No place like home

Sometimes an environment is objectively nice but a conflict arises because the protagonist doesn't like where they are. 

This is a common conflict when characters find themselves displaced from their home—particularly if they went unwillingly, as in this snippet from Walk Two Moons:

Gramps says that I am a country girl at heart, and that is true. I have lived most of my thirteen years in Bybanks, Kentucky, which is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River. Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true—he did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.

"No trees?" I said. "This is where we're going to live?"

"No," my father said. "This is Margaret's house."

The front door of the house opened and a lady with wild red hair stood there. I looked up and down the street. The houses were all jammed together like a row of birdhouses. In front of each house was a tiny square of grass, and in front of that was a thin gray sidewalk running alongside a gray road.

"Where's the barn?" I asked. "The river? The swimming hole?"

"Oh, Sal," my father said. "Come on. There's Margaret." He waved to the lady at the door.

"We have to go back. I forgot something."

The lady with the wild red hair opened the door and came out onto the porch.

"In the back of my closet," I said, "under the floorboards. I put something there, and I've got to have it."

"Don't be a goose. Come and see Margaret."

I did not want to see Margaret.

  • The narrator, Sal, loves their home in Kentucky: the chestnut tree, hayloft, swimming hole, etc.
  • Her father has relocated them both to a suburb in Ohio with houses jammed together, tiny lawns, gray sidewalks and roads.
  • These are two contrasting environments, and Sal wants to go home. 
  • Notice how there is nothing actually hostile about Euclid, Ohio: it's just an ordinary suburb!
  • The conflict arises because Sal wants to go home and can't, so she struggles against specific things in the new environment: the surroundings, her father, and this new lady, Margaret.

An environmental conflict still needs to be expressed through specific relationships and actions.

In this snippet, the conflict comes out in the relationships with Sal's father and the new woman, Margaret. (As well as Sal's reaction to the surroundings.)

Sharon Creech communicates these layers of conflict using a combination of narrative summary (the descriptions of leaving Kentucky and arriving in Ohio) plus dialogue and action with her father and Margaret.

Here are a couple of examples of characters in conflict simply because they are uncomfortable and miss home:

Vincent had always thought of Dubai as his home. He'd grown up in a two-storey house in Jumeirah Village, where his bedroom had a balcony from which he could see the Burj. He'd gone to the British school where he had plenty of friends, and they'd been able to go to the beach, and while the heat was bad at least it was dry.

Then one day his parents said it was time to go back to Hong Kong, and Vincent was like, go back? When were we ever there? But they said Hong Kong was home, that's where Popo lived, that she was getting old, and anyway Baba had a new good job with a bank or something, and one flight later there they were.

And he hated everything about it. It was dirty and crowded. The heat was wet and sweat soaked your shirt just from standing. Everything smelled weird. He'd always told his friends he could speak Cantonese, but it turned out he couldn't. Once they went to the beach, came out coated in brown goo, and never went back. And everyone at school lived scattered across the city; there was nothing like a neighbourhood gang. More than anything, he felt lonely.

I'm the kind of person who likes school, like genuinely likes it. I like learning, I like my teachers, I don't have a lot of friends but I have some, I have Charlie, and I've never been bullied or anything, though I do stay out of the way of the nastier girls. So I'd always assumed that I'd like college. But then Charlie and I went to a three-day summer camp at UTSA. And I don't know, but it didn't feel right.

For the first time, I wondered if college was for me. The other kids seemed so confident. They all knew each other: everyone was from San Antonio, and they'd done other holiday camps together. They had a kind of cliquey rapport that I couldn't break into.

And they knew so much stuff. Their families were all like teachers and doctors and businesspeople, and I don't mean like dad, I mean real businesspeople. I felt stupid and slow and awkward. Whenever I got up to perform, I felt like a stupid lump. Charlie said I was being too harsh and getting in my head. But she was more popular than me; she got more attention, she was flirting with people, of course she liked it. On the drive back, we barely spoke. Stupid camp almost broke us up.

  • In your story world, where does your protagonist most feel at home?
  • Can you think of a situation where they could be away from home, in an environment that is fine by objective standards, but the protagonist hates the new environment and misses home?
  • What do they miss about home? 
  • What triggers them in the new environment?
  • Do you want the general conflict with the environment to congeal into specific confrontations with other characters?
  • Write a narrative summary as per the worked examples above, or a small scene with action and dialogue as per the Walk Two Moons snippet.
Describe a character who is in a new environment, away from home, and not liking it for some reason.

So far we've seen:

  • characters in conflict with other characters, and
  • characters in conflict with their environment.

What about when characters are in conflict with themselves?

("I will not eat all these M&Ms at once!" Nom nom nom.)