Conflict is the Story

It’s a daily struggle, for your story and yourself.

When building a story, my first inclination is to make my protagonist, and the supporting cast, the best of friends. They agree on everything, respect each other’s feelings and compliment each other’s outfits. “Can you believe it? I got it on sale!” Isn’t that what we’d all like in our lives? But writing graphic novels isn’t the real world, kids. Next time someone asks you, “Why can’t we all just get along?” you have my permission to smash a bottle over their head and scream “Because it’s dull.”

In fiction, your characters need to have differences; they need to chafe under pressure, screw each other over and basically do what they said they wouldn’t do. And, especially for comics, they need to look different. The more physical, emotional, social and ideological differences you can put between your characters the better. There’s a goldmine of conflict in odd-couple pairings. Look at Abbot and Costello, Harold and Maude, Chris Farley and David Spade, Christopher Walken and, well, anybody else.

But characters aren’t created entirely on the page. Sometimes they need to cook a little longer in the toaster oven of your mind. Lock your cast up in a virtual room and listen to them. You can do this on the bus, at the gym or while your boss is talking. What’s the worst thing that can happen to each of your characters? Who falls in love? Who cracks? Motivation is key; even characters working towards a common goal will have different reasons for doing so. The more attention you give your characters, the more likely the story conflict will deepen and grow.

My favorite stories are ones that connect the personal and environmental conflict. The 1953 film The Wages of Sin is a great example of this. Four expatriates hiding in South America are offered a fortune to drive two trucks, filled with unstable nitroglycerin, over a hazardous mountain terrain. The guys don’t get along, they could blow up at any minute and they’re running out of time.

Now if you took that same plot and made them best friends, from high school, and had it take place on Long Island, and had the trucks filled with golf balls, the “will they or won’t they” becomes “who cares?” even though it’s still four guys on a road trip.  Where your story takes place, and how your characters interact with that environment, is an opportunity.

Writing a graphic novel, or anything, can be a herculean task no matter where you are in your career. That is our conflict, as creators. Take every raw emotion this process ignites in you and throw it back at the page. You are the protagonist of your own journey. 

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the book Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel, which you can purchase here.