Fiction Writing: Conflicts and Characters

Almost all good stories need conflict – and not the epic battle-style of conflict. The conflicts that bring characters alive are the smaller conflicts that occur between two people, a small group and the internal conflicts we deal with on a daily basis.

Conflict adds an incredible amount of depth to characters. Without conflict, a character falls flat. No one wants to read about Joe Schmoe and his easy life where everything goes his way.

There has to be something beneath the surface, something that compels a character to do what he does – something to give the reader a reason to care. That something is internal conflict.

When You Want it Bad

Desire creates internal conflict. Think about what you do when your desire hits an obstacle. How do you feel when you can’t reach your goal?

What are your character’s desires? What happens when he faces a roadblock? Does he give up or keep trying to reach his goals and fulfill his wants? The way a character reacts when faced with adversity reveals a lot about who they are.

Good conflict is the direct result of meaningful action taken to resolve a situation. Your character might not always be successful with his actions, but he’s trying to resolve the conflict to the best of his ability.

Conflict is the journey of self-realization and the struggles a character experiences to reach his desires.

Sizing Up the Opposition

In order for a conflict to be believable, your character needs a worthy opponent, even if his opponent is himself. Without opposition, challenge and obstacles to goals, there is no story and resolution is easy.

Where’s the fun in that?

In Star Wars, Luke had Darth Vadar as an opponent and challenger. In Interview with the Vampire, Louis had LeStat and Claudia blocking his path every step of the way.

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damned Good Novel says:

“Good opposition requires that the antagonist counter each of the protagonist’s attempts to solve his problems with as much force and cunning as the protagonist exhibits”

When I create scenes and antagonists for role-playing games, I try not to make the antagonist invincible or weak. The antagonist is just enough of an annoyance to ruin a well-laid plan or two.

Maybe he’s always one step ahead of the main character. Maybe he’s just lucky. Maybe he’s trying to hide his biggest flaw that might prove his downfall.

Create your antagonist with just enough strength to present a solid challenge to your protagonist. Your character might eventually figure out the bad guy’s flaws, but he’s going to have to work at putting all the pieces together.

Let’s Bond, Shall We?

Another way to create conflict is through bonding. Bonding doesn’t have to happen with another person; the character could bond with a place or an object.

Explain the reasons and development of the bond. You don’t want your reader saying, “Why the hell doesn’t he just leave?” or, “What’s so special about that thing?” A reader needs to know what pulls a character to an item or what holds him in place. The reader needs to understand the inner conflict.

For example, why does someone stay in a dead-end job? Maybe they lack confidence to move on. Maybe they’ve grown complacent, or maybe they just don’t care anymore. Maybe they have a family to feed and no choice in employment.

The mindset of the character tells him to stay. The motivation to change nothing is far greater than running in the opposite direction of his problems – and hence the struggle begins.

Think of how your characters connect to one another. What ties them together? You’ll find a basis for some conflict.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How many times have you struggled over the right thing to do? Have you ever wanted something different or thought that if you did the right thing, you’d hurt other people?

Consider the guilt and all the emotions involved with a moral dilemma. Your character is torn. Placing your character in a situation that forces him to go against his morals is one of the best ways to create conflict.

Baring the inner conflicts of your character is a delicate operation. Once you get the hang of it, putting your character through mental hell makes for a great story. Conflict is what makes life interesting. It makes us feel more alive, after all is said and done.

So let your character be torn. Hurt your character, rip him apart and tear him to shreds. You might break him for a little while, because his emotions are raw and his struggles seem too much to bear. But in the end, your character will triumph and your readers will want more.

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Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. Harry,

    Great post. Conflict is absolutely what makes me turn the page. Even a biography or a memoir is a bore without it.

    I like the external conflicts, but a story that really holds my attention will have a lot of inner workings. A character with complex desires, yearnings, a past that haunts his actions even now, deep sadness or anger he fights against, that’s my guy (or lady). I want to watch the character struggle against his demons even more than I care if he “wins” in the world at large.

    When a character’s battled himself and grown from it, I relate to him way more than when he’s just battled the forces around him.

    (I reckon all of the above is true in life, too. People are more interesting when they’ve come through some great mental fire, whether fictional or not.)

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..Inspiration Points: Making Money Online or Off, Vanish

  2. Brett Legree says:

    Harry,

    I agree with Kelly – great post. You had me with that picture, BTW…

    You’re right, no one wants to read about Joe Schmoe who has a perfect life. That doesn’t exist, and everyone knows it is BS. Lots of real life people appear to be that way.

    Perfect kids, perfect job, perfect house, money.

    And they have a drinking problem. Or gambling addiction. Or whatever. They might hide it well.

    And so, with a character, you could have him or her perfect on the outside… but borderline insane inside.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..the forever people.

  3. Thank you Harry. If one day I decide to write a book (following the common stereotype that each copywriter cherishes the idea of becoming an Author), I’ll use your post as a source of inspiration :)

    Seriously, what interests me is that antagonist concept. If he is always one step ahead of the protagonist, why do so many stories have a happy ending? Isn’t it because most authors write not so much to SHOW than to TEACH? I think here a big problem lays.

    Personally I prefer books without ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys – the books where real people live, suffer and learn to overcome their foibles.

    Copywriting 911’s last blog post..8 Reasons Why You Are a Good/Bad Copywriter

  4. Brett,

    I had to come back to see what the picture was. Never saw the movie, but that shot sure looks creepy.

    911,

    I like a happy-ending story best when the antagonist is one step ahead of the protagonist, until the good guy conquers those inner things and frees himself mentally to rock the world.

    In my favorite sad-ending stories, the good guy is done in by his demons. (Happens to movie stars and rock stars all the time in real life.)

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..Will the Real #10 Please Stand Up!

  5. @ Copywriting – People don’t like sad endings – because good characters are ones that people can identify with. And if they see the good guys win, they subconsciously believe that they too can overcome their demons or relate their desire to achieve the same happiness to that of the characters. What do you think?

    Besides, if you fall in love with the characters (like any good novel makes you do), then you want that happy, warm feeling it gives you when you have to say goodbye, right? Because then you’ll buy the next book :)

  6. I seem to remember one of those “basic plot” descriptions (along with “A stranger comes to town”) as something like “Invent a character. Put him up a tree. Get him down.” The higher and more terrifying the tree the better.

  7. @Harry: Well done.

    I’d argue — imagine that 😉 — it’s not “Almost all good stories need conflict… .”

    Just leave out the “Almost” and I’m behind you 101 percent!

    @James: You touch on an interesting point… one on which I essentially agree. I tend to think that sad endings are okay as long as they’re satisfying and/or resolved. This happens when the good guy’s victory comes at great personal sacrifice or loss.

    Avoiding spoiling too much, think of the major — and beloved — character who dies in HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. It’s heartbreaking. It upset a great number of readers. It made the ending of HP6 bittersweet. But the story still worked despite the sadness and loss of that character.

    Rob in Denver’s last blog post..In other news

  8. I definitely agree that there has to be some sort of struggle, whether it’s internal or external. (Some of the best books that I’ve read have had internal struggles.)

    However, I’ve noticed in some writing that dealing with everyday situations in a humorous way is the gist of the book. The conflicts in these books are relatively minor, if they are there at all. Is humor a way to avoid using conflict in a book? What do you think?

    Laura Spencer’s last blog post..Starting Your Own Business – What You Need To Know

  9. @Laura: Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

    Humor usually has an uncomfortable truth at its root… the other side of the same conflict coin. It’s not avoiding conflict… just another way of dealing with it.

    Rob in Denver’s last blog post..“I’m seriously flipping out right now”

  10. @Laura: I don’t think there is a way to avoid conflict. Even using humor to avoid conflict is creating a conflict – the conflict of “How do I avoid this?” It may be minor, but it’s still there.

    @Rob: You’re right. I think I get so used to not making sweeping generalizations that the I used word “almost” out of habit. All good stories do need conflict, no matter how big or small that conflict is.

    Sad endings are good and they’re great for getting readers to come back for more. I’m thinking about the novel James and I are working on, and the ending is very bittersweet. I still say to myself “No! How could you do that? That’s so sad!” But at the same time, it’s extremely satisfying.

    @911: The way I create my antagonists is with a pallette made of shades of gray. They’re neither bad, or good, they have their own agenda and motives, and depending on what the main character(s) goals are, makes that antagonist appear good or bad. I like my “bad guys” to have an element of sympathy from the reader.

    Sometimes, though, I create a bad guy that’s just so bad there is no sympathizing with him. He’s so bad you can’t help but like him, like when you see an actor known for goodie-goodie parts playing a real bastard. The badness is so well played you can’t help but like him in a warped kind of way.

    If you like stories with shades of gray, you’ll love our new game.

    @Brett: I agree. When I find myself envious of someone else’s “perfect life”, I ask myself what the real story behind the perfection might be.

    @Rob (again): Damn my slow brain and fingers today. You posted as I was writing this.

    @Kelly: I prefer the internal conflicts too. I think that’s why Stephen King’s books don’t translate so well into movies. There’s far too much going on inside his characters’ minds to make it effective on screen.

    Go rent Interview and watch it.

  11. The best characters are broken. Galahad was a tool.

    That is all.

    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..Hi, My Name is Tei, and I’m a Widget Addict

  12. Harry,

    I don’t watch scary stuff.

    (a) No one’s arm to claw when the worst parts are on;
    (b) Even commercials for scary stuff give me nightmares, so with an arm to claw, I’d still say no.

    This is as close as I’ll get.

    Until later,

    Kelly

    Kelly’s last blog post..Will the Real #10 Please Stand Up!

  13. @Kelly: I don’t really consider Interview a scary movie. Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, or any other slasher pic, yeah, that’s scary and I won’t watch them. Not because they’re scary, though. I don’t go for gratuitous blood baths.

  14. Harry,

    It’s all relative, darlin’. If you’ve carefully avoided scary stuff your whole life, it’s scary. If you’ve seen a lot more, you’d be the guy saying c’mon, you can claw up my arm in the scary parts if you’ll watch it with me…

    I like the arm, but I’d still say No.

    Hey, did James let you out of your cage? I’ve seen you… everywhere but my blog… :( … a lot… in the last day or two… since I said I MISS YOU…

    And I don’t even get a haha for the photo. Harumpf.

    *stomps off to pout*

    Kelly’s last blog post..Will the Real #10 Please Stand Up!

  15. Frey’s advice on conflict is some of the best. Glad you included it, Harry.

    Frey also reminds us that the best antagonists have their own agendas and that real tension is introduced when no one really knows what that agenda happens to be.

    If you really want to see conflict in action, I’d recommend Briarpatch by Ross Thomas. This mystery keeps the conflict riding way high by keeping the motives of the villain in the shadows. This puts the protagonist constantly between the cross-hairs as he tries to obtain his own prize, which creates conflict, conflict, conflict.

    Also, consider picking up Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. He dives really deep in that book and in many ways it is superior to the first book.

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Write’s last blog post..6 Things Not to Do When Your Story Is Rejected

  16. Harry- Are you an Interview fan?”

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..Build Rhythms

  17. @James: You are right. Actually, I believe that a good book makes readers identify with different characters – depending on the situation, of course. Thus, in one scene I admire the character A, but the next scene can make me blame A and side with B or C.

    @Laura: Each story – humorous or not – is based on a conflict. When the stuggle is only internal, the plot may seem insipid and far-fetched. If it’s the case of the external conflict – the story looks like an action movie: the good guy doesn’t have to face any inner demons; his only problem is how to save the world in 2 hours (some movies are even shorter).

    And when a story embraces both internal and external conflicts – oh, let me read this book!

    @Harry: I like your approach to characters creation. No matter whether they are bastards or superheroes, the key point is how NATURAL they look.

    Looking forward to that ‘story with shades of gray’ :)

    Copywriting 911’s last blog post..8 Reasons Why You Are a Good/Bad Copywriter

  18. @Kelly: I’m still not quite out of the cage. James has been alerting me on places to comment. I’m trying not to spread myself out too thin here.

    @Jamie: Frey’s book is excellent and I agree with him about antagonists with their own agendas and I frequently do that with my bad guys. I’ll take a look at his other book for sure.

  19. Most people live in a constant state of conflict (and the avoidance of resolution). A good author can find the conflict, and usually they can even escalate the conflict. The trick is a great twist and resolution.

    A lousy ending can destroy an otherwise great story.

    I’d be interested in reading a post about how to end a story for maximum impact.

    Buddy

    http://wordspicturesweb.wordpress.com

    Buddy Scalera’s last blog post..Hulu & Pandora Got Me Through Book 3

  20. @ Buddy – Hmm, good suggestion. We’ll see what we can put together for that.

  21. Back in high school my sophmore english teacher made me re-write a story I had turned in because all my stories had a happy ending to them, he wanted me to explore a different ending that maybe wasn’t so happy. I didn’t like doing it, I liked my story the way it was but as an assignment I did it. I may not have liked it but he got his point to hit home. When I’m writing I can make characters feel as much as I want them to feel, in fact if I make them feel more they will be a better character.

    Thank you for reminding me of that, now when I go back and revise old stories I can add more of that in!

    Jenny’s last blog post..Snow Covered Mountains

  22. Thanks for this post! :o) I hadn’t really consciously thought about the antagonist being a match for my MC but you are absolutely right. As long as you’ve given your reader a character they can connect with, when you then create a high risk situation for your character it will hopefully put your reader on the edge of his/her seat. Then when your MC finds a resolution it provides emotional fulfillment for your reader.

    We are emotional creatures. Writing is all about providing an emotional escape for your reader to partake in a risk free emotional journey with a character and how well you can emotionally manipulate your readers. Readers want to live vicariously through the characters and conflict will provide that excitement/pain/sadness/love/fear, basically stimulate emotions for your reader. Just as adrenaline junkies take risks to fulfill their desire for the adrenaline dump. It’s all about the feeling. :)

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