But how do you go about creating this conflict, or drama?
There are two kinds of drama in a story. The primary drama, which consists of the main character fighting whatever the antagonist is: time, fate, a particular person, their own weaknesses, etc.
And then there is the secondary drama, that of character against character, which generally serves to up the stakes of the primary drama.
The Lord of the Rings is a great example. You start out with the primary drama of destroying the ring. Along the way, you get secondary drama: Boromir wants to take the ring from Frodo, a fiery monster from the deep wants to stop them from leaving the mines of Moria, Merry and Pippin get captured by Orcs who believe them to be the ringbearers, and on and on it goes. Secondary drama is what generally creates all the delays and frustrations that our heroes have to go through before the story ends. Without it, we’d be writing a much shorter story.
Secondary drama comes from pitting characters against each other, and sometimes, it can seem dreadfully implausible. Two friends go along through life and suddenly, one of them turns on the other, creating betrayal and friction and all kinds of drama…but why would “friends” suddenly do such a thing? It has to be believable.
So here are three questions to ask yourself to see if you have believable secondary drama.
- Are your characters different? Creating two companions who look at things differently creates drama. In Sense and Sensibility, we have Marianne and Eleanor, sisters who go through very similar circumstances overall, but they respond completely different because of personality. Age, ethnicity, heritage, backstory…all these can naturally create drama. One of the reasons The Lord of the Rings worked so well is because everyone had a different background. Aragorn was born to be kind, Gimli was a dwarf, Legolas an elf, Gandalf a wizard, and this sort of thing doesn’t just give the group different skills so they can make it through their quest. It intensifies conflict. Boromir can resent Aragorn and his claims, Legolas and Gimli can carry the age-old friction of their peoples, Gandalf can see into the future somewhat and be troubled by what he sees, etc.
- How are your characters motivated? Everyone can’t be perfectly altruistic in their goals; if they were, the plot would suffer. Does one of them want money? To protect their reputation? Hide a secret? Marianne wants romance while Eleanor is more cautious, looking for a safe home. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice again) wants a husband she can respect while her younger sister, Lydia, just wants to be the center of attention. These motivations pull the characters in different directions, which creates drama.
- Who stands in your characters way? Hopefully, by having different characters who are motivated for very different reasons, the characters themselves will be at cross-purposes. Because Lydia wants to be the center of attention, she will expose her sister to ridicule by family-association, which will lessen Elizabeth’s chances of getting the husband she wants. Boromir’s desire to protect Gondor puts him at odds with Gandalf’s determination to destroy the ring and Aragorn’s destiny to be king. And Pippin’s penchant for touching things will get everyone in trouble.
So ultimately, drama starts with your characters. If the secondary drama isn’t rooted in who the characters are, it will feel forced. If you feel like there isn’t enough friction between your characters, then you may have to go back and alter them on a more fundamental level to make the story work.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by TrisOfficial, Creative Commons