Friday, July 14, 2006

Creating Conflict with a Crucible

It's human nature to avoid conflict. Certain characters (ordinarily bad guys) may seek conflict as a tactic for aggression, but most of your characters won't. In fact, even when confronted with conflict by a bad guy, it's often in your character's best interest to turn his back on the conflict and walk away. If the reader asks herself why your character doesn't just walk away, you're in trouble. Her suspension of disbelief is at stake. So, you need a device to believably keep your characters locked in conflict.

A powerful device for doing so is the crucible.

A crucible is a piece of laboratory equipment you probably remember from high school chemistry. It's a small dish with a pouring spout, a dish that can withstand extremely high temperatures. Chemists use a crucible to heat solids to such high temperatures. For example, you might melt sulfur in one over a Bunsen burner. Or you may combine different substances in one and meld them together in white hot heat.

In the vernacular, a crucible is any severe trial people undergo.

As a literary device, a crucible is a relationship imposed by place or situation that bonds antagonistic characters together while their conflict heats up. The situation may be emotional or physical — moral or material. Characters caught in a crucible won't declare a truce or quit or walk away. This is either because they are trapped or because the motivation to continue opposing each other is greater than the motivation to walk away. A crucible can hold characters in it for a scene or a series of scenes, but usually it holds them throughout the story.

A marriage, a jail cell, a family, a lifeboat, a foxhole, a military unit, and the workplace can be such a crucible. Intimate blood relationships are a crucible. Dependency is a crucible.

For example, in Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita, Humbert loves Lolita, a young girl who is still a child. For most of the story they are in a crucible because she is dependant on him and has nowhere else to go. But dependency can also be entirely emotional or moral. The victim of abuse by a pedophile priest is in such a crucible. Similarly, a school and its rules become a crucible for a bully and a child he picks on. That child cannot avoid conflict, because he must present himself for abuse daily or be punished for skipping class. An abusive lover typically manufactures a crucible by cunningly and ingeniously isolating a woman and gradually making her both financially and emotionally dependant on him. Then the abuse begins.

Needless to say, nothing heats up a conflict like a crucible. The result is a bloodbath. Soldiers are fragged. The child commits suicide. Ten or fifteen years later that priest is murdered. Either the wife kills her husband or is murdered by him. Fortinbras enters and gasps:

This quarry cries on havoc. O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?

There is one kind of crucible that even the death of an antagonist doesn't crack. It's the relationship between parent and child. This is because we acquire our self-image (self concept) in the mirror of our parents' eyes during the first few years of life, while our personality (person-hood) develops. We internalize their voices and carry them inside for the rest of our lives. Hence nearly everybody's "unresolved issues" with a parent. Narcissistic injury by a parent at a tender age invades and plunders the child's permanent relationship with himself. The internalized voice of that parent becomes a demon that torments the child forever, even after the parent's death, till the day that child dies. The relationship among siblings can be almost as formidable and destructive a crucible.

A crucible is an important component in planning a whole story, but you can also create a crucible to improve a scene. Just put something in the characters' background that locks them together. Such a lock increases the stress in their relationship.

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