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Writing Compelling Conflict: Complexity Between Characters

How complex conflict in a story needs to be can depend on factors such as length or genre, but it should always be complex enough that characters have to work to get through it.

If the main conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it is likely too simple and unrealistic as the main source of conflict.

While some writers are more storyline focused that character focused, character are still an integral part of developing complex conflict. A great place to start when integrating characters and conflict is to develop inherently conflicting characters. Jane Austen’s works are prime examples of pairing up conflicting characters, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

All stories should have complex and conflicting characters, but in character-driven stories, conflict MUST start with the characters in order to provide believable opportunities for growth and development. Internal conflict is key in character driven stories. Differences in personality, beliefs, desires, or goals will push characters away from each other, creating a stumbling block they must work to overcome if the relationship is to work or the goal is to be met.

This type of conflict may be derived from aspects such as specific character traits, race/nationality, political/religious/morals views, money, career, family, social status, long terms goals, etc.

Conflict Between Groups

This same idea can be expended to character groups. Conflict between specific groups can create obstacles for a character reaching their goal or desire or achieving personal growth. Members of specific groups (work, social, athletic, racial, religious, etc.) have certain types of goals or core beliefs.

When pitted against a character with opposing goals or beliefs, he or she is forced to make difficult choices or changes. This can be a great source of internal conflict with external ramifications.

It’s important to consider this type of conflict when initially developing a character and setting the goals the will work toward in the story. Once you have each character profile compiled, compare the profiles of the two main characters.

Where do their goals clash? How will those opposing goals hinder a relationship (friendship, romantic, or familial)? Determine whether the opposing goals are deeply held enough to provide rich and believable conflict or if they need to be further explored and developed.

Love Isn’t Enough

Resist the urge to lean too heavily on the “love conquers all” idea. While we all might like to believe that love will fill in the gaps between conflicting desires and goals, it doesn’t. Not long term, anyway. Readers know this and need more than love to explain why the story will continue to work out after the last page.

Giving up too much or making too many personal sacrifices that aren’t met equally will eventually lead to resentment and distancing. It isn’t necessary to explain everything, but if you have succeeded in creating complex conflict between two characters, put an equal amount of effort into making sure your explanation for why it will work out in the long.

If a character changes a core belief or goal, there needs to be a strong and valid reason for that change, and falling in love isn’t enough of a reason by itself. Something needs to change internally for the character. External reasons for change are often short lived.

Sacrifices between characters may not be equal, but there should be a balance that makes sense for the story and characters. If one character gives up or changes a major belief or goal and the opposing character gives up nothing and only gains, this will not feel believable or long lasting to most readers. Both opposing characters need to grow and change.

Looking at Jane Austen again, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had to make internal changes and reevaluation their goals and desires by the end of the story. If only Elizabeth had changed to be less hasty to make judgments of others and Mr. Darcy was allowed to remain haughty and dismissive yet win still Elizabeth over, the ending would have felt dissatisfying and unrealistic.

When developing conflict in a story and between characters, take the time to determine whether it is complex enough to be believable and create a satisfying ending for readers.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Crisis vs Conflict

The difference between crisis and conflict may seem slight, but it’s very important and can have a huge impact on a story.

Crisis is an event or action (an emergency), while Conflict relates to the impact of an event or action on a character or characters. Think about an action movie versus a drama. Action films focus on events, and often have a succession of events that add more crisis up to the climax. Dramas are more focused on the fallout, rebuilding, or working through involved after a crisis or trauma has occurred.

Crisis cannot sustain an entire story (in most cases) in a realistic manner. It’s exhausting for readers to be constantly immersed in major events. Conflict, however, is the basis of a strong story arc. There are events and crises woven into the story arc, but there is also time between events for development, growth, reflection, failure, and change.

Crisis centers on action, excitement, and/or danger. The reader’s attention is intended to be held by constant new events. This method often leaves too little room for character development and meaningful story progression. It relies on highlights rather than deep diving.

While Conflict does include action, excitement, and/or danger, it centers on how the characters experience the events, how living through a crises affects him or her, and how each individual character recovers from a crisis or deals with the consequences.

To illustrate the difference, consider these examples.

Crisis: Someone holds up a bank and the character witnesses a fellow customer get killed.

Conflict: The character survives the hold up and is plagued with fear for her safety, is having difficulty functioning at work, and is pulling back from relationships.

Conflict deals with long term effects of crises and can involve in multiple interrelated crises over the course of the story arc. Crisis is a single event, and instigates conflict. This is why it’s important to have a balance of the two. Use crises to spark dramatic change, but develop conflict through the character’s thoughts, emotions, and actions that are caused or exacerbated by the crisis. This provides more opportunities for development and growth and will ultimately create a deeper and more engaging story.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Realistic Progression

Developing realistic steps and reaction in critical in planning and writing great conflict. Readers need to be able to connect with and understand a character’s choices, even if he or she doesn’t agree with or like that decision.

Conflict in Romance

Love at first sight doesn’t mean smooth sailing into the sunset. A fast and intense beginning to a relationship often leads to belated problems because the couple makes decisions before they are prepared to make them or before they know each other well enough to accurately evaluate the situation.

Friends to lovers romances are great opportunities for conflict. There is often fallout with other friends and family, and the problems that come with knowing each other too well, such as knowing all of each other’s part relationships and indiscretions.

Workplace relationships face many external sources of conflict in addition to the usual internal conflicts. Company policy may force the characters to hide their relationship, staff may accuse them of favoritism, if the relationship fails they still have to work together, and so on.

Internal and External Progression

If the main conflict is largely internal, a character must take logical steps to address it. This may include therapy, opening up to another character, confronting someone who hurt him or her, etc.

External conflict, such a two coworkers going for the same job and being unable to keep work and their relationship separated, takes delving deeply into emotions and actions.

The conflict progression may look something like the characters not talking about it, to slipping in disparaging comments at work, to taking specific actions to derail their work or respectability. As the risk that they might not get the job over the other intensifies, so will the emotions involved and the willingness to take action.

A great example of this comes from the film, “What Women Want.” The progression focuses on two coworkers vying for dominance in the company and the progressive actions Mel Gibson’s character takes as he becomes more desperate to win despite having fallen for the female main character.

Planning Progression of Conflict

When planning the progression of conflict, first consider what the character wants (their main goal) and what major actions he or she needs to take to achieve that goal. Aim for 3 to 5 major actions, depending on the length of the story. Then consider how these actions might be thwarted, go wrong, or have unintended consequences.

Next, comes up with possible reactions to an action not working out as expected. Consider several options before settling on one and ask a few questions. Is the reaction realistic or contrived to support the writer’s goal or ideal progression? Is the reaction true to the character? Does the reaction provide opportunity for character growth and story progression?

If you aren’t sure about the answer to any of these questions, write several scenes using the different options and have a friend or beta reader read them and give honest feedback. It’s easy to push a story in a particular direction based off what you want to happen or how you want the story to move, but that can lead to forced, illogical, or weak reactions to conflict.

Characters may be fictional, and the author may be the creator of the universe, but conflict must move through and interact with a story and its characters in a way that makes sense and feels realistic.

Writing Compelling Conflict: The Stakes

For conflict to be truly meaningful in a story, there must be real stakes involved for the character. It is important to establish those stakes early in the development of the conflict so the reader is aware of how not reaching a goal or fulfilling a journey will affect the characters.

What are Stakes?

Simple put, the stakes are what the character risks by failing.

Don’t put limits the types of risks of failure or on how a character might be affected. If a relationship fails, yes there will be emotional trauma, but there might also be a ripple effect of losing other people from his or her life, a decline in self-esteem, negative affects on job performance, etc.

Explore all types of stakes associated with failure, then focus most on the stakes that will have the biggest impact, which might not be the most obvious one. This risk MUST matter and be big enough that the reader feels anxiety over the fact that it could all fall apart and harm the character in some way.

Failure to finish a degree or accept a job in order to relocate for a relationship can build resentment. Failure to confront something in the past can push a character to run from a current relationship. Failure to prioritize a relationship over work/money/ambition will result in missed opportunities and damage a relationship.

Risks can be internal or external.

External risks are those that would cause physical harm. These are often most at play in adventure, crime, mystery, thriller, etc. types of stories where the character’s physical safety is at risk if they fail to escape, finish a journey, solve a mystery, etc.

Internal risks are those that cause emotional or mental harm. These types of risks can be at play in just about any story type. Romance stories often focus on the emotional trauma of a relationship ending or losing a loved one, however the mental wellness of a character should also be considered. Personal growth or coming of age stories often do focus on mental wellness aspects of how a character is harmed by a trauma or the development and growth need to overcome difficult experiences.

Be sure you are considering and weighing the various types of risks and avenues of how a character might be affected when developing stakes in a story. The more layers, the more depth and realism a story will hold for the reader.

A great example of setting and developing meaningful stakes in a story is the film “Run, Fat Boy, Run.”

The main character Dennis signs up for a marathon after his ex-girlfriend’s (who he ran away from on their wedding day while she was pregnant) new fiancé brags about running the race. Whether or not the Dennis actually finishes the race doesn’t really matter to anyone but him. He needs to fulfill an internal goal of proving he can finish something difficult and not run away. There’s no external risk of him failing to finish the race, but the internal risk is quite high.

Once you have identified the main stakes for your character in not reaching or achieving a goal, take the time to develop 2 or 3 smaller stakes that add concern from the reader and deepen his or her emotional connection to the character.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Relationships and Conflict

Relationships are excellent sources of conflict for a story.

After identifying internal and external wants for the main characters, note where their goals/desires come into conflict with their relationship goals. These are opportunities to develop stumbling blocks in the relationship and on an individual level.

The relationship in question doesn’t have to be romantic. Family and friend relationships are also important opportunities for conflict and can also have a strong impact on a character’s development and growth.

If one character in a relationship feels driven to excel at work because he or she craves financial stability due to growing up destitute, while the other character is working toward moving to a small town where life is simpler, this will inevitably cause stress the in relationship and move the characters toward a crisis where both parties have to make difficult decisions. Those decisions will then impact the relationship and the individual characters.

A great example of this is from the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” One character is trying to save her small, independent bookstore while the other is trying to build and promote his mega-bookstore. Neither goal is inherently bad, but there’s no way they can both win. This destroys their chance at a relationship, at least in person.

Conflict and Growth

Each obstacle should be paired with something the characters will learn, either on a personal level or within the relationship. Conflict without purpose does not move the story forward or help the characters progress through their arcs. Each stumbling block placed in a character’s path should necessitate a choice, spawn realization, or push him or her to take action.

Getting through conflict does not always have to mean positive movement or growth in a relationship, however. Characters may make the wrong choice or suffer/cause emotional or mental harm and experience a setback rather than growth. Conflict should do both in a story, though the ultimate outcome is typically the characters reaching a resolution of some sort in their relationship. People in relationships often hurt each other and say things they don’t mean during arguments. Follow up these moments of setback with self-reflection or discussion with a neutral party who can offer some clarity.

Moments of conflict in a relationship may be internal or external. Ideally, a mixture of the two will provide variety and a more interesting pattern of growth in a relationship and in the individuals involved. Characters and relationships are most often in need of development in several areas. Alternate between what skills or areas of progress characters are challenged on as they move through the arc.

Obstacles should be introduced in a logical order and each one should be resolved before the end of the book. The exception to resolution would be some relationship obstacles being saved for subsequent books in a series. When ordering when characters face conflicts in a relationship, consider how a real person builds on skills or developmental steps. Learning not to internalize negative feedback from an abusive partner would be achieved before taking a stand against an abuser and leaving, just as learning the basics skills or a sport is necessary prior to playing at a competitive level.

Without conflict, relationships stagnate. Planning and executing moments of conflict in a character’s relationships will improve their depth as a character and inspire movement and growth in the story and character arcs.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Characters and Conflict

Characters and conflict are close companions in any story.

Even if the main conflict is external, a character must experience and react to it. A massive snow storm is less interesting if no one is there to be snowed in, put in danger, or unable to access food or medical care. Internal conflict depends on a character’s thoughts and emotions to be relevant and engaging. There is no internal conflict without a character to experience it.

Pairing Character and Conflict

In order to develop interesting conflict for a character, you must identify what the character wants. These should be internal and external desires or goals. If a character does not need or want anything, they will not only be incredibly boring, there will be no important stakes for them when challenged.

Internal goals may be feeling loved or having a stable life, offering or seeking forgiveness, developing self-confidence and overcoming fear, etc. A goal should have a definable and attainable goal. This helps both the character and reader know when of if the goal has been achieved.

Internal goals may impact external goals. An external goal like getting into a prestigious performing arts school may depend on and confidence to get through a rigorous interview. Lack of confidence could result in a poor interview and missing an opportunity.

External goals may be getting a promotion and ensuring financial security, completing a difficult task, or taking a risk on a relationship where the other person has potential to cause the main character harm of some sort. The character has less control over external goals because they are more profoundly impacted by situation, other people, or society.

The Revelatory Nature of Conflict

Conflict reveals truth about the character. What that truth is depends on the character and story. A character may seem charming and easy going until just the right button is pushed and they explode, showing their true colors under pressure. Conversely, a shy or weak-willed character may take a stand or speak out when she or someone she cares about is threatened, showing true inner strength uncomplicated by overthinking of pressure from others.

Choices and actions reveal the character’s thoughts, motivations, weakness, and strengths. When choosing what conflict to make use of in a story, consider what skills or attitudes the character needs to develop and what situation will push them toward change. A lazy character will never put forth major effort unless he is faced with a situation where complacency will cost them more than they are willing to lose.

The more difficult the choice or action, the more that is revealed. A character who may tells white lies to survive a hostile work environment may be able to rationalize away minor dishonest decisions if there are no real consequences to her actions. That same character may be appalled and go to authorities when asked to participate in fraud that would hurt others.

The more the reader learns about the character, the more connected they will feel to him or her. The conflict should be meaningful and realistic enough that the reader feels an emotional connection to the character’s struggle to make the right choice.

Conflict and Change

Happy characters don’t grow or change. They must face crises in order to progress through their journey. When developing the character arc, two to three pivotal changes the character needs to make. These may be learning a skill, overcoming a shortfall, developing emotionally, etc. You can then work backward and choose a crises/conflict that will force the character to make choices and grow in a way that helps them make that change.

Conflict forces characters to act, which then necessitates change.

Writing Compelling Conflict: The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict drives a story. Lack of conflict or weak conflict makes a story drag and languish. Unrealistic conflict drives readers away.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces. In fiction, a character struggles against another force, such as another character, the environment, him/her-self, etc. There can also be multiple forces the character is at struggle with. In fact, there generally should be multiple forces. Usually this is accomplished through subplots and competing needs or desires.

Conflict can be broken into two categories: Internal and external.

Internal conflict arises when a character experiences opposing emotions, ideas, or desires. The conflict causes emotion or mental anguish and often manifests in external struggles in relationships, professions, or meetings goals.

External conflict arises when the character gets involved in a situation where he/she struggles against an outside force which stunts his or her progress toward a goal. This is typically marked by action of some kind. The type of action depends on the storyline and goals.

The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict is what keeps readers reading…until it doesn’t. Conflict keeps the story moving forward by pushing characters to make decisions, take action, and engage with the story world. If there is no action or the action isn’t compelling enough, that progress stops or slows to a point that readers may lose interest.

Developing deep, rich conflict will keep readers engaged and interested. Change in the story and character push the reader to keep asking questions, such as what will happen next or will the hero accomplish her goal. Wanting answers to those questions are a big part of what keeps a reader’s attention.

Conflict also helps a storyline feel more realistic. When everything works out too easily, readers get bored and move on because they know that in real life things rarely go so easily. Readers want there to be struggles in a story. They relate to the character’s experiences because they struggle to accomplish goals in their own lives.

The deeper and more realistic the conflict is, the more the reader will be drawn into the story and become invested in the outcome. Conflict helps the reader see his or her self in the story. Believing that the character will succeed or meet a goal helps gives hope that the reader will eventually have a similar outcome.

Having said that, conflict should make the reader doubt that everything will work out happily. If it is too obvious or certain that the character will get everything he or she wants despite facing challenges, it can cause the reader to lose interest. Remember that questions and the need for answers to those question compel the reader to keep reading. If those questions are too easily answered, interest flags.

Even in romances, where a Happily Ever After ending is often required, how and to what level the characters end up happy should not be obvious to the reader in order to maintain a questioning experience.

That doubt keeps readers engaged with the storyline.

Excerpt: The Stressed-Out Girl’s Handbook

Just to offer up proof to my poor readers that I have actually gotten some writing done lately, here’s the first chapter of the third book in The Handbook Series, The Stressed-Out Girl’s Handbook.


My head fell into my hands after I ended the call, thinking for the dozenth time that day that I simply couldn’t add one single more thing to my plate without my head exploding.

The resident-side door opened to the office and Sara walked in. A visit from my favorite resident and friend usually put me in a better mood. The guilty expression on her face said this would be a rare exception.

“Hey, Aspen. I need a small favor,” she began, “if you can squeeze it in tomorrow. I know you’re getting ready for classes to start Monday, and I wouldn’t ask if I had any way of getting there myself.”

I cringed internally, but Sara was the only reason I’d passed calculus last semester and I knew I would do whatever she needed of me. “Of course. What is it?”
“Monroe and I are booked all afternoon tomorrow checking out reception venues,” she began.

Frowning, I couldn’t help interrupting. “I thought you picked a place months ago.”
Sara sighed. “We did. And then a pipe burst and it flooded. The damage was pretty bad and they said there’s a chance repairs won’t be done in time, so we’re scrambling to find a new place.”

The more Sara got into planning her and Monroe’s wedding, the more I wanted to stay far away from marriage for the foreseeable future. “I’m sorry, Sara. That really sucks.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “Something was bound to go wrong. At least we still have a few months before the invitations have to go out.”

For a moment, she seemed lost in her thoughts, probably mentally running through the checklist she reviewed constantly to make sure she wasn’t overlooking something.

“So, what did you need me to do?”

Startled out of her thoughts, she chuckled. “Sorry, yeah. The photographer we booked wants to take a look at the church we’re holding the ceremony in to take some pictures and plan everything out. The only day the caretaker is available while the photographer is in town is tomorrow afternoon, of course. He won’t let the photographer wander around unescorted, and he’s too busy to do it himself.”

“What time?” I asked, trying to keep the wariness from my voice.

“Two,” Sara said in a tone that was hopeful the time wouldn’t be a major inconvenience.

I held back a sigh. “That’s totally fine.”

It wasn’t, but I would figure out how to make it work.

Sara leaned over the dividing wall and hugged me. “You’re a lifesaver!”

“No problem,” I said.

Sara didn’t catch the drop in my tone. After hurriedly giving me the address and contact info for the photographer, she rushed off to meet Monroe for some other wedding planning task. As soon as she disappeared form view, I sank into my chair.
My last weekend before the fall semester started was supposed to be relaxing. I’d even turned down invites from friends and classmates to go out and let loose a little before having to bury myself in lectures and assignments again. Ten minutes after I’d so no to a weekend of drinking and dancing, the calls, favors, and unexpected tasks had begun pouring in. I wasn’t even sure where I was supposed have time to eat at this point.

Plopping my chin onto my hand, I stared at the clock. Half and hour to go until the end of my shift. At least I would have the rest of the afternoon to catch up on cleaning and grocery shopping. I hated starting a new semester already feeling like I was behind. Sadie would be gone all weekend, thankfully. As a roommate, she wasn’t the worst, but she was far from the best either. If I didn’t get the apartment settled this weekend, it would be Christmas break before I had time to de-Sadie the place. Tidiness was not her best attribute. Neither was being quiet while endlessly playing video games.

The office phone rang and I snatched it up. The well-practiced, polite and cheerful greeting I’d perfected over the last year, spilled out of my mouth.

“Aspen,” my boss Archie said, “Cameron called in sick. I need you to stay until six.”
I balked, an absolutely not parked on my lips. I’d already covered for him twice over the past two weeks, and I had no doubt his illness was called going out to party with his friends.

“Is that a problem?” Archie prodded.

“No,” I said, deflated. “I’ll stay.”

“Great. Thanks.”

He ended the call too quickly to hear my sigh. Cameron had worked here two years longer than I had, and despite his spotty track record of showing up on weekends, holidays, or nights when he’d rather be doing something else, Archie never made a big deal about his absences. Part of that was because I had never failed to cover one of Cameron’s missed shifts, but I suspected it was also because he reminded Archie of his grandson.

The fact that I was stuck here for another five hours meant I had plenty of time to make the call knew I would need to make after Sara’s request. I stared at my phone. Texting would be easier, but pointless. She’d never see it. Even if by some miracle she did see a text from me, replying was out of the question, so I would never know whether or not it had been received.

Phone call it was.

I unlocked my phone and immediately felt like it was mocking me. My call history was still up, the number I needed to call at the top of the list, as well as the next in line, and the next, and the next. She wasn’t going to be happy. I’d already agreed to help Sara, though, and that was more time sensitive. Not that she would see it that way when I told her I would be delayed.

The number stared back at me for several more minutes as I choose my words. By the time I finally made the call, I had rehearsed both side of the upcoming conversation and dreaded it even more.

She picked up on the third ring.

“Aspen, is everything all right? You’re still coming, aren’t you?”

Weariness spread through me at her panicked tone. “I’m still coming, but I’ll be a little later than expected.”

“How late? I need you here.”

She didn’t. Not really.

“Half an hour, maybe an hour,” I said. “I’ll be there, though. I promise.”

“But…”

“You’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know that,” she argued.

I did, but saying so wouldn’t make this conversation end any quicker.

“It will be fine.”

She gulped in a worried breath. “I’d really rather you came at noon.”

“I can’t. I don’t even get off work until one. I already told you that.”

Her fear and frustration were almost audible. “I don’t like changes. You know that.”

Boy did I ever.

“I’ll be there as soon as I’m done to check in on you, okay?”

Several seconds passed in silence. “Are you sure you can’t come earlier?”

“I’m sure.”

She sighed so long and deeply that I couldn’t resist rolling my eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.” Her voice was morose, her single-word response stretched out.

I offered a quick goodbye and ended the call.

Tossing the phone down did little to ease the mounting stress. It was settling behind my eyes, promising a headache that would linger. I was tempted to lay my head down on the desk, nap and hide from any additional problems.

The office phone rang. I groaned out loud and glare at it before snatching it up.

“Manager’s office. How can I help you?”

“Um…there’s water pouring out from beneath the kitchen sink.”

Villains and Secondary Characters: Positioning and Mystery

When considering the character arc of villains and secondary characters, how that arc resolves is often considered in relation to the hero/protagonist. That does not have to be the ultimate determining fact, though.

Positioning

It is all right for a secondary character to start and/or end up in a better position than the main character. If a secondary character is better suited or more qualified to rule or win or gain a benefit, then it is logical that they would unless the writer provides a good enough reason for a different outcome. Secondary characters should be allowed to act on their strengths and fail or struggle based on their weaknesses. Don’t limit a secondary character’s arc just for the sake of making the main character look better.

It is also acceptable for a villain to reach a resolution that is more positive than expected. Part of a villain’s character arc may be self-improvement, so a better-than-expected resolution may be warranted. It may also be the case that an equitable ending between the villain and hero is not the most reasonable or desirable outcome for the story.

The hero (or villain) does not always have to end in that role. Switching roles are altering a main character’s path can be an important element of development for that character. Allow his or her traits and personality to determine the path taken, rather than locking him or her into a particular role.

Mystery

When writing a main character, it is often necessary to divulge a great deal of detail, going into backstory, motivations, thoughts, and feelings. When developing a secondary character, it is often necessary to be more sparing with details due to space constraints. That doesn’t mean that these characters are incomplete.

Revealing fewer details can work to your advantage and help you create some mystery and opportunities for future development in later stories or chapters. Reveal details about a secondary character that are pertinent to the main storyline or main character’s development. Hold back other details, but do so in a way that motivates the reader ask questions and wonder.

Give enough details about a secondary character that the reader can understand that character’s personality, culture, place in the story, relation to the story and main character in time, and his or her potential character arc. Leaving out more specific details reminds the reader that there is more to the story and makes the story world feel more realistic because it extends beyond the immediate storyline.

There is so much more to a great story than a lovable hero. Readers need to connect emotionally to every character on some level to keep them interested and involved in the story. Love or hate or something in between, reaction is key. Apathy toward characters breeds disinterest. Disinterested readers put books down and look elsewhere…permanently.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Mirroring Effect

Mirrors in fiction are characters who reflect the main character and reveal insights into the main characters behaviors, thoughts, and motivations. A mirror allows the main character to check the state of their own being or learn lessons from their mistakes.

Secondary characters often act as mirrors for main characters, however, that should not be their only purpose in a story.

Character traits in a secondary character that will be used for a mirroring effect need to be used realistically. This means that these traits need to come from somewhere and not exist in a vacuum.

Develop an element of his or her backstory that explains the trait, such as relentless pursuit of monetary success being related to a parent who could never consistently provide for that character as a child. The main character can see the actions the secondary character takes to reach his or her goal and use that as a barometer for how much she is letting her drive for financial success compromise her moral standing.

This level of similarity is recognized by the main character and causes dislike or disgust (or with an opposing trait, longing and need for a similar situation like a happy and respectful relationship). The main character thinks he or she knows the secondary character and can predict or expect a certain action or reaction, but often fails to fully see the same in his or her self, which leads to making mistakes. The reader sees the bigger picture and similarities more fully when this is done well.

Having said that, if the secondary character only exists as a mirror, that character will feel flat and less relatable. If their actions or emotional responses are too easy to predict the reader will be bored and likely not find that secondary character believable, which then lessens the mirroring effect. Emotions and drives are complex, and that needs to be true for secondary characters as well as main characters.

Well developed secondary characters are not always predictable, but when they do act as complex mirrors they provide opportunities for the main character to make mistakes and learn from them in a more believable way.