A Writing Entry – Artificial Conflict

I had an entry awhile ago about contrived situations writers will often use to create conflict in the story. I only listed four examples, and three were situations, and one was a character type (the drama llama). Inspired by a YouTube video, I got to thinking about other character types who exist only to create some kind of obstacle for the protagonist to overcome and hopefully don’t exist in real life. Unlike a trope, these characters exist solely to move the plot forward. Their motivations don’t make sense, their characterization is flat, and their appearance in the story is either lazy on the part of the writer or contrived, or sometimes both.

1) Strawmen – these are very popular. Basically, a strawman is a character that creates all sorts of obstacles for the protagonist but none of the obstacles make any logical sense, thus, it is pretty easy for the protagonist to eventually bypass those obstacles. Oddly, a strawman is usually in a position to create legitimate obstacles for the protagonist, but the writer doesn’t do that because then the writer actually has to put some effort into how the protagonist can overcome those obstacles (and sometimes, logically, the protagonist can’t).

For example, a police captain suspends the protagonist cop because he didn’t file his paperwork instead of suspending him for shooting someone without provocation. The writer recognizes what the cop did was wrong, and would get him in trouble, but at that point the story comes to a grinding halt. Instead, the cop gets suspended on a charge that doesn’t matter so he can go rogue, catch the bad guy, and prove that guy he shot in the beginning was totally a criminal. The suspension moves the story along with no real consequence or substance. Other examples of strawmen include the bullying coach of [insert team here], the needlessly overbearing high school principal, and the needlessly overbearing parent.

2) The Complete Incompetent – I know that not everyone is good at their jobs. Most people put in an adequate job performance and some are outright terrible. However, usually (although given recent events), totally incompetent people do not get to positions of authority and if somehow they do, they are usually removed. But movies especially seem populated by police commissioners who couldn’t find their own rear ends, politicians who either do nothing at all or believe their position gives them ultimate power, hospital administrators who don’t seem to know what “E.R.” stands for, principals/deans so oblivious students could swipe the computer from their desk as they’re working on it, and Dilbert-esque managers who are stymied by a jammed stapler. I’m talking ’80s cartoon villain level of incompetency and not necessarily just in comedies either.

But again, complete incompetents create obstacles that are pretty easily gotten around by the protagonists. Heck, if Principal Belding had been anything but completely incompetent, Saved by the Bell wouldn’t have made it through one season.

3) Soulless Suit – Unlike the Complete Incompetent, this character actually knows how to do his/her job; s/he just chooses not to. This is a character, usually in a position of authority, who absolutely will not do the right thing to protect people because of greed (money or power), some kind of principle, or really, no good reason at all except that plot requires this character to steadfastly refuse to do the right thing. Worse, no one else witnessing this character’s actions takes any steps to remove said character from power, which, logically shouldn’t be too hard given the disaster the suit’s wrong-headedness is causing. Yeah, I know, it’s not as though these people don’t exist in real life, but there seem to be a staggering number of them populating movies, especially in the horror and disaster-action genres.

Examples include the mayor who won’t close the beach, the executive who won’t shut down the park, or the politician that won’t order a mandatory evacuation; basically any time people are being killed in horrible ways and the person in charge utterly refuses to do anything to stem the carnage.

4) The Sonic Screwdriver – not exactly a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, this is a character who always seems to know just what to do next in order to move the plot, even if what do to next doesn’t have anything to do with the skills that character has already displayed. Crucially, this character does almost nothing otherwise in the story until a pivotal plot moment. The Sonic Screwdriver is brought it, moves the plot along, and is put to the side until the next time. A prime example would be R2-D2, the little droid that could…do anything at all. Hack ships, tazer people, rescue idiot Jedi, rescue idiot Jedi some more, etc., etc. Obviously more common in ensemble stories and sci-fi settings, but can show up in comedies as the protagonist’s best friend who wanders in to say/do the right thing at the right time to advance the plot and then wanders away again (Wilson in the early seasons of Home Improvement was a prime example of this).

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. Remember, these are not tropes. Any character trope can be used as nothing more than a plot device, although admittedly some tropes lend themselves better than others. As a writer, I think the characters ought to move the plot along, but if that’s the only reason the character exists, I consider that to be just lazy writing.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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