How to Use Conflict to Create an Interesting Character

Story is about a character who has to fight harrowing odds to achieve the one thing he wants desperately. This means, in a nutshell, your story is all about a character in conflict. Conflict is what makes your character interesting and readable. We don’t have to like your character but we need to want to spend three hundred pages with him. Likeability in that sense could come in the form of empathy or respect.

This article discusses how to use conflict to create an interesting character by holding them back from their true desires (story goal).

Let’s hop to it!


Perfect characters are uninteresting characters. And no, a scar on the chin of your hero does not make him imperfect. It only means he has a blemished chin. Imperfection must be shown in his behavior, attitude, reactions, thoughts, and treatment of self or others.

CONFLICT NEEDS TO BE MEANINGFUL

Growth and change deepen your story-people. Logically, humans, and by default, characters do not endure crisis or trauma or loss (or even success or victory) without changing in some way. Most stories open showing the main character in his Current World, and he should be dissatisfied (assuming he’s going on a positive-arc journey).

This placement allows you to put him through a series of troubling events that force him out of his comfort zone. He is desperate for his heart’s desire, that thing he wants, which is the only reason he’s willing to suffer. For this to work, the obstacles you put in his way need to align with his objective. For example, if your hero wants to embark on a treasure hunt to find the Golden Llama, obstacles strong enough to divert him could be a broken leg, his team abandoning him, his girlfriend kidnapped by the antagonist.

When you know your protagonist’s story goal (the thing he WANTS), then it’s much easier to set up meaningful conflict that will truly detour your protagonist.

This kind of conflict should trigger your protagonist in some way:

  • fear or phobia
  • insecurity
  • anxiety
  • lack of self-worth
  • low self-image
  • not enough in some way (not smart enough, not strong enough, not brave enough, etc.)
  • limited belief of any kind

EVERY GOAL OR DESIRE SHOULD HAVE AN EQUAL & OPPOSITE FORCE

The conflicts need to be just as forceful in blocking your protagonist as his dreams that drive him forward. If the conflict isn’t strong enough of a deterrent, then your character should achieve his goal, no sweat. Then there’s little story.

What is the opposing force to your protagonist’s BIG DREAM? Remember, characters would rather seek a quick fix than do any kind of soul-searching work. It is your job as author to make sure that all quick fixes available to your protagonist FAIL.

YOUR PROTAGONIST’S GHOST

All characters are haunted by some event from their past. This is a psychological wound they have yet to heal, and it is getting in their way of achieving their story goal. This can be something they experienced in their childhood or something that happened in the recent past. Whatever it is, it must be strong enough to cause your character to develop a set of FLAWED BELIEFS, which are part of the whole system that keeps your protagonist from achieving the story goal.

This is important to set up because if there is a flaw plaguing your character, and it is not tied to the Ghost, then that flaw is easily overcome or won’t threaten your protagonist enough. This isn’t to say your character can’t have minor flaws that are more nuisances than anything, but just be sure you aren’t relying on them as critical obstacles to your protagonist’s journey.

USING PERSONALITY MARKERS TO BUILD BELIEVABLE CONFLICT

Characters need to be plausible and they need to behave and react in keeping with their personality markers. Even though they are changing and growing along the way, there has to be the right kind of motivation for them to act out of character. A timid heroine suffering from agoraphobia may be able to fight her fears to save her daughter from a lunatic because the stakes are high.

Building a character doesn’t happen in one shot–at least, not the unique, three-dimensional characters. Deep, believable, get-you-in-the-gut people that drive story are so rich and complicated they burn, smolder inside you. How do you infect readers with your characters?

LEARNING THE LESSON

What will really turn your protagonist’s life around? How will your protagonist overcome these obstacles once and for all so that they can reach their story goal?

They must learn a lesson. It’s got to be something that helps them see the truth of their situation and see what about themselves they must change. Often, this is referred to as your protagonist’s NEED. Before they can achieve their story goal (WANT), they must learn a life lesson (NEED) to help them gain whatever it is they’re lacking/missing.

The lessons are universally known, so as you’re getting to know your protagonist, consider the following possible lessons:

  • Acceptance
  • Faith
  • Fear
  • Forgiveness
  • Love
  • Redemption
  • Responsibility
  • Selflessness
  • Survival
  • Trust

Some of these categories spill into each other, but they provide a good starting point for discovering your protagonist’s Need.

Throughout most of your story, your protagonist will do everything possible to avoid learning their lesson. Remember, they want to seek out a quick fix, not do soul-searching work. Learning a lesson? Bah. No character in their right mind will opt for that UNTIL late in the book, when they’ve exhausted all other options, lost the things they hold most dear, and have had their eyes pried open to where they’ve been going wrong all this time.

Once your protagonist learns their lesson, they are finally in a position where they can make their last desperate move to achieve their story goal. Do they succeed or not? All depends on the arc you choose.

 

Do you find it’s easy or tricky to create conflict for your character? Share in the comments!

 

10 thoughts on “How to Use Conflict to Create an Interesting Character”

    • Oh yes, Jill, I love getting in deep with my characters like that. I will often “take them out” for coffee or wine and have conversations with them. Keeping notes of our chats is really helpful because, you’re right, plenty of gems arise to the surface.

      Reply
  1. I use a physical story “bible” and add things to Scrivener’s research section. Also, Evernote, although I don’t really use it to its full potential. Trying to keep myself organized!

    Reply
    • Organizing creative output is a job, isn’t it! I find it difficult to keep track of the ideas that come to me when I’m not at my desk, with my tools at hand. Admittedly, some things get lost if I’m not able to jot them down right away, but I try to reassure myself that if it’s a lost idea it wasn’t meant for this project. Evernote is cool–I have that too, but like you, I don’t use it to its full potential.

      Reply

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