Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 26, 2023

Where the Trouble Starts

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

mosquito writing with a tornado in the background

Some books open with a tornado roaring through town and leaving the protagonist without any house, transportation, light, or even food.

Others open with the protagonist discovering their soon-to-be spouse is already married with six kids at home.

Some open with a protagonist getting a phone call: “To get your twin back alive, bring three billion dollars to the Marrakesh airport Tuesday at noon.”

Any of those incidents COULD be where the trouble starts.

But not every reader -- or writer, for that matter -- wants this kind of external drama on page 1.

Some prefer seeing the tension build more gradually.

Some enjoy the kind of suspense that leaves ‘em afraid to turn out the lights.

Some want a conflict where the protagonist’s biggest challenge is more internal than external.

Some readers like ALL those possibilities, both the externally dramatic and the internally dramatic, along with thousands of others. (Those are the ones we want to be writing for!)

But either way, we want our characters challenged.

When you look at the trouble in your book, where does it come from?

Ideally some of it is external, because characters who decide to take any specific action are just more interesting.

And some of it is internal, because knowing this person more deeply increases how much we care about their outcome.

Pretty much all of us, whether we’re reading OR writing, want a book’s characters to be interesting...and we want them to make us care.

One very effective way of accomplishing both those goals is to -- oh, right -- get ‘em in trouble.

“The flood waters are rising and I can’t find Jacob!”

“Until that summer, I always thought I’d see my mother again.”

“No matter what, I cannot lose this job.”

“Brad and Gina are BOTH coming, and I just know Roxy’s gonna be there.”

“How could a simple mosquito bite have gotten this bad, this fast?”

Seeing people in trouble makes us curious.

We want to know more. What’s going on?

How did this come about?

Why were they caught by surprise?

Who’s on their side?

What are they gonna do?

What if that doesn’t work?

If we like what we see of these people, it makes us want to know a LOT more. Not just about the situation they’re in, but also how this particular person is going to handle it.

Anybody, for example, could get a simple mosquito bite that turns into a festering lesion five hours later. But their response to this situation will be tremendously different, depending on the kind of person they are.

Someone who’s a perfectionist will have a different reaction than someone who’s an adventurer. Neither of ‘em is likely to have an easy time dealing with this suddenly dangerous wound, unless they happen to be a doctor specializing in weird diseases, but the WAY they deal with it is gonna create different types of conflict for each of them.

It goes beyond the conflict caused by just the situation.

We can bet that perfectionist P.J. will immediately start seeking out expert advice, following the instructions on WebMD right down to the millimeter length of the cotton swab, and looking for the doctor’s phone number to display prominently on the refrigerator door in case paramedics have to come rushing in. “Hmm, is that red-letter printing big enough? Is it TOO big?” And so on.

On the other hand, adventurous Ali will be posting photos of the growing wound, debating with the pizza delivery guy whether this is worse than the time Marty got bit by a snake, and wondering whether it’s faster to skateboard or hitchhike to the ER. “Whatever happened to that skateboard, anyway? How come nobody stops when you wear a windmill beanie?” And so on.

Same challenge. Completely different story.

So you can see how the trouble starts long before the mosquito ever bit Ali or P.J. The trouble begins with the kind of person they are.

Conflict Starts in the Head

That’s why it makes sense to look at each character’s type or subtype or archetype, and how ANY conflict in their life will be influenced by what makes ‘em unique.

If we've got ten people on a leaking boat, for instance, all ten will have a different struggle ahead of them. Stay afloat, sure, but that doesn't stay intriguing for long. Who's gonna blame the captain? Who's gonna watch for sharks? Who's gonna write texts to their loved ones? Who's gonna inflate life rafts? Who's gonna jump first? Who's gonna panic? Who's gonna pray? Who's gonna tell jokes?

Knowing the answers to such questions makes it far easier to create characters who’ll naturally encounter their own conflict, no matter what challenge they face. Because it’s already built into the kind of person they are.

And that’s what makes conflict “from the head down” so important!

Prize Drawing Question

Speaking of conflict, how would the protagonist of whatever book you’re currently writing or reading react to a mosquito bite that seemed ordinary a few hours ago but now seems to be turning dangerously strange?

Would they panic? Would they do research? Would they call a friend? Would they laugh it off? Would they -- well, you get the idea.

You might know this person so well it’s like answering how YOU would react. You might still be just getting to know them. Either way, I’d love to hear what comes to mind…as soon as I close the blinds to avert any potentially fatal mosquitoes!

By the way, somebody who comments on that question will win free registration for “Building Conflict from the Head Down,” a May 8-19 email class on creating characters who’ll automatically run into trouble not only with each other and with various situations...but also with themselves. On Friday evening I’ll have random dot org draw a name and post it waaaaay down at the end.

* * * * * *

About Laurie:

Laurie Schnebly Campbell

After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops including the one at groups.io/g/ConflictHD, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 50+ titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.

Top image by Deleyna via Canva

71 comments on “Where the Trouble Starts”

  1. My character is an animal protagonist, and this cat would react to a dangerous mosquito bite by rolling himself on the ground, panicking and howling.Then he would seek the help of his favorite human immediately to make it all better.

  2. Oh, what fun this is, Laurie! Torturing characters is one of my favorite pastimes! lol

    The heroine in my WIP is a nurse, the hero is a body guard. She would likely have noticed right away that something was off about the bite. She would have treated it with simple anti-itch medications at first then immediately gone to one of her more advanced colleagues for evaluation.

    HE, however, would ignore the damn distracting thing as much as possible and continue working, likely wondering where he can buy a blowtorch locally so if it got worse he could just rid himself of the whole arm. He might, in passing, just for the hell of it, mention his idea for this extreme ‘treatment’ to the heroine because, well...she’s a nurse after all and that’s his fightin’ arm. 😉

    1. Debbie, I love his elaborately casual rationale for "mentioning" his plan to the heroine -- it's got nothin' to do with needing any of her attention or help or sympathy. (Absolutely NOT!)

  3. My character, Mal, would be using her phone to research what normal and abnormal bites look like. She's a big believer in research - for what she cannot do by magic.

  4. I loved this blog post! It was such a funny and unique read, Laurie.

    I just rereading Harry Potter and they'd definitely react to a bite with a little suspicious that it's caused by someone sinister. What a fun tool to help get inside a character's head.

    1. Amanda, you're right about the Harry Potter characters -- I can't think of a single one who'd take something like that for granted and later wind up surprised. Hmm, food for thought. 🙂

  5. Hi Laurie. Trust you to bring up a unique angle to conflict. And you're so right...it does begin in the head. I recently read a wonderful book called "The Roof Beneath their Feet". It's written by Geetanjali Shree (who won the Booker Prize recently for her phenomenal Tomb of Sand). It's an exploration of the complicated friendship between two women, Chacho and Lalna and a male character (Bitwa) who is Lalna's son but wishes he was born to Chacho. But the conflict of this character plays out in his head. So if he were to be bitten by the mosquito, he would probably convince himself that he was on death's bed and lay the blame for it on Lalna without actually saying it- why did she leave the windows open in the evening? Lalna would on the other hand create a huge drama about it and be painted a scarlet woman by the neighbours for no fault of hers (she was probably flirting with the new neighbour and forgot to close the window) while Chacho would be the one who would tend to Bitwa's mosquito bite and win all the plaudits.

  6. One of the characters in my not-yet-written novel, Payton, would immediately call her boyfriend on FaceTime and show him the mosquito bite while she cries and hyperventilates - always the drama. She'd then beg him to please "drop by" and pick her up because she's too upset to drive herself, even though he lives further away than she does from the Emergency Room. While she's waiting for him to arrive she calls as many of her friends as she can get in touch with, explaining what happened, asking advice and on and on.

    1. Patti, that sure sounds like the Payton I know...every detail is a great illustration of who she is and how, no matter what happens in her life, there's always gonna be drama and excitement!

  7. Hey! Hi, Laurie.
    This is an interesting question. My current heroine would probably laugh it off, at first. She'd tell herself it was no big deal, it'll just go away if I ignore it, I have far more pressing concerns than a little nuisance like a festering mosquito bite. She'd bravado her way through it while brushing off the worries of her friends. But deep down she'd be filled with doubts, worrying that she's being stupid, that the wound will leave a permanent scar which she definitely doesn't need because she has enough flaws already, and wouldn't a smarter person be handling this like an adult? The hero would be the one openly concerned, doing research, booking her a doctor's appointment (which she would fight against), and making plans for any fallout. He's been here before and seen just how wrong things can go, and he never wants to go there again.
    Thanks for another good blog post!

    1. Cheryl, way to go on identifying not only each one's response, but also their underlying fragility -- you've got two people with lots of room to learn & grow & change, which'll be fun to watch!

  8. Current WiP is a dark fantasy set in the modern world, where magic exists but is carefully hidden (and there's a whole organization dedicated to keeping it that way), so Christopher Black wouldn't be terribly surprised to find an apparent mosquito bite that turned out to be far worse than expected. He is, however, in hiding -- from the entire magical world -- so he would definitely want to deal with it on his own.

    His first move would be investigation: why is this so much worse than an ordinary bite? Was the mosquito a manifestation of some sort of spell? Was it not a mosquito at all, but something that managed to wander in from the Gray (the magical lands outside our world)? If so, are there more of them or was it a random incursion? If it was a spell, who cast it and why -- and does that mean somebody has found him?

    In this case, curing the bite itself probably wouldn't be that big an issue, but it would definitely take a distant backseat to finding out why the bite was behaving unexpectedly in the first place.

      1. Michael, it sounds like Christopher's got his work cut out for him no matter WHAT happens in his world...survival trumps all, but for him investigation & violence are equally useful tools.

  9. The protagonists in my current book are a set of twins!! Twin 1 would probably fall off the wagon and have a drink, maybe the whole bottle of wine, lay down,passsed out, wake up to the festering wound being MUCH WORSE;she would cry out loudly and call someone to come get her to a hospital. She would not know how this had happened to her!!!

    Twin #2 would calmly go to her medicine cabinet and put on some ointment or spray something onto her wound,wrap it carefully, and drive herself to the local E.R. She would have left a note for her husband and directions on how to heat up the casserole, on the counter, for dinner.

  10. My main characters live on an alien ship, complete with nanotech medicines and medical stasis pods to “pause” spread of diseases. So, they’d be very alarmed at the prospect of an alien bug bite. But the ship also has a comprehensive medical library, which also has a database on human medical treatments.

    After taking sample from around the wound, I’m sure they’d place the victim in stasis until the were sure they had a handle on the nature of the illness. Then they’d revive them and begin proper treatment.

    1. J. H., it sounds like you're gonna have all kinds of fun with these well-organized characters -- they'll be so hard to rattle that when something DOES rattle them, it'll be a fireworks alert!

  11. I always enjoy your posts. Regarding the mosquito bite... my character would try to heal it with his magical abilities, but since there are outside forces affecting his powers, it wouldn't work and he would want to know why.

  12. One of my main characters lives in a country where dengue is common, and spread by mosquito bites. Her husband is a medical doctor. She goes to the clinic and begins treatment. Then she gripes to everyone about the dilapidated and understaffed and undersupplied state of the clinic. The mosquito bite serves her well - she gets lots of attention, and she gets to demonstrate her public-spiritedness.

    1. Meg, that's a good vivid picture of a woman who instinctively knows how to make the most of every opportunity to achieve whatever she sets her mind to...it's ideal for potential turmoil!

  13. Michael, it sounds like Christopher's got his work cut out for him no matter WHAT happens in his world...survival trumps all, but for him investigation & violence are equally useful tools.

  14. Great post (first of all!)

    My main character is a future doctor and extremely maternal. She’d be curious at the change in the bite. She’d clean and inspect it, take Benedryl if she’s allergic to mosquito bites, douse it will a strong antibiotic, and then cover it with a band-aid if it itches and she thinks she might scratch it. She’d be checking it often for change and maybe even taking her temperature. She’d note the time.

  15. My character would approach the bite scientifically/medically and want to rule out anything serious. She’d make a doctor’s appointment and go in asap figuring it’s worth the deductible to not worry!

  16. Great question! My character, Mary, would have different reactions depending on where/when in the book the mosquito bite happened. At the beginning, she'd ignore it because she doesn't have time to worry. Much like she doesn't have time for a friend, a husband, or a hobby. When it starts to fester, she'll doctor herself real quick and get on with life. Later in the book, she'll question whether it's a mosquito bite or something nefarious, otherworldly, magical. She'll wonder who's out to get her this time, and then she'll go on the attack. In either case, she assumes she's in control, even if she isn't.

  17. A character I'm writing about would have headed straight to the pharmacy for advice and been so friendly and talkative with the pharmacy staff that she'd have cheered up their day and left them feeling as if they had known her for years.

    1. Janet, I wish I could stand in line at the pharmacy with your character -- she sounds like a delightful person to be around. And we KNOW something about that will create trouble for her... 🙂

  18. My cop character would ignore it as a nuisance, but his wife would insist on having a doctor look at it. He'd probably call his paramedic buddies instead.

  19. Great article. Nice way to show that conflict can come from small innocuous things too (ask anyone who's arachnophobic 🙂
    My Ancient mystical warrior would suspect it's just one more trick his manipulative witch of a mother cooked up, and he'd double down on his search to find/kill her before she destroys mankind. Bree, a 'healer,' would compare it to previous wounds in an effort to find the most effective remedy. Then she'd force Malek to let her treat the wound by logically pointing out that he can't protect the world if he's dead.

  20. An interesting post.
    My current WIP starts with the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. I'm not very far along with the 1st draft, so don't know my protagonist well yet.
    He has had a blow on the head which he is taking stoically, even though he is concussed.
    I think that he would tend to say, 'It's nothing. Only a little bite. It'll get better so stop fussing.'

  21. Perfect timing, workingvon characters this weekend. My main character would be too busy to notice right away, but when she does, she gets help. She has lived in an area with potentially nasty bugs all her life and would know to check it out.
    Terrific blog and a great way to start the day and the beginning of getting to know my characters.

  22. Wow! What a great class featured on Writers in the Storm! My protagonist is reacting to a secret conflict the antagonist, his former best friend is keeping from him. Medical emergency causes the MC to angst then to act.

  23. What a great question! In my novel coming out in June, Wyatt, my male protagonist, wouldn't over-react but would probably want to have it seen if it got much worse, since he's the Perfectionist/Reformer and wouldn't want to let it go too long. Harper, the female protagonist, is the Performer, Achiever, Succeeder. She's also a mom at heart (Nurturer) and would want to come in to save the day by setting him up with her physician sister to have it looked at immediately.

    In my current work in progress, Book Two of the series, my male protagonist is the adventurer and would shrug it off. However, my female protagonist is a nurse and would be all over it. And if she felt it was over her head, she'd drag him to the doctor herself.

    Such a great exercise to get into my characters' heads! (And I'm not sure why I'm so sure the mosquito would bite my male characters instead of my female, but that's where my thoughts went first. Haha!)

    1. Lori, I bet you know your characters SO well that it's obvious the guys are far more inclined to engage in activities that carry a risk of mosquito bites. Their loves? Not so much... 🙂

  24. My WIP main character, who's twenty years old, is a fighter. I have heaped hardship upon hardship on him. Other characters expect him to quit, but he's not a quitter. He might lick his wounds for a bit, but he keeps fighting. He lives in a time where WebMD and penicillin are not widely available. Penicillin won't be available for at least another year. He would seek medical help. If that failed, he would ask his priest for Extreme Unction, then pray with his parents and say goodbye. He would look forward to being reunited with his brother and sister.

    1. Paula, what a nice insight into your hero's character -- that he'll accept what appears to be inevitable death gracefully, getting his ducks in a row and thinking of what's to come. Lovely!

  25. This is how my MC would react.
    Jorgensen scratched unconsciously at his arm again. Dam, that itched. Feeling something sticky on his hand. He looked down and saw blood running in a small rivulet down his arm. What the hell? He looked at the bite and noticed it had almost doubled in size since he first noticed it, and didn't look like a bite so much as a festering boil. The bite was bright red sending purplish streaks up towards his shoulder. The lines grew as he watched. Like I have time for this, he thought. Jorgensen pulled the first aid kit out of his police cruiser and found some bandaids. He made a pathetic attempt using four of them to cover the bite. Shit - it hurt. A bite wasn't taking him down right now. He was a cop, after all.

    1. Deb, what fabulous detail -- you've got me right there WITH Jorgensen, wanting to yell "take this seriously!" even while knowing that's just not who he is. So, hurray, lots of conflict ahead...

  26. This is so helpful! Thanks!
    My early reader chapter book character would respond with a bad attitude. “I’m no good—that’s why bad things always happen to me!”

    1. Tina, talk about an impactful response! I'll bet readers will immediately understand how this character approaches life, even without any mosquito bites, just based on that illustration.

  27. I write in the romance genre, so this situation is ideal for the Female MC to call her bestie or an unexpected call to the Male MC.

    1. Denise, either way will show that this heroine is someone who values connections more than self-sufficiency -- for her, life is meant to be shared with loved ones, no matter what happens!

  28. That mosquito bite? Bhodaan is going to ignore it. It's beneath his dignity... Until he flakes out at a state dinner, splattering the ambassador's wife with tomato soup and offending the Malachy Islands forever.

  29. The section "Conflict Starts in the Head" is especially on target for me. It is a great illustration of how different people react to a situation and how the "problem" on the outside begins long, long before it manifests in a person's life by the way they approach life, their own mindset, their background experiences as reference points. Very nicely done.

  30. My MC is an old hippie and a naturalist in MN, where we joke that the mosquito is the state bird. Haha. The worse the bite, the more she’ll turn to natural healing methods—heat packs, organic homemade salves, poultices, witch hazel, etc. And maybe a little sage and meditation. She’s going to have to be overcome with a raging infection/fever before she considers going to a doctor.

  31. My MC is an old hippie and a naturalist in MN, where we joke that the mosquito is the state bird. Haha. The worse the bite, the more she’ll turn to natural healing methods, first for the itch, then for the infection—heat packs, organic homemade salves, poultices, witch hazel, etc. And maybe a little sage and meditation. She’s going to have to be overcome with a raging infection/fever before she considers going to a doctor.

  32. Since my protagonist is a wildlife scientist studying Coywolves, I think Opal would probably take a sample and put it under her microscope to see if she is dealing with a bacteria she is able to treat.

    Opal lives way out in the forest and there is no phone.

    1. Diana, Opal's in a great setting for potential trouble no matter what kind of personality she brings to the picture -- but that'll make it all the more exciting to see what WILL rattle her.

  33. Thanks, everybody who posted intriguing glimpses of how their characters might wind up in conflict starting from what this person is like -- as one writer observed, "It's so much fun to play with others who let their imaginations out for a run!"

    To see who wins free registration to "Building Conflict from the Head Down" via email May 8-19, I gave the number of comments to random dot org and they drew #25. Which means congratulations go to Deb Caskey...Deb, just contact me at the email address on my BookLaurie.com website. 🙂

  34. I think mine would examine the back te, trace her steps to find the origin. Then try and find the mosquito to study it. All while tending to her reaction to it. Shed probably also make sure that diners on the table and the kids made it to practice.

  35. I'm not writing much these days, but if I had to pick one of my characters, I'd have to say Walter, who would probably cut an x in it as if it were a snakebite, attempt to suck out then spit out the poison, then pour his niece Fran's single-malt over it and move on with the rest of his day. Eventually Fran would be taking him to the emergency room, scolding him the entire time, but more about using her very expensive scotch than about the way his arm was now three times its usual circumference. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Laurie. 🙂

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