Conditioning Forces – Or, your character doesn’t live in a vacuum!

The concepts in this post come from Uta Hagen’s great handbook, Respect for Acting, first published in 1973. Though Hagen’s book was written as a guide for actors, many of its ideas on creating a character can be applied to the art of writing.)

In the 1951 play, Bedtime Story, by Sean O’Casey, the protagonist is faced with the goal of getting a prostitute out of his apartment before his roommate comes home. The character’s goals are founded on the fact that he is a devout Roman Catholic, feels terribly guilty, and doesn’t want his indiscretion to be discovered. Getting the prostitute out of the house without being detected becomes the main character’s all encompassing goal.

The prospect of success comes with an obstacle, of course. The prostitute agrees to go only once the hero finds her lipstick, which she has left somewhere in the living room. He goes to find the lipstick, but decides to leave the lights off to avoid being seen. In fumbling around in the dark, he knocks over a vase, spilling frigid water onto his bare feet, the floor, and his shoes which were on the floor. The heater is coin operated (remember, this play is from the 50s,) but he can’t find a coin, so he can’t turn on the heater. He continues searching for the lipstick, all along trying to keep quiet to avoid being heard by his land lady who lives below him.

This scene is about a man dealing with a crisis of conscience—namely, the fact that he hired a prostitute despite his belief that doing so is immoral. His larger goal is to avoid detection. In order to achieve his larger goal, he must achieve a smaller, more immediate goal, which is to find the lipstick.

Having to hurry, stay quiet, work in the dark, deal with a flood and cope with bitter cold are obstacles to the character’s immediate goal of finding the lipstick. But they are a unique kind of obstacle. In Respect for Acting, Ms. Hagen refers to these obstacles as “conditioning forces.”

All of this is probably familiar territory—most writers understand that obstacles add tension.  However, it’s not enough to simply provide obstacles for your hero. Good writing includes obstacles of varying type and scale. Sometimes our focus on the big obstacles—the army guarding the gate, for instance—can command so much of our attention as writers that we overlook the impact of smaller obstacles, such as the blister on our hero’s heel.

Example time! Consider the following scenarios and how changing the conditioning forces could impact the tension in the scene:

  • The protagonist, a thirteen year old boy, must return a necklace to his mother’s jewelry box while his mother sleeps in bed. The inherent danger of detection creates tension in the scene. But add in squeaky floor boards, a ringing phone that threatens to wake the mother, the family dog following the boy into the room – any of these “conditioning forces” turns up the tension and makes for a more interesting scene. Now switch the scene from night to day—maybe the mother isn’t asleep, but is lying down with a cloth over her eyes because of a migraine, and right as our protagonist is lifting the lid to the jewelry box, the smoke alarm goes off. Or Dad comes home unexpectedly. A small tweak in conditioning forces can increase the tension exponentially.
  • Our protagonist, a CIA operative, must take photographs of plans that are in the trunk of a car. Getting into the locked trunk is a fairly daunting obstacle. But what if you add in that it’s bitterly cold out, or swelteringly hot? Both conditions would affect the hero’s ability to handle small lock-picking tools. What if her hand is injured and bleeding? What if she has a hangover? What if one of her contacts is missing?
  • Our hero, an eighteen year old girl, must escape from a moving train. This set up offers loads of inherent obstacles, even on a beautiful clear day. But what if it’s night, and the protagonist can’t see what kind of terrain the train is passing through? What if the train is traveling through a blizzard? What if it’s traveling through driving rain?

Suzanne Collins uses conditioning forces to great effect in The Hunger Games trilogy. Cold, heat, hunger, thirst, and injuries ranging from insect stings to serious wounds impact choices made by the characters in scene after scene.

Do you intentionally incorporate conditioning forces in your own writing? Have you ever re-written a scene to include a conditioning force (such as darkness or cold,) and found the tension greatly improved? Can you think of examples from books you’ve read? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


10 Responses to Conditioning Forces – Or, your character doesn’t live in a vacuum!

  1. Erin Bowman Apr 16 2012 at 9:23 am #

    “However, it’s not enough to simply provide obstacles for your hero. Good writing includes obstacles of varying type and scale.”

    Yes! I’m a big fan of obstacles that aren’t physical. I think this is why Katniss’ struggles in HG are so powerful. She’s fighting physical battles (trying to stay alive, etc), but she’s also got some psychological and emotional battles happening — She has to toy with poor Peeta’s heart in around in order to play up the romance for the Capitol. She struggles with forgiveness and “owing” someone (Peeta. She wants to be free of that burden). And then there’s the emotional trauma of killing other kids to stay alive herself. You are so right that these varying obstacles (of type and scale) are what truly increase tension and stakes! Great post!

    • Julie Apr 16 2012 at 10:15 am #

      Hey Erin! So glad you liked the post, and thanks for contributing your insight into the obstacles in THG. Katniss’s obstacles are truly layered indeed. 🙂

  2. Sooz Apr 16 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Wow, WOW. What a great post, Julie. Like, so much food for thought here. Stuff that I’m sure I’ve done subconsciously in some scenes…but totally skimped on in most! It all seems so obvious, but until I read your post, it never occurred to me to up these conditioning forces. I mean, heck, temperature ALWAYS affects me since I’m ALWAYS freakin’ cold–so why hasn’t that temperature consideration happened in my writing? Well, it will now!!

    Thanks for this, Julie! Truly an insightful post.

    • Julie Apr 16 2012 at 10:32 am #

      Thanks Sooz! Glad you liked this – I tend to overlook conditioning forces, too (I ususally write the posts I really need to read!) But YES – temperature can make such a difference! Sweaty hands can’t grip, freezing fingers can’t feel – but I forget these details all too often. (Maybe because I’m usually sitting in a climate controlled space while I write. :P)

  3. jodimeadows Apr 16 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Love this post! These are great examples and wonderful ways to increase the tension in a story.

    • Julie Apr 16 2012 at 10:37 am #

      Thanks Jodi! As I wrote this post, I thought of all the times Ana came up against conditioning forces in INCARNATE. Her burned hands jump out as an excellent example! 🙂

  4. Meagan Spooner Apr 16 2012 at 11:15 am #

    This is awesome. I love it when you write posts that come at writing from a theatrical direction–as a theater major, my favorite thing was analyzing scripts and characters that way, and it definitely carries over directly into creative writing.

    Great post, Julie!!

    • Julie Apr 16 2012 at 12:10 pm #

      Hey Meg! Thanks! I wonder how many of us former theater majors there are in the writing world? (I would guess there are A LOT!) And I agree; there are definitely a lot of cool carry-overs when it comes to how theater and writing approach character. (PS thanks for tweeting about the post!)

  5. Sharron Riddle Apr 16 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Excellent post! I love HG for all the reasons stated. This would not be nearly as compelling a story without the layered tension. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

    • Julie Apr 16 2012 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks Sharron! The thing about HG that always amazes me is how it is full of perfect examples of almost every concept a writer would want to master. 🙂 But yes – layered tension really makes the story compelling. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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