Notes From a Small Conference, part 4: Character and Conflict (continued)

Last week, I started sharing notes I took at the 2013 Rose State Writers’ Conference. This week, I’ll continue with the rest of William Bernhardt’s great advice about character and conflict:

1.) The plot and the character have to be right for each other. How many times have you come up with a wicked good plot, but no characters ever stepped forward and said, “Me, me! I’ll do that! Pick me!”? It’s happened to me. Lots of times. I have this fantastic YA novel idea in my head about reincarnation, but every time I think about writing it,nothing happens. Why? No characters. Bernhardt made the point this way:  What traits does your character have that will enable them to prevail in this particular story? If none, then they aren’t right for each other.

2.) Did that one blow your mind? It did mine! But this point will emphasize why #1 is so important:  “Plot is the writer’s choice of events to tell the story of the character’s progress toward the goal.” Or, as Mr. Schumann said in the season finale of Glee, “It’s all about the journey.” So. This is why the seamless marriage of character to plot idea is so critical. Does your character belong in that world? If she’s a 14th-century woman with 21st-century ideas of sex equality, then probably not. Now, if she’s a 21st century woman transported back in time to the 14th century, then you might have a good marriage of character and plot!

3.) If that sounds a little mean, then you really won’t like this rule:  It’s not the writer’s job to be nice to their characters. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to let their characters get into as much trouble as possible. Things are going too easy? Throw something in their path. Remember, there’s a lot of conflict out there — natural, personal, person-to-person, between the protagonist and secondary characters, between the protagonist and the villain, between the protagonist and his desire for Starbucks. Whatever it is, add it.

4.) Therefore, your protagonist should fail before they succeed. Not only should there be setbacks, these setbacks should illustrate or illuminate your protagonist’s shortcomings. This is their journey, remember. Not only should they have external obstacles to overcome, but internal obstacles as well.

5.) Now, if you have to make your protagonist fail, then how do you make him likeable? No one likes a failure, right? Bernhardt gave us five surefire ways to make your protagonist likeable:

  • Make them good at what they do. If they are a trash collector, make them the very best one in the world. Or at least, the city.
  • Give them a sense of humor, especially a self-deprecating sense of humor. If they can make fun of themselves, readers will sympathize with them more — and pull for them. I just finished The Fault in Our Stars, and Hazel’s humor captured me on page 1 and kept me reading, even past the point I should have stopped. She has cancer; she can make fun of it.
  • Show them treating others well. Putting baby birds back into nests, or stopping traffic to get a turtle out of the road, or helping an elderly woman across the street. Whatever it takes. Think about Harry Potter, and the way he treats the house elves. We root for Harry because not only is he the underdog, he still takes time to treat others well.
  • Which is the fourth thing:  make them the underdog. Give them “undeserved misfortune or handicaps.” Again, Hazel’s cancer is undeserved, and yet she doesn’t let it stop her from having a life, traveling, and falling in love.
  • Have another character say, early on, that they like your protagonist. I think this is how Jay Asher gets around a total hatred of Hannah in his novel Thirteen Reasons Why. We know Clay was in love with her, and we like Clay; therefore, there must have been something good about her.

5.) I think this could be the single most important thing Bernhardt said, of many, many important things:  The protagonist’s story is only as interesting as the antagonist makes it. You MUST have an antagonist that is worthy of your protagonist. They must be of equal strength; it may be that your antagonist should be a little bit stronger, in fact. Should Harry have won the duel against Voldemort? Maybe not, because Voldemort was so much stronger. Voldemort drove everything in Harry’s life, from his parents’ death to that final conflict. Yet Harry prevailed.

6.) Readers hate coincidence. Never, ever do it. I know, it happens in real life, but remember, readers don’t want reality. And in fiction, coincidence doesn’t happen.

7.) Plot twists need to be “Holy crap, I should have seen that coming!” not “Holy crap, what the fruitbat was that? That makes no sense!” As anyone who’s ever tried to write a plot twist knows, they are devilish to write. You never want the reader to figure it out ahead of time (astute ones always will, anyway), and you don’t want it to be so obtuse that it makes no sense at all. One of the best examples I can think of is the play The Lady in Black. We know in the first ten minutes of the play that one of the characters had a daughter; it’s mentioned almost in passing. By the end of the play, we have become so immersed in the story that we’ve forgotten that tidbit — until suddenly, the play comes full circle and we are as horrified as the characters themselves.

Hopefully these have been helpful! The next Rose State Writers’ Conference is coming up September 19-21 at Rose State College in Oklahoma City. Here’s the link to the website: This year, Jacqueline Mitchard will be the keynote speaker and will be on the faculty!

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