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Edit 3 - Even though this is the third edit I feel it has to be included here at the top. My question as it stands is based on the assumption that reader interest does not exist in plots without conflicts. After reading the two answers and responses to my comments to those answers, I realize that I need not assume anything of that sort.

Background - For a while now I have been building a character who is an ordinary human trader and most probably will stay ordinary throughout their life. I haven't decided a gender for this person but I might go with a male character eventually. I have been setting up scenes of the life of this character and discovering the world the character lives in bit by bit. The world inhabited by this character is one that is similar to the beginning of the Renaissance era in Europe and has some sprinklings of magic.

Short version - My plot currently does not have a lot of conflict in it and I am not interested in adding a lot of conflict to it as I want to describe the life of an ambitious trader in a fantasy setting. It is all about this character. That's all. (Kindly read Edit 2 if you are only reading this short version).

Elaboration - So my character actively avoids conflicts but tries to grow as a person and thereby takes on moderately difficult tasks. As I build this character and their world, I find that there is not a lot of conflict in the plot. There are some personal dilemmas the character is facing and the character wishes to become a better trader and eventually own a treasure fleet of ships and that is the sum total of the motivations behind their actions. They face external obstacles too but they do not turn into 'save-the-world-or-die-trying' scale of choice based quests. I find that I am very interested in my character and want to explore their life as it progresses. As yet the writing is first person present tense for simplicities sake. It may become biographical or even autobiographical if I go in that direction. I originally had no intention of talking about this or showing this to another person. It was just a hobby that I did to relax, a sort of escape into my own fantasy world.

Recently I have been thinking of packaging this writing to a wider audience but the reason I have kept this character as they are is that I absolutely detest shoe-horned conflict. Most of the 'rivetting pageturners' and 'top bestsellers' have characters on whom the entire world of the setting depends upon and I always find myself thinking 'That's just too much to happen in a person's life'. Commercially, I understand the need for this and I am not against these types of stories but I choose to go for a 'slice of life' approach. I just want to explore the life of a trader trying to make a living and not wanting to be the hero. A character whose life has a normal amount of external events and is not very deeply philosophical or extremely intelligent to conduct a bunch of insightful introspection into their persona. A character who takes the safer choices because they are not a hero, they are a normal regular person looking to live comfortably.

A crude by-line of the plot as of now would be - The life of an ambitious Venetian trader / merchant in the early 1400s with some magic sprinkled into the setting.

Question

What would be your suggestions to generate and maintain reader interest in a story of this type without creating a 'legend on demand' type of character?

A friend suggested adding more comedy to the dialogue for starters.

Any other comments / suggestions / criticisms are welcome.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.

Edit 1 - For clarity and objectivity in the question.

Edit 2 - While maintaining the tension every few pages is a good and maybe even a necessary part of writing a story / book, the focus of this question is to explore methods in writing that generates and maintains reader interest at least for a few pages at a time without progressing the plot at the same pace as the earlier few pages. As a friend mentioned 'comic interlude' is an effective method. Are there other such options?

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Conflict does not have to be grand, and the stakes do not have to be enormous. Consider a romance, like "When Harry Met Sally" or "Sleepless In Seattle" or "You've Got Mail". I'm not saying you should write one, I am saying not one of them has much consequence to them other than "How will they overcome their personal issues to finally get together?" Not one of them really affects their fictional world beyond their own family and friends, like any normal wedding.

There is not even a question of whether they will get together. The same thing goes for Tom Hanks in "Castaway". We know he'll get off the island. The conflict is in his despair, setbacks, and borderline mental illness; and then when he does get off the island, resuming a life when he has been gone for five years (or whatever) and everybody has moved on with their lives. But only his own family and friends are affected, the rest of the world goes on as always.

When you are writing, exploring this character, think of "conflict" as the reader "wondering what happens next", as in the next five pages or so. You need layers of conflict: short term, medium term, and long term. The long term is his career, and you need an arc there. Dreams, setbacks, recalibration to reality, another setback, another recalibration, success of some sort (which he may or may not be happy with). Or perhaps he abandons that dream of the fleet of ships, because he has fallen in love and that is more important to him. Or perhaps he is so committed to it, he breaks the heart of someone that loves him, in order to continue pursuing it.

The Spiderman comic books had one of the most faithful fan bases, for one good reason: Unlike Superman or Batman, Spiderman loses 48% of his battles with big evil. He utterly fails. And because he fails, his fans remain interested, they want to know what happens next because it is true mystery from page to page if this one is going to be a win or a loss.

You need something similar for your character. Don't let him win more than half the time. Conflict is wondering what will happen next, how this scene will work out, and that is why readers turn pages, to find out. To make them want to know, you need stakes. They can be small, but something your hero really needs or really wants. So the success or failure matters to the reader.

And if there are no failures, the reader stops wondering what will happen next: They know success is coming and get bored with it. So keep them guessing, make his opponents clever, and tricky, and frauds and cheats, that sometimes win or steal from him or trick him. In fact, I'd lead with that, a failure, a setback, a robbery. He's got to get experience somehow, best while he is young at the beginning, so we see him grow wiser later.

Grand world scale conflict is not necessary at all. But strive to have conflict on every page. Arguments, confusion, failures, rejection by potential lovers, stupid mistakes, people taking advantage of his financial straits and once in awhile a triumph, in trade or love or some other source of glee. Make his life difficult. Not so difficult as to be a tragedy, but not an easy walk to success either. (That would be a wish fulfillment story, and they tend not to sell well.)

Overlap these, so there should always be another question to be answered in this chapter, or the next 5 or 10 pages, and at the end of a chapter progress on a big picture arc (e.g. his life goal as a whole, or his love life) leaving a question to be answered in the next chapter or three.

EDIT to clear up a possible misunderstanding:

Do not misunderstand "every page": On every page a reader should be wondering how something will turn out. Most lives of those with a job (like your char) have tension nearly every day, a project to be done, a problem to be solved, people to convince, goals to accomplish before it is too late, reasons to push and hurry, promises to keep, customers to please, competitors to defeat. Places to be and things to do. The conflict does not have to be NEW on every page, it just needs to carry through.

For example, say my hero, Verdia, journeys to Bluestone Castle, to seek the aid of the witch there. There will be conditions, she knows, the witch will judge her before a magic mirror, where she will see her image play out her sins, every one of them laid bare, and demand vengeance for one or more of them to pay for her favor. And Verdia has sinned, she is not pure, and she has done people harm. As she journeys, she is at times reminded of these incidents in her past, sometimes regretful, or embarrassed, sometimes dreading the witch watching her perform them, her soul laid bare. She doesn't know how the witch exacts vengeance, and fears it. In this way, the journey to Bluestone Castle may constitute half the book, but the reader can be reminded often, by Verdia's dreams and memories in-between her adventures on the journey to the castle, that she will meet the witch, and have a price to pay to accomplish her mission. It may be steep price, she fears it all the more for not knowing what it will be. But she marches into her fate because she must, she must secure her favor at any cost. The reader marches with her, to find out what happens. What will the witch demand?

When the reader stops wondering what happens next, then you risk them giving up on your story. If the story is all wondering with no answers (and the longer they wonder, like with the witch above, the bigger the answer should be), readers will lose interest, too. This demands a kind of structure to fiction: To be good entertainment it must present a series of puzzles and challenges of various sizes to keep the reader wondering, and must pay them off along the way, with varied rewards or punishments. That is what we mean by "conflict on every page". For novel or movie length entertainment, a whole series of such puzzles and challenges must be devised, on the fly (discovery approach) or up front (plotter approach), and woven together. Otherwise, readers lose interest, and agents, editors and publishers reject such stories. This is why "wish fulfillment" stories fail; there is not enough hardship for the heroes to earn their rewards.

  • (1 of 3) The structure of the story as of now is similar in some respects to what you have shared. The young trader does face more obstacles external and internal and does fail more and mature as they age. The character is developing more and more into a risk-averse protagonist but as per my outline, they will learn that the safe method provides no benefits and only maintains the status quo. They will then once again find their 'mojo'. This much of their personal dilemma and development has been outlined but adding tension into every few pages is not what I really want to do. (continued) – Arjun Satheesh Jul 14 '18 at 4:10
  • (2 of 3) There will be peeks into life in that universe through the experiences of that character. There will be introspection which does not necessarily change them but makes them come to terms with their past actions, maybe an attempt at self-justification and denial. They are human, vulnerable and fallible; this will be reiterated through these events/scenes. There will be external events that showing the consequences of their actions and the cirlce of life coming back to them. So on and so forth. I might be over-explaining but this is the scope. (continued) – Arjun Satheesh Jul 14 '18 at 4:11
  • (3 of 3) I was wondering if there are other methods to generate and maintain reader interest without adding more tension or conflict than my plot outline currently warrants. I am not completely against a little bit of conflict; more than what I may initially end up with but my real focus is on finding methods that are outside the 'keep the tension taut through every page' routine. That approach is good and necessary even but I would like to see if there are a few other things that can be done. Thanks a lot for your answer. – Arjun Satheesh Jul 14 '18 at 4:14
  • After reading the edit, I believe it is clearer to me now. I'll try to keep track of what you said in my writing. Thank you once again. – Arjun Satheesh Jul 15 '18 at 6:55
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All stories are moral. That is, all stories are about a choice between values -- a choice that the protagonist does not want to make but is eventually forced to make. Saying that stories are moral does not mean that they make judgements about which choice is correct (though the readers often will). It means that they focus on what it is like to face such choices, make them, and live with the consequences.

Since this is a choice that the hero does not want to make, there must be some force in opposition, something that will force the hero into a situation where they are forced to choose.

This does not have to be the fate of the world hanging in the balance. It does not have to have anything to do with physical violence at all. But there has to be desire, frustration, choice, and consequence. None of these elements need to be loud or flashy, but they need to be there in some form.

The biggest, noisiest, bang-up blockbuster will fail without these elements. But small quiet stories can succeed brilliantly if they have these elements. So ask yourself:

  • What does my character want?

  • What stands in the way of their getting what they want?

  • What are they willing to do to overcome this obstacle. (Or is there something that they realize is more important to them that causes them to give up the quest for this desire.)

  • What happens as a result of this choice that shows us that they have made the choice and accepted the consequences?

  • So, you are saying that the elements that make a good story can be achieved even when a writer is not going for a 'fate of the world' conflict scenario. While I am not overly worried about reader interest it is part of publishing a story/book. With the reader base exposed to conflict-ridden plots, I was wondering if a character-focused story would in any way interest readers especially if it does not end up having as much conflict as some of the blockbusters from recent times. Which is why I was also interested in methods to maintain reader interest in a story of this type. Thanks a lot. – Arjun Satheesh Jul 14 '18 at 3:43
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    Here's the thing. The reader is always attracted to the character and the character's personal conflict. The fate of the world is just a McGuffin, just a set up for the character's personal moral choice. James Bond saves the world, sure, but the heart of every Bond movie is when he saves the girl. John McLean the terrorists, but at the heart of the movie he saves, and mends his relationship with, his wife. The big thing is just the plot device that makes the hero face the small thing -- the personal choice that is really at the heart of the story. – Mark Baker Jul 14 '18 at 5:04
  • Ok, thank you for that clarification. It appears that my initial assumption of that the conflict is the focus of the story must have arisen from reading too much about the importance of conflict in all the 'writers advice / tips' forums etc. – Arjun Satheesh Jul 15 '18 at 6:53

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