Write It Sideways

Which Comes First: Conflict or Characterization?

Today’s post is written by Joe Bunting. Thanks, Joe!

I think most people have characterization backwards.

I realize that is quite a statement from a unpublished writer. However, it’s mostly unpublished authors like me dithering away their time reading (and sometimes writing) blog posts about the ten secrets of effective characterization on the internet. I just want to save people like me a lot of time.

We aspirants eat this characterization stuff up, and it’s pretty obvious why.

1. Because characterization is easy.

It’s not hard to sit down at your computer and think about Billy’s brown curls and how Suzy always sighs and bites her nails when she thinks about him.

2. Because we like creating people.

Good news, guys and gals. Did you hear the Sims is on Facebook? That’s right. Thirty-million people signed up for it in its first month (Can you imagine if that many people read your book in a month?).

The tag line of the game: “Build a home. Build a relationship. Build a life.” You get to dress little Suzy in her pre-faded jeans and yellow strapless top and send her to flirt with all the boys. It’s quite entertaining.

The Sims have tapped a nerve, and it’s the same nerve all those blog posts and writing books about characterization tap. Humans just like creating other humans. It’s why people have kids. We want to see what they look like, imagine what they’ll do, watch them realize their potential.

3. Because we want to fall in love.

More than anything, what draws us to characterization is the idea that we could find our soul mate, our best friend, or at least a great neighbor, and all we have to do is make them up.

Isn’t that great? All you have to do to escape your loneliness is sit down and create an interesting person in your head. Many people become writers for this very reason. It’s one reason I started writing.

Before You Characterize

However, characterization won’t write your book.

Before you fall in love with your character through the characterization process, I want you to do something.

I want you to ruin your characters’ lives.

I think you should create characters you (and your readers) would want to spend the rest of your life with.

First, though, your book needs conflict.

You have to light Billy’s metaphorical curls on fire. You need to beat Suzy over the head with the candlestick in the drawing room.

Otherwise, you will just have a drawer full of characters no one else wants to get to know.

Instead of brainstorming character traits, brainstorm disasters. Come up with the worst breakup imaginable. Do research on the most uncomfortable diseases. If you’re really twisted, think about how many paper-cuts it would take to cause a mental breakdown, and then use little Bobby as your test dummy.

Save the characterization for later because if you have to be mean, why not do it to a stranger?

Why not set fire to Billy’s curls before you’re too emotionally attached? Save yourself the heartache and wait to take Suzy on shopping dates until after you attempt to murder her.

Conflict first. Characterization later.

Editor’s Note: Do you agree with the notion that conflict should come before characterization? Why or why not? Do you think ‘characterization is easy,’ or just simplistic characterization? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Joe Bunting ruins his characters’ lives all the time over at The Write Practice, where he writes and teaches others to write. He can also be found on Twitter.