what this troubled character will do next. Will the good side win out? Will he spiral down into the depths of his own bad choices? We can't wait to see. It's instant, automatic tension that pulls us right in.
I witnessed the creation of that character on Lone Star.
The show starts with a good-looking young man who obviously leads a double life. He's got a girlfriend he loves up in one town, then flies home, switches IDs and sweeps his lovely wife off to the bedroom.
I'm ready to hit the delete button.
It gets worse. Now it seems not only is he lying his way through his love affairs, but he's swindling grandma out of her investments by selling phony oil shares.
Cad and a thief.
I say out loud to my husband, "Am I supposed to like this guy? Cuz I really don't," with my finger poised over the delete button.
Then they show him meeting his father, the con man progenitor. Seems Dad's in on the deal, and is using his son to grease his way to the "easy life." In fact, it's all part of the Big Con, wherein the son is supposed to take his wife's family business for all it's worth. The only problem is the son wants out. He's tired of having everything be fake in his life, and he thinks he might actually love the girlfriend.
Ok, the finger eases back from the delete button. I want to see where they're going with this.
Next, the son bails out another boy who was put in an impossible position by his dad (Soft Heart), and he turns down the hot lady hitting on him in the hotel lobby (Maybe Not a Cad). Then he tells his Dad off, says he's done with the Con and he's staying with his girlfriend, who he's going to ask to marry him (Ah, True Love Wins!).
But then he changes his mind in the middle of the night, knowing that if he stays, his girlfriend will be buried in the investment scandal when it unravels. He goes back to his wife, determined to make THAT lie into a reality. When he barely escapes being exposed as a fraud there, he decides that he has to make it all right - he's going to borrow the money from his wife's family, and pay back the investors in the girlfriend's town. But to do that, he has to stay with both women, to keep from having everything come undone.
Now I'm completely riveted. He's a cad, but his dad made him that way. He's determined not to lie, cheat, and steal anymore, but he has to lie, cheat, and steal to get out of the mess he's made of his life.
How can this possibly work??
This post is epic (in size), but here's the upshot: Create a character with massive internal conflict. Marry the internal conflict to external conflict with heinous consequences. Your readers won't be able to look away.
I'm not saying it's easy. But I do think it works!