Wondering how to build in effective character conflict? How does one create the kind of inner turmoil that drives a character to outrageous page-turning decisions and mistakes? Try drawing a line in the sand.
I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. It was a line in the sand — a game changer scene that raised the stake of the conflict several notches. Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Test it. Make them squirm. Why is that line in the sand there?
Brandilyn Collins in her book Getting Into Character talks about making secret promises. Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again: I will never…
Everyone has a line in the sand. A secret vow, a promise that drives them. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable law. I didn’t fit in very well in elementary school, and the personal vow I made is: Never let them see you cry. For me to shed a tear in public (at a movie for instance) means I am under extreme duress. I believe most people have several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious. Has that personal vow influenced your choices, your decisions, your plans? Of course it has, and your characters are exactly the same.
I listened to a presentation by an author about turning points in a story and she called them game changers. This is what happens when the writer flips a switch on the main character and lets them squirm. The rules get changed, something happens to force the story to veer right or left. This is a great place to push your character past their line in the sand. I will never commit a crime. I will wait until I’m married to have sex. There’s much more to this concept that Collins goes deeper into in her book.
Now – make them squirm
One of the very best examples of these principles I’ve read is Blue Moon by Laurell K. Hamilton. Hamilton’s character Anita Blake has several ‘rules’ or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but throughout Blue Moon Blake is forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off. But as the novel continues, she finds herself choosing to do things she swore she’d never do.
She’s ready to vomit in shame and disgust. She takes it all on herself. Every time Blake was forced to throw her boundaries aside to accomplish what she saw as the greater good in a situation had me glued to the story. I was invested in the outcome. I understood the stakes. I understood that this was tearing her up inside, and she was doing it anyway because someone she loved needed her help. But it changed her. How could it not.
But the reverse can also work.
I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but shady — someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he sees as the greater good. Butler’s character gruesomely, and rather creatively, pushes Foxx to the very edge of sanity.
By the end of the movie, Foxx is still bending the rules for a greater good, but Butler’s character has forced him to draw a line in the sand: Never make a deal with a murderer. What was compelling wasn’t the line in the sand, but how far Foxx’s character was willing to go, sacrifice — to ensure he never crossed that line again.
I’m reminded of Scarlett O’Hara’s declaration, “I will never go hungry again!” That’s a line in the sand she never crossed, but how far was she willing to go to ensure that? That’s compelling conflict.
Have you given your character a line in the sand? Do you push them past that line over and over? I think this crosses genres, but what do you think? Could this technique work for any story? Know another story or movie that uses this technique especially well?