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. That was a game changer scene, it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Gandalf went to the ultimate extreme to make sure that Balrog did not pursue the rest of the Fellowship. Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Don’t be subtle – give them a shove off the cliff.
*Note: Not every character does or should have a personal vow. It’s a complexity that requires skill with plotting and pacing to pull off because a vow may influence a character’s motivations and morals, but it’s rarely their main story goal.*
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. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable line they will not cross. Most people have several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious. Some people make these vows consciously and others are completely unaware of these personal vows.
I will never let a bully see me cry – that’s a conscious vow.
I will never be a victim again – this one might be a subconscious vow that influences behaviour and thinking behind-the-scenes. These are often the kinds of personal vows that get explored in counselling.
Now – make them squirm
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novel Blue Moon uses a really great personal vow as a story element. 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.
Blake faces escalating circumstances that forced her to throw her boundaries aside to accomplish what she saw as the greater good in a situation. Every line she crossed, because someone she loved needed her help, changed her and not always for the better. 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 someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he saw as the greater good. Butler’s character creatively, and rather gruesomely, 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, to sacrifice — to ensure he never crossed that line again.
Vows are hard to pull off in simple plots. These lines in the sand are often in addition to a character’s main goal in the story. For instance, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind vows: “As God is my witness, I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again…”
Scarlett’s conscious goal for the story though is to claim/marry Ashley Wilkes. That’s what she schemes for, dreams about, etc.
Her unconscious goal is to have the love of a man who can make her feel secure. At the end of the book when Ashley finally becomes available, she realizes it’s actually Rhett she wants because he’s the one who makes her feel secure (she talks about how he comforts her in the night after a bad dream, etc), but now Rhett’s gone.
Scarlett never crossed her line in the sand, but how far was she willing to go to ensure that? That’s compelling conflict.