Every writer faces this contradiction, sooner or later: you need escalating conflict to drive the story forward, but intense conflict also drives your characters apart when you need them to stick together.
Enter the crucible to save the day.
What is a Crucible?
James Frey identified the solution in the form of the crucible. Like the container it is named after, the literary crucible holds the parts of your creation together as they combine in the blazing heat of conflict.
The crucible is a situation which forces the characters to stay together, and to continue opposing each other, even as tensions rise. It can be physical, social or emotional. What matters is that it allows no escape or surrender.
The Physical Crucible
The easiest crucible to use is a closed environment. The inhabitants of the generational spaceship in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora are trapped together. They cannot leave the confines of their artificial environment with its limited resources, and must collectively make decisions about their future, even when their aims come into fundamental opposition.
People trapped in a room face a particular intense crucible, whether that room is a centre for intense debate as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit or the brutal confines of a prison cell in the TV show Oz. The existence of such forced closeness creates conflicts, as characters become annoyed at the sounds, sights and smells of each other. If one character is intent upon harming another, as in the prison in A. G, Wyatt’s Moonfall, the lack of escape can become horrifying in its intensity.
Whether they’re trapped on an island like Robinson Crusoe, on a ship as in Moby Dick, or in an isolated house as in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, a physical crucible clearly allows no escape.
The Social Crucible
A social crucible forces the characters not through their physical environment but through social rules. Any social unit can create this crucible – the shared workspace of The Office, the high school of Ten Things I Hate About You, the high society circles of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The social crucible is less directly confining than the physical one. It constricts the characters as long as they accept the social limits, and so you have to have characters who accept those rules, whether because they believe in them or because they fear the consequences of breaking them.
Take the military unit, used everywhere from the Roman legion of my story Ocean Gods, Roman Blades to the modern realism of a marine training group in Full Metal Jacket. Most characters remain because they have bought into the rule that they must stay with the unit, whether because of pay or patriotism. But others stay from fear, whether of court martial, social stigma or the enemy surrounding them.
When social bonds break down, a new kind of drama emerges. In the TV show Sons of Anarchy, a few strong willed characters question the value of their social unit – the rebel motorcycle club. What keeps them in place is a different sort of crucible, one that leaves them thrashing intensely against the rules of their society. This is the emotional crucible.
The Emotional Crucible
The emotional crucible is one created by the characters’ own desires and values. It’s a situation they cannot leave because of love, ambition, a sense of duty, or some other personal driver that comes from inside. It’s why a battered spouse may stay in the crucible of a broken relationship, why clashing personalities stay together in a business venture. The situation gives them something they need and are unwilling to let go of.
Game of Thrones is a fantastic example of this. There is a social crucible in the form of Westeros’s political circle, but many of the characters could retreat from this if they chose. Instead, they join the deeper crucible of the battle for the throne out of motives such as love, duty and greed.
The emotional crucible is often the most powerful, tying together character and conflict. But it can also be the most difficult to balance. You have to convince readers that the characters’ drives to stay are greater than the hardships they endure by remaining in the crucible. If not, then it stops being credible that they would remain.
Holding Characters Together
Most of us instinctively use a crucible when writing a story. By being aware of its function, you can choose the sort of crucible that suits you – physical, social or emotional – and ensure that it holds the characters together, at least to the end of the story.