From 1988 ’til 2008—the first twenty years of my writing habit—I wrote okay stories. They were only okay because I had a bad habit: I cut out the conflict before it had a chance to affect the characters and storyline. Oh, I could make a short get off the ground, but anything longer—all my novels—had that issue. I would outline a conflict, then gloss over it, or solve it too quickly. As a result, most of my stories consisted of one conflict after another, each solved before I moved on to the next one. There was no complexity in my writing.
You see, it was really easy for me to envision throwing a monster or other external conflict at my characters. But when it came to internal and interpersonal conflict for them, I killed the conflict before it could do much to my characters or the story. And, for me, complexity in any story, whether one I’m reading or writing, comes when internal and interpersonal conflicts are included.
Yeah, it’s possible to write a good story where everyone gets along, but it’s not as good as a story with interpersonal conflict. All my characters from early writing come off as Mary Sues. Where I did try to insert interpersonal conflict, I negated it shortly thereafter. This was further compounded by my belief that all interpersonal conflict consisted of was arguments between characters, or physical fights. I didn’t realize that there were more subtle forms of interpersonal conflict.
I was worse with internal conflict. Much of my longer work completely lacked internal conflict. My characters had no doubts. They lacked fear—even of and in situations where they should have been terrified. They had utmost confidence they’d get through whatever difficulties they encountered.
Oh, and for most of my writing up until the turn of the century, I didn’t understand just what conflict was. I thought it was only what attacked the character from the outside. I mean, I’d encountered conflict in my reading, but I didn’t comprehend what conflict was. When I did write other kinds of conflict into my stories, I did it on an “instinctual” level, not really understanding things, and that, I think, is why I cut it off like I did. I didn’t see what it was, so I didn’t know how to use it.
It took me having a breakdown into bipolar disorder, stabilizing on a good medication regimen, reading old books on writing that I’d had before (and apparently not paid much attention to), chatting with writer friends online, and reading my old favorite stories by other authors with a more alert eye for internal and interpersonal conflicts for me to be able to include it in my stories. I finally gained the ability to discern the different types of conflict.
By this time, I was into writing gay romances pretty steadily, and I decided to use them to learn how to insert real conflict into my characters’ lives. The gay romances, in my mind, were perfect for this because they didn’t have any of the little extra things that fantasy stories have for bringing in outside conflict. I had a halfway decent handle on external conflict in my fantasy stuff—it wasn’t perfect, but it was there, and it was consistent throughout my longer pieces. The conflict these stories lacked were internal and interpersonal conflict. But those things were what I knew I could use the gay romances to learn to include, because they’re mostly about internal and interpersonal conflicts.
It took about three years of writing the gay romances—well, two, if I don’t include Hell Year Of Writing—for me to learn to see all forms of conflict in any given story. Now before I start new stories, I look at every angle I can see to find possible points of conflict. I continue doing this as I write the story, and my stories are much better for it—more interesting, more nuanced, and much, much more complicated and entertaining.