How We Disagree

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How Characters Deal with Conflict Says More About the Author

The first six months of dating my boyfriend were mostly about finding things the other one enjoyed. Now well into our next six months, we seem to focus more on how we react differently to similar circumstances. We tend to react poorly at the moment of first discovery of a difference, and then we remember they are a different person with different experiences and values.

That’s how I personally handle intimate conflict. A brief freakout, and then more reasoned recapitulation. I sometimes ignore someone who is getting my goat. In rare occasions, I stare them down. If the topic is less personal, I go into debate mode, offering counterarguments and pointing out logical fallacies.

Miguel in Time Bump

One time-traveling character I wrote is an easy-going non-planner who is asexual and takes advantage of his best friend’s intelligence and her years-long crush on him. He lets resentments build up until he confronts someone with out-of-proportion vehemence.

He’s nothing like me. He’s more like my second lover. He used to complain that I didn’t have the “common courtesy” to keep cut flowers on the dining room table or bring him juice during his morning shave. When we finally moved in together, the hunt was over, and he could care less about spending time with me.

Rupert in Cursed and Blessed

An amazingly similar character in a magical realism novel I wrote wears his heart on his sleeve a lot of the time, but he often avoids confrontation, assuming that it will go away in time. And sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t. He tries to do the right thing, but he sometimes lapses into selfish behavior. He is, however, not afraid of a fight when it seems necessary or inevitable.

This is a lot like me, or at least how I used to be. I have mellowed a bit with age, and I really can let things go a lot more easily now. I don’t have to be right as much, and people’s idiosyncracies have become more entertaining than annoying now.

Shonda in The Lever

This overweight, black, middle-aged, lesbian reporter has a place in my heart as well. She has a strong moral sense, and she doesn’t feel any hesitation about letting people know when they are not working toward the common good. She will sometimes put her safety at risk to make sure someone does not get away with abusing others. She deals with the stress of confrontation with yogic breathing, and food.

This is bits of me and my boyfriend. We both tend to rail at injustice and pettiness, but otherwise, we try to avoid confrontation by analyzing our own reactions first.

Other authors

When I have read more than one novel by a particular author, I am usually struck with how similarly their characters deal with conflict. One author’s characters lean heavily on delaying doing the right thing, but eventually coming around. Another author’s characters frequently hold long grudges and leave or threaten to leave a lot when they aren’t pulling some really manipulative ruse to trap their enemies. Yet another author’s characters prefer to keep secrets and enlist others to overwhelm their mutual enemies.

As you can see in my examples, I think of someone’s way of dealing with conflict as another unique part of their personality. Right along with their favorite breakfast, what they tell themselves to get motivated, their phobias, and any old injuries that still plague them, I believe how a character fights to be fair game for novelty. If you’re writing a mystery, not everyone needs to be mysterious. If you’re writing a drama, not everyone needs to be dramatic.

When you write, are you more likely to idealize your characters, make them just like you, or transfer them wholesale from someone you know, with all of his or her quirks?

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