Conflict is at the heart of all good fiction. The main character is in conflict with something: another person; society; himself/herself; the forces of nature. The attempts of the main character to achieve his or her goals results in conflicts, some small, some large. Conflict engages reader interest. Conflict helps the main character grow. Without conflict, a novel would be slow. Even dull.
In the opening scene of The F Words, Cole is in conflict with society: the city of Chicago has sentenced Cole’s father to time in Cook County Jail. Cole believes his father did nothing wrong. In fact, Cole believes his father did everything right in helping the neighborhood and community fight against the closing of a local public school.
In anger and frustration — because he sees no way of confronting the forces he is in conflict with — Cole tags his high school wall with the f word. He is caught doing so by his English teacher. In a nonosecond, Cole’s conflict with society changes into a conflict with his teacher. That conflict is resolved, thanks to his teacher’s commitment to what’s important.
The life of most teens is full of many different conflicts, ranging from the fact that they are not permitted to make decisions on issues that are important to them, to the fact that they confront bullies in school, to the fact that they want to be liked but might not know how to achieve that aim. And so on.
Cole’s life is no different: he faces many different conflicts. One of the important but minor plot points in The F Words involves standardized testing as required by Illinois and other states. The students hate the yearly tests, but even more they hate repeated classroom drills on the tests. The principal (Ms. Delaney), however, wants the teachers to teach to the test and wants the students to perform well so that her school’s federal funding won’t be affected. She is an advocate of “item teaching” rather than “curriculum teaching” — that is, teaching answers to the questions that have appeared on previous tests rather than teaching the larger body of knowledge and skills that would allow students to answer the questions correctly even if they haven’t memorized those particular questions. Cole’s refusal to take the standardized tests the previous year put him in conflict with the principal, who wants 100% turnout for each standardized state test.
Another thing that puts Cole in conflict with the principal (far greater conflict than his refusing to take the state tests) is that she suspects he’s the one who tagged the high school wall with the f word. She calls him into her office and tries to get him to confess. But Cole knows that if he confesses, he will receive a suspension and thus won’t be able to run cross country. This scene occupies most of Chapter 2 of the book . . . and the conflict escalates as the story continues.
In addition to the state testing and the principal wanting to know who tagged the high school wall, there’s the issue of bullying: a serious problem not only in schools, but throughout our society. Sometimes those who say they are against bullying and intimidation act otherwise: when a victim confronts a bully, the victim is sometimes held as being of equal blame. This is the case in Cole’s school, and the situation causes still more conflict between Cole and the principal.
The principal isn’t in conflict only with Cole — she’s in conflict with his best friend, Felipe, who wants to run for class president. The principal really supports the other candidate, who’s a known quantity. Felipe is not. In trying to discourage Felipe from running for the office, the principal finds herself in further conflict with Cole, who is helping his best friend run the campaign.
While it may seem that Cole’s conflict with society, as shown in the opening scene, is dwarfed by his conflicts with individuals, that’s not the case. In his struggles against the principal and against a bully, Cole is in conflict with society because the social and political structures support the principal and the bully: they do not support Cole or his friends. Whether or not the political is personal (as with the principal and the bully), it remains political. Whether or not the conflicts in The F Words take on overtones of the personal, they remain deep political conflicts between right and wrong, between those in power and those deprived of power.
The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.