Friday, August 15, 2008

Character and Conflict

© Mary Burton 2008 all rights reserved
My goal as a writer is to pull you out of your world. To keep you up past your bedtime. To make you forget the pot is boiling on the stove. To make you wish you had five more minutes before you have to leave for your next appointment.

I’ve come to understand that to make this happen, I’ve got to make my reader feel some powerful emotions. The desire to feel emotion is why they’ve picked up one of my books. They want to be scared. They want to cry, to laugh, or feel loved.

Sounds simple enough. But I’ve found that’s easier said than done sometimes. Pulling emotion out of a story and hooking my reader can be a real dilemma. And it has been known to keep me up late at night.

Over the years I’ve come to understand that character and conflict are two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for great emotion. They must work hand in hand. One won’t be as effective without the other.

There are no hard and fast rules about whether writers should begin with character or conflict first. There are lots of theories floating around out there. Each writer is going to approach it differently.

For me, character comes first. I can’t really design a plot until I’ve met the characters. I’ve got to know who I’m working with before I can do anything with the story’s structure.

So how do you get to know these make believe people who just exist in your mind? After years of writing conferences, seminars and tapes on plotting and craft, I’ve assembled a set of questions I now run through when I’m getting to know my characters.

What is the character’s back-story? Where do they come from? Family, education, travels, ex-spouses, lost loves, siblings. What is their story?

What is their personality type? I’m a big fan of enneagrams, which are nine basic personality types. Not only can you read about each type but also you can dig into their strengths and weakness.

Archetypes are another way to look at a character. These are stock personality types that have been in literature for thousands of years. Some of my favorites include the Warrior, Chief, Queen, Princess, Thief, Caregiver, and the Magician. Each type has good and bad qualities. And to make it more interesting, beyond the primary archetype each character also has traits of the Child, Victim, Saboteur and Prostitute.

How does the world see your character? What image is your character projecting?

What kind of emotional scares is my character carrying? All my characters have a wound inside them that they’ve suppressed. How does the wound affect your character’s outlook on life and what they believe?

What is my character’s darkest fear? What is the worst thing that could happen to them?

What is my character’s greatest need? What is missing from their life? What would they love to have but are too afraid to ask for?


When I’ve figured out what makes my character’s tick then I sit down to design a plot that will really dig into their emotional weakness. There are some great books out there about plotting and structure. Some of my favorites include: Michael Hauge, WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL; Christopher Volger, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY; Robert McKee, STORY; and Laura Bakers and Robin Perni’s

The number one thing I keep in mind when I’m plotting is: what kind of emotion is this scene creating. Even if a scene is beautifully written, if it falls flat emotionally take a good hard look at it and ask yourself if you need it or how you can change it to punch it up.

Plotting I’M WATCHING YOU started with understanding my heroine, Lindsay O’Neil, a woman who prides herself on hiding her dark past and controlling her emotions. She wants the world to believe she is bullet proof, but she’s so controlled she’s unwilling to open up emotionally even to save her marriage.

Knowing Lindsay as I did at this point, I got to thinking, what could I do to make Lindsay loose her grip on control, ultimately help heal her wounds and find happiness? Lets see…how about a serial killer that is obsessed with her? What if I tossed in a reporter that is determined to dig up all the dirt from her past? And what if the lead homicide detective is her estranged husband?

Perfect. I was off and running.
* * *

MARY BURTON’s southern family has always enjoyed tall tales and a good yarns. Early on, Mary realized that Story had tremendous power to inspire strong responses such fear, laughter, love and even sorrow. This appreciation of story motivated her to earn an English degree from Virginia’s Hollins University. She sold her first manuscript to Harlequin Historicals. Since that initial sale, Mary had written twelve historical romances for Harlequin Historicals, four short romantic suspenses for Silhouette Romantic Suspense and a non-fiction book The Insider’s Guide to Direct Marketing. Her latest is her first single title romantic suspense for Zebra titled I’m Watching You.

In 2005, The Unexpected Wife was a finalist Romance Writers of America’s RITA contest and Wise Moves was 2006 nominee for the Romantic Times’ Critics Choice Award. I’m Watching You received critical acclaim from New York Times Best Selling author Carla Neggers who said, “Taut, compelling and emotional, I’m Watching You is romantic suspense at its most riveting. Mary Burton delivers a page-turner.”

Mary resides in Virginia where she enjoys yoga, cooking, hiking and the occasional triathlon. You can visit her website at to find out more about this talented author and her book!


Kim Smith said...

Mary your book sounds fantastic, and your manner of working on your book appeals to me. I am such a pantser, I need more structure. Thanks for the insights!

Cheryl said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. Great article too.