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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Generating External Conflict -- Esri Rose

Sometimes we focus so closely on our two main characters and their personal demons that our eyes cross. She finds out that her father lied to her ten years ago and her true love wasn’t cheating on her. He realizes that his fear of intimacy comes from his overbearing mother. But it’s handy to know how to generate external conflict, and it’s crucial if you write any kind of romantic suspense. Here’s an easy way to come up with hard problems:
Don’t stop with your hero and heroine.

In fiction as in life, each character has conflict going on. The hero is the villain’s obstacle, the humorous sidekick is secretly jealous of the heroine, and Dad is having trouble with his new girlfriend and isn’t there when his daughter needs him. Examine the lives of the characters around your two protagonists, and your conflict will proliferate until you need an arms treaty.

Here’s a basic historical plot we'll use as an example.

Heroine Annabelle has an infatuation for Young Tommy, an attractive boy with chivalric ideas and no common sense. Her father refuses to let them marry.

Hero Charles wants a diplomatic/spying mission that Annabelle’s father is in a position to give. He hasn’t been able to get it because Annabelle’s Dad doesn’t think he’s daring enough.

Villain Rutherford wants to marry Annabelle because that will make his father give him his inheritance. (Rutherford’s Dad used to own the estate that is Annabelle’s dowry, but lost it to A’s dad in a card game. This is vengeance.)

Villain Rutherford starts the ball moving. His sister, who’s in league with him, invites Annabelle to come to their home in Scotland for a visit. Sister says that during the visit, she’ll help Annabelle elope with Young Tommy. In fact, this is an abduction, and Rutherford plans to marry Annabelle himself.

Young Tommy, who is gathering stones to toss at Annabelle’s window, overhears the plan from a maid Rutherford bribed. He tries to warn Annabelle’s Dad, but the man won’t open the door to him. So Young Tommy tells Hero Charles, who is leaving the house after being refused his pet mission yet again. Charles knows inside info about Rutherford that makes him open to Young Tommy’s story. He decides to rescue Annabelle and prove his derring-do to A’s dad.

Those are the basics, and they get us started. Now we need a whole bunch of stuff to happen to keep the momentum going.

Obviously, Annabelle has some plot points of her own.

  • She discovers Rutherford’s plan.
  • She escapes and spends time with Charles, while they run from Rutherford.

But let’s face it; she has to spend most of her time falling in love with the right guy. Now is when we leave our two protagonists entirely and start looking at the secondary characters.

Villain Rutherford is beavering away at evilness. And though some or much of it takes place off the page, it still generates conflict. Imagine his problems -- problems that make him even more desperate and determined.

  • Rutherford receives word that his father is ill – forcing him to travel faster with Annabelle so he can get the paperwork tied up before the old man dies.
  • Rutherford has borrowed on his inheritance. At one point, when it looks like Charles and Annabelle will finally get away, Rutherford’s creditor decides to help Rutherford get his inheritance by loaning him some thugs.

What about Young Tommy? The poor lad is chivalrous to a degree that resembles imbecility.

  • He believes the sob story of a sad-eyed gypsy who steals all his and Charles’ money.
  • Tommy is injured while defending a saucy French camp follower, thus failing to show up when Charles really needs him.

It looks black when Rutherford recaptures Annabelle only a mile from Gretna Green. What a good thing that Rutherford’s sister, who has suffered under her brother’s thumb for so many years, has fallen in love with one of the creditor’s thugs. She backs out of the plan to drug Annabelle into marital compliance. Wait, that’s a solution, and we need conflict. Okay, she’s creepily in love with brother Rutherford and decides to kill Annabelle at the last minute.

Your secondary characters will generate external conflict and plot points galore if you give them a chance. You may even feel you have too much conflict and have to cut some to avoid melodrama or keep the length reasonable. And isn’t that a great position to be in?

How about your work in progress? What conflict and plot points have your secondary characters' lives provided?


Esri Rose’s first book, Bound to Love Her, is coming out May 6! Bound to Love Her is an urban-fantasy, romantic-suspense comedy featuring elves. Win a copy by entering her contest at or by visiting Marta Acosta’s blog. There’s another book giveaway this Friday at Romance Bandits, and I think I visit Jill Monroe’s blog after that.


At 11:08 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I totally agree. Secondary characters can help generate lots of external conflict. My question is when are you going to write this hypothetical historical? ;)

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

You know, I LOVE historicals, and yet the idea of doing all the research to write one intimidates the heck out of me. If this elf thing doesn't pan out, maybe I should look for a co-writer, huh?

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Esri, I want to read this as well! :) I know I'm going to LOVE Bound to Love Her.

My secondary characters help tremendously. The hero's estranged best friend really forces him to come to grips with his whole past/present life issues. My heroine's father's secretive life is helpful, and her mother, a woman of questionable morals, livens things up nicely as well.

Mostly, I need my secondary characters and the temptations they provide in order for the h/h to grow. But during the Avon Fanlit contest I was told more than once that my secondary characters really overshadowed the main ones, so I try to keep an eye on that. :)

At 8:59 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Great post, Esri. I will join the consensus. YOU need to write this book! Can't wait for your book to come out!!

My secondary characters are real menaces to my hero and heroine as only friends and relatives can be. The heroine's best friend from childhood is now a viscount with a terrible reputation. He and she have been stealing horses from abusive owners. Now that she is a duchess her friend is unwilling to give her up as a sidekick and he tends to hint to her husband that there is more between him and the heroine than friendship. We have a horrible magistrate who is trying t bust the viscount and the heroine for stealing his horses. The heroine's sister is jealous because the heroine ended up married to the duke the sister jilted. Then the hero's best friend is (a) the worst gossip in England and (b) someone who loves to manipulate people into embarrassing the hell out of themselves. Add the hero's dead older brother who was gay (society never knew)a friend of the heroine and had a 14 year affair with his valet who now is the only person capable of giving everyone else intelligent advice on their love lives!

So. too many secondary characters, just enough?

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Doglady: WOW! Wow, wow!



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