Buddy Conflict

Most writers intuitively grasp the need for conflict in a novel, because strife between characters creates obstacles for the main character. Yet the logic often extends only to protagonist and antagonist, leaving gaps of tension strewn through the story. When plotting out a scene to be written, an author is better off looking for sharper edges among characters of all stripes. 

A common scene type that falls flat takes place between characters in a buddy pair, usually with the protagonist and a friend or relative. Such scenes can be filled with jokes or exchanges designed to show the personal side of the main character. Any danger posed by malign characters is forced to lie in wait, and any tension created before the scene fizzles out as shots of tequila or what have you are exchanged.

Somehow the most basic truth we know—everyone lives their life alone—melds into a sort of relationship glop that could only exist in a book. The lie in that artifice can be easily exposed. While you and your partner, say, are aligned on many issues, you also bicker constantly because you have differing views as well. If you are trying to create conflict, why are you writing kumbaya scenes? At the very least, doesn’t familiarity breed contempt?

Another factor should contribute to that feeling of being set apart. If Stanley Elkin is correct when he says, “I would never write about anyone who was not at the end of his rope,” how does your protagonist’s desperation look to others? If she commits a major faux pas, why would you think her friend would rush to her aid? Even if your sister does something embarrassing in public, your first reaction will be to join the crowd and shun her. Or, at a minimum, stay silent and leave her to dangle on her lonesome.

Recognizing when close binds fray can aid in devising scenes that show those tears. If the hero is acting so badly that even friends make themselves scarce, the reader realizes how unusual the situation is—and that adds tension. It also requires that you think through all of the characters’ personal agendas so that they don’t align. How can you set competing interests in play all through the book and still devise reasons for them to appear together?

You can go deeper into characterization as well. If the main character is going wrong, and that rubs a friend the wrong way, what is being rubbed? You have to think through  what the baseline of the character’s traits are. If he is shy, a hero’s insistence that he clear their name will cause resentment. I don’t do that stuff, so why are you asking? Then follow that thread—how can you keep rubbing that sore spot in new and interesting ways? Now you have friction abroad and friction at home.

“One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.”  —Euripides

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.