Creating Conflict: Think Like a Kid


Up through middle school, one of my favorite things to do was play with Legos. I could spend hours building and creating characters and lore to go along with them. And boy was there a lot of lore.

Anyway, I had one character whose story was pretty vast. I called him Light, and he had a bunch of cybernetics built into his face (I think his head came from some alien spaceship Lego set) and a hat. The hat was important. In fact, I was deeply disappointed when I lost his blue hat and had to give him a black one. It just didn’t fit his character, but it did grow on me.

Light also had a magical talking flying ship that he rode around on like a hoverboard. It was originally very simple, and it had a retractable long neck with a clamping arm on its end that doubled as its mouth/laser, but eventually I added wings to it, and gave the wings multiple positions – normal back-swept like most planes, close-swept for higher speeds, and forward-swept because it looked cool. It grew and grew and was my most perfect creation. I took very, very good care of it.

The thing about Light as a character was that he was too powerful. He was my Superman, or more accurately the Green Ranger from the original Power Rangers series (the one with the Dragonzord). He showed up whenever the other characters – one of which was a red hat-wearing motorcyclist/superhero named Stunts – were in deep shit.

You see, Stunts et al would generally just mind their own business, going about their day messing about town and doing radical motorcycle stunts. I was apparently a clever story crafter as a kid, because I knew to nerf these characters’ powers. Stunts couldn’t fly, but he had other abilities, and was normally very formidable on his own.

tahu

But sometimes, especially when Bionicle became a thing, the group was faced with something much too powerful, and they called on Light to save the day. And he always came through, though his flying board (I really wish I remembered its name) broke multiple times in the process. It was probably the most human and fallible quality to Light, showing how much he cared for that magical robotic creature, usually resulting in him flying into a rage that ultimately helps him defeat whatever evil is facing the group.

Eventually, the Bionicle made peace with Light and Stunts, until a new evil emerged, or the Bionicle found a new mask that turned them evil while also making them more powerful. You know, typical comic book plotlines that recycle the same characters over and over as villains.

Why am I telling you all this?

Mostly because I want to reminisce about playing with Lego.

But also to point out how much better at creating conflict I was as a kid. Kids know that conflict makes things interesting, it makes things happen, and it gives reason for a character like Light to save the day in a most badass way.

I have a theory, too. I think adults are so used to conflict in their own lives and thinking about ways to avoid/prevent it that they shield themselves from it, and this can seep into writing. We see our characters as extensions of ourselves, or our children, I guess. Either way, we care about our characters, and we want to keep them from harm. But we know that we need conflict to have a good and interesting story.

As a kid, the added conflict – Light being robbed of his powers, or having his board broken, or once fighting an enemy that was too powerful for him to win alone – was what made the story fun. It tested all of my characters, and allowed them to come up with solutions on their own. It also made them feel things. They ultimately triumphed, usually, and things were actually better in the end. I think many of these battles even resulted in the talking hoverboard getting an upgrade.

I think a small part of me worried that I might have to kill one of my characters off someday, but that was outweighed by all the good that came of my characters being challenged and winning.

The lesson here is to not worry about your characters not overcoming a challenge. Instead, think like a kid and imagine how awesome it will be when your characters come up against an impossible challenge and are successful in defeating it. It might literally be a case of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

 


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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