The Fulfillment of Rage

The maxim that conflict is the lifeblood of fiction is more easily applied outwardly than within. It’s easy to imagine what your protagonist will do when crossed. We all have rage-filled inner monologues about what we should have said to so-and-so. Writing extends that practice and puts it down on paper. “Take that! And that!” and five pages later, “Well, I guess that settled that.”

Yet a hero who only lashes out at others will not gain the reader’s loyalty. The conflict must also rage inwardly in order for us to truly participate. This is where so many fledgling writers fall down on the job. The expert huntsman turns out to be awkward and aw-shucks with Sally. Just a regular doofus. While I suppose you can make that work, chances are good it won’t.

What sweeps away a reader? Rage is a good starting point. What separates the historic from the merely active? A useful analogy can be found in sports. The players who succeed at the top level have talent, for sure. But it’s their passion to win at all costs, usually to themselves, that marks the truly great.

How does a writer profit from that analogy? By making the character’s desire outsized. It’s so mammoth, it’s unsupportable; it’s impolite in refined society. Take the simple example of a romance heroine. Why does the rake choose her in the first place? Because she’s not satisfied with her role in life. She’s fighting against her father, her mother, and/or the majordomo who runs the castle. She’s worthy of interest not because the author is good at writing sex scenes. She stands out because she’s a fighter. We all wish we could be so brave.

How does an author employ that rage on his protagonist’s behalf? The kernel can be a localized conflict, such as a fight with an worry-wart spouse, but that won’t take you very far. The rage needs to appear consistently through the novel. (Otherwise, you have resolution of the initial conflict by default—he calmed down.) It may well be that the spouse causes ongoing conflict, but that’s too convenient. Why doesn’t your hero walk away? What keeps him in the ring, so to speak, is where fiction gets interesting.

The reasons why a person battles with herself does not require psychoanalysis. How many wives stay in a marriage because of the children? How is that loyalty repaid, especially if the child is a rebellious teenager? What about her parents’ shining example, exemplified by their 40th wedding anniversary? If you draw up a list of reasons, and then think through how they would change over the time span of the novel, you have book-long inner strife.

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
—William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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