How do your characters handle confrontation?

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This morning, I gave some advice to a family member. I urged her to take the high road in a conflict at work. I’m a logical kind of guy, and I do my best to keep my emotions in check when it comes to making decisions. So rather than encourage her to fight back against the coworkers giving her a hard time, I suggested that she stay above the fray and not sink down to their level. I hope this was good advice, but it also made me wonder: Is there ever a time when it’s best to let your emotions take over, to take Darth Vader’s advice and give in to your anger?

There’s another element to this as well, an element perhaps a bit more primal. I’m a nonconfrontational type. If I can avoid a fight, I do so as best as I can. That’s not to say that I let others walk all over me, but as a kid I never got into a physical fight with someone at school. Never really came close. I think that says something about who I am. That’s right, go ahead and say it: borrrrring…

But that’s not the case for the characters my imagination has dreamed up over the years. They’re usually getting into all sorts of trouble. As they should. A story isn’t much of a story without conflict. So many of these characters deal with confrontation head-on with fists raised.

The High RoadPerhaps one reason why I gravitated toward writing is precisely because I’ve always tried to steer onto the high road, but often wondered what would have happened if I had veered off and messed up my paint job. In this sense, I’m the antithesis of the Hemmingway-type—I don’t intentionally put myself into harm’s way. And though, I’ve had my share of adventures, you won’t find me running with the bulls anytime soon.

I think it’s valuable then, and rather self-enlightening, to take a step back from our writing every once in a while and examine how our characters handle conflict. Is there a common denominator? Do they handle it just as we would?

As a kid I once realized while dreaming that I was actually in a dream. That anything I did would have no consequences because I was dreaming. And wouldn’t you know it, my dream was taking place inside a gift shop, the type of place where mothers repeatedly warn their children not to TOUCH ANYTHING! Let’s just say the dream was incredibly liberating.

So for me as a writer, it’s somewhat liberating to let my characters do the fighting for me, to charge into that gift shop swinging a baseball bat. Obviously that can leave the character in a world of trouble, whereas someone like me in real life would simply examine the merchandise, avoid fiddling with the knickknacks, and move on to the next store. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Then again, in the novel I’ve been working on for a hundred years, the main character—who is not terribly likable—is Mr. Avoidance, and that gets him into all sorts of deep water too, despite his aquaphobia.

So what are your characters like? Are they reflections of your own approach to confrontation, or do they, much like lab rats, continually try to answer the question of what if I were someone else? What if I were more aggressive? What if I were less emotional? What if I instigated a fight for once, or what if I decided to finally butt out of a family squabble?

Because the real question our readers care about is what are the consequences of this behavior? I can say as a writer, though, that it’s certainly nice to let our characters get their noses bloodied for us.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Congleton

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