Creating Conflict For Your Character, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)
In this post and the next I’ll show you how I apply some common writing tactics to my own work. Today I’ll talk about my first novel, Happyface.
One rule that I found useful when trying to think up events to take place early in the book was the idea of rocks and shields: the idea that your character exists in a world where rocks are constantly being thrown at him or her, so your character seeks shields for protection.
In Happyface, rocks come at the protagonist all throughout the book. The tragedy that starts him on his journey can be considered one such rock. Happyface and his mom move to a new town near the start of the book, leaving his father and brother suddenly absent. Happyface’s story is about reinvention and hiding from his past. These are his goals. So what are the rocks?
An early rock is the presence in this new school of Mr Mulvey, his English teacher. Mulvey went to Happyface’s old school and taught his older brother. Mulvey knows Happyface and his family story. For someone trying to hide everything he was before, Mulvey, well meaning as he is, becomes a dangerous presence.
Another rock comes from the Moon sisters; best friends of Happyface’s crush, Gretchen. They’re over-protective of their friend and intensely nosey. Happyface is constantly trying to throw them off his trail and keep himself a mystery but they want to know who this kid is and, more importantly, who he was.
The arrival of Chloe, his old crush from his old town, also ramps up the intensity and reveals a lot of holes in Happyface’s story that has everyone questioning his reliability. Happyface’s mom is also a rock, in the midst of a breakdown and wanting to keep past events in the present.
As for shields, Happyface has those too. His sketchbook is one – it’s a diversion and it keeps his story straight, it makes his fake stories real. His entire “Happyface experiment” is a shield – he fully immerses himself in this social experiment that takes up his days and nights as a way of erasing a painful past and occupying his mind. Gretchen is a shield. His head-over-heels infatuation with her is a way of avoiding reality. His obsession with becoming popular, with having friends, is all to avoid his home life. If he loses them, he loses everything; all he has is a dark, broken, sad family life to return to.
Another writing method I used in Happyface is a character web – the idea that each character in some way illuminates a different part of Happyface. Around dorky Mike, who is shades of a former Happyface himself, Happyface becomes an alpha male, and talks down to him. Around Frog and Oddly, his “fan club,” Happyface truly feels like the popular kid in school. Around Gretchen he’s vulnerable and scared. Around Misty and Karma Moon he plays up the comedian role, not a care in the world.
Each crush of his reveals one of his “masks”. Together they showcase the idea that he’s always had this chameleon aspect to his personality. The book is never about popularity or about love, Gretchen is never the actual goal of the story, but it’s a book about becoming comfortable with yourself. The happy ending is being able to take off the mask.
Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com
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