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.

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.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Altering the Focus

When you begin plotting or developing a story idea, the main characters are necessarily the focus, however, once you are into the details of the story it’s important to alter the focus occasionally to better develop the secondary characters.

If a secondary character seems to be falling to the wayside or not sticking in the reader’s mind, that can be a good time to turn the focus toward that character. This can provide a needed break from the main storyline and give the reader a change to process information or a big event or change while still progressing the story in an interesting way.

Shining a light of a secondary character’s motivations and desires may also give insight into his or her relationship to the main characters and overall storyline.

Consider questions of this nature to help you give a secondary character more meaningful page time: Who does this character love or hate and why? What does he or she fear? What are his or her thoughts about the journey taking place in the story? What personal issues of a secondary character may impact the main character’s journey?

It’s okay for a secondary character to have a life away from the main character. Most of their page time will relate to their interactions with or impact on the main character, but not all of it. Allowing a secondary character to exist semi-independently in the story provides more opportunities for that character to influence the story and main character because he or she is more fully developed.

A great example of a secondary character with an independent story that is only occasionally given focus (to great effect) is Cliff from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The viewer never gets his full backstory, but it certainly exists and seems to be quite interesting. It led to his connection and interactions with the main character, but it’s only brought to the forefront of the story when needed to explain why he sticks around and can’t find consistent work elsewhere in Hollywood. Even thought the viewer never gets to know Cliff fully, he feels quite complex and realistic.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Determining Role

Secondary character should have a distinct role in the story in order to avoid becoming filler and getting lost in the greater plot.

The role of a secondary character should NOT exist only in relation to the main character. This creates flat characters who are difficult to develop into more meaningful elements in a story. Consider why a secondary character is involved with a hero/villain and why he or she continues to associate with them. Taking a deeper look at motivation can help confirm their role in the overall story.

A secondary character with a strong sense of duty may struggle to disentangle themselves from a main character making harmful decisions, or a secondary character who is a friend and coworker of the main character may be riding that character’s coattails of success in hopes of moving up themselves. The deeper you dive into why a secondary character exists in a story and how he or she will impact it, the more engaging and interesting the character and story will be.

It is very easy to fall into stereotypes with secondary characters. Stereotypes can be a good starting point, but should never be the end development of a secondary character. Be mindful that you are not pigeon-holing a character into a role such as the comic relief, love interest, lovable rogue, wise old mentor, token diversity character, etc. If you can describe a secondary character in a few words or less, he or she needs further development. Where did that most noticeable characteristic come from and what purpose does it serve for that character?

A secondary character’s thoughts, actions, and choices should be largely based on their own needs and desires and not always fall back to what the main character needs or wants. While secondary characters do serve to aid the development of the main character and move the story along, be sure to weave in his or her own development and progress. This will add important layers of realism to a story.

If you aren’t sure yet why a secondary character might do or say something, take some time to create a backstory for him or her. You may not use most of the backstory information you develop, but it will help you better understand the character and write them in a more realistic and relatable way. The backstory may only be a paragraph or two, but it helps cement that character as an individual in your mind while writing.

Understanding a secondary character’s role in the story will help you better integrate them and make them stand out as memorable and interesting to the reader.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Secondary Characters with Impact

While secondary characters are typically less integral to a story, that doesn’t mean they should be any less real.

Secondary characters should still have some level of a character arc, though it will necessarily be less complex than the main character’s arc.

Even though much of a secondary character’s backstory may never see page time, it’s important that you know their story and personality so you can weave it into their interactions with the main characters. This will not only make them more memorable, it will also make the interactions more meaningful and provide a fuller scene with the main character.

Secondary characters should also have a purpose. They should, in some way, help to progress the storyline through their presence or interactions with the main characters. This may come in the form of providing assistance, revealing information, being an emotional support, etc. How a secondary character progresses the story depends greatly on the type of story it is, but be mindful that they should be serving a purpose and not be acting a page filler or a basic sounding board.

It’s also important to consider a secondary character’s motivation. Why is he or she helping this character? Because you, as the author, need them to is not a good enough reason. Reach into their backstory to find and then develop their motivation. Help doesn’t have to be entirely altruistic either. The secondary character should have mixed feelings about providing help, or be reluctant to offer it. It could also be self-serving or their presence could act as a hindrance or barrier rather than being helpful.

Secondary characters exist on either side of the protagonist-antagonist spectrum. Don’t short change secondary characters involved with the villain/antagonist. These characters can be important cogs in the overall mechanism of how the antagonist’s path and ultimate resolution unfold. An antagonist taking something too far could prompt a secondary character to walk away, leading to him or her reconsidering what they are doing. Alternately, a secondary character who wants the antagonist to fail could give the final nudge to push him or her over the edge and initiate a chain of events that leads to his or her downfall.

Secondary characters may have less page time than main characters, but their influence on other characters and events can be profound when the time is taken to full develop them and integrate them into the story.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Developing Secondary Characters

It can be very challenging to make secondary and even tertiary character stand out in a story and not be overshadowed by the main characters.

Before discussing how to make them stand out, let’s define what secondary and tertiary characters are and how they impact the story.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters typically impact the main storyline and/or the main character(s) in some meaningful way. They are more than filler or background material.

Secondary characters are also recurring character throughout the story and/or series. How often they pop up in scenes depends on the level of impact the have on the story or characters.

Secondary characters also have a moderate level of intimacy with at least one main character. This may come in the form of having known the character for a long time, having shared a difficult or meaningful experience, being a current main part of the character’s life, etc.

Tertiary Characters

Tertiary character appear in a story once or only a handful of times. They may have some impact on a particular scene, but generally do not have a strong impact on the overall storyline or main character’s development.

Tertiary characters have a limited purpose. They may provide information on a particular subject, serve as a catalyst in a specific or limited way, introduce another character or situation, etc.

Tertiary characters typically have low intimacy with the main character(s). They may only know the MC incidentally, knew them in the past but lost touch, or even be a relative stranger who comes into a scene for one specific reason.

While developing secondary and tertiary characters, be sure to know which one a character is and what their purpose in the story is. This can help you determine how much effort to put into their development and how much to integrate them into a storyline.

***Apologies for being away from the blog for a few weeks. I was moving and without internet for a while. I’m back to regular, weekly blogs now!

Villains and Secondary Characters: The Easy Way Out

It can be very tempting to take the easy way out when it comes to creating, developing, and wrapping up a villain’s character arc by deeming them “evil” and going no further.

A villain’s motives are one of the character aspects that can easily be neglected without even realizing it. When creating a villain, he or she must be motivated to do something that will make the hero’s journey more difficult. These motives have to be believable and realistic, though. They have to be TRUE motives in order to be believable.

Mental illness is not a villainous motive, though it can be part of the villain’s overall character profile and influence his or her motives.

Motives also need to make sense. If villain’s goal has to be met simply because it “HAS” to be met in the story, that is an Author-Created motive or will not create as strong of an interest with readers as a motive which comes from deep within the villain’s personality and backstory.

An example of an author-creative motive that doesn’t make sense and irritates readers/viewers is from the film “Hocus Pocus” when the witches have a whole group of children hypnotized and arriving at their home to be drained of life, yet the witch Winifred insists they put off their ultimate goal of endless youth to hunt down the trio of main characters who escaped their clutches, which of course leads to their ultimate downfall. Logically, the witches should have sacrificed the children in their possession, assured their youth and power, and then went after the characters who escaped.

Having characters demonstrate a few stereotypically “evil” characteristics or acts with no substantive backing falls flat with readers. True “evil” is complicated and complex and is built off villains who are equally complex.

How Do You Create a Complex Villain?

Start with these 5 questions…

  1. What is the villain’s motivation to reach their goal?
  2. How will they determine success?
  3. What can the villain NOT lose?
  4. Why does the villain fight the hero?
  5. What will the world be like if the villain “wins”?

Answering these questions will help you dig deeper into why a villain does what he does, wants what she wants, and believes what he believes.

One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.

Charles M. Blow, journalist

When developing villains, strive to make villains human, but a human who has been twisted and warped into doing and believing despicable or immoral things.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Show vs. Tell with Villains

Because is it so important for readers to connect with the villain or antagonist, show vs. tell is a necessary discussion.

The two extremes of the show vs. tell villain spectrum are the Throne-Sitting Villain and the Hands-Dirty Villain. There are, of course, myriad points between these two on the spectrum, but finding the right balance for a particular story can make or break a reader’s ability to make and maintain a connection to the villain.

The Throne-Sitting Villain

This type of villain rules tyrannically, but never takes direct action. He or she remains apart from the hands-on aspects of the plan or journey. He or she makes decisions and delegates the dirty work.

Readers never “see” this type of villain actually being evil. The reader must rely on author “telling” him or her that the villain is bad news. This creates a weaker connection with the reader, in most cases, and makes the hero’s connection to the villain more abstract.

Secondary antagonists become more important barriers or stumbling blocks than the main villain and readers typically form stronger bonds with those characters instead. This may be an effective tactic over the course of a series, where individual lower-level antagonists are featured in specific books or sections with the overall villain remaining in a “throne-sitting” role until entering the story for a final confrontation.

A good example of this type of villain is Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Minor villains such as Saruman, Gollum, The Witch King, the Goblin King, etc. present multiple barriers along the heroes’ journey to keep them from destroying the One Ring, all while Sauron quietly directs things from his tower. Sauron never really presents as an embodied, physical villain the heroes need to fight, leading to a weak connection with the readers as actual main villain of the story.

The Hands Dirty Villain

This type of villain takes direct action against characters who the reader cares about, creating an immediate and recognizable sense of threat and dislike in the reader’s mind.

Direct action by a villain against a hero creates an emotional investment for readers. Rather than simply an overarching feeling of conflict, every action and decision matters to the reader because it could directly impact the characters who the reader is emotionally bonded to.

The close conflict between and hands-dirty villain and the hero creates an intensity in the story that is hard to match with a non-present villain. Tensions run higher with more frequent or up close interactions or battles.

A good example of this type of villain is Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. Umbridge is an agent of Voldemort, but while Voldemort rarely makes appearances in the series, villains like Umbridge inflict physical and emotional pain on Harry on a regular basis, constantly reminding the reader how much he or she dislikes the villain and wants him or her to fail and be punished.

Finding Balance

A villain in a story doesn’t have to be only one or the other. It’s important to evaluate a story carefully in order to determine what point on the spectrum will work best. A villain may also move along the spectrum during the story in order to control pacing. When planning interactions between heroes and villains, consider how that reaction will impact the reader’s connection to both the hero and the villain.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Characteristics of a Villain

AMC ranked the Top 20 villains from films, which I think gives writers a good starting point when considering what characteristics make for a good villain. Let’s take a took…

  1. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  2. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960)
  3. Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  4. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  5. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
  6. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
  7. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction (1987)
  8. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)
  9. Regan MacNeil (Satan) (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist (1973)
  10. The Queen (voice of Lucille LaVerne) in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  11. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Part II (1974)
  12. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  13. HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968
  14. The Alien (Bolaji Badejo) in Alien (1979)
  15. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List (1993)
  16. Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974)
  17. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (1990)
  18. The Shark in Jaws (1975)
  19. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  20. Man in Bambi (1942)

What characteristics do all or most of these villains share?

POWER

Villains shouldn’t be easily defeated. It must be challenging for the hero to overcome the villain or it won’t be an interesting or fulfilling quest. This could be physical, mental, emotional, or some combination of power.

A villain can’t be unbeatable, though. Develop valid reasons that the villain is difficult to defeat, such as having more experience, knowledge, physical ability, connections, etc.

Vary the types of power a villain has in order to create interest and multiple avenues of challenge. Types of power might include, physical strength, magic, intelligence, money/influence, resources, etc.

Make use of opposing powers. The villain should have power that corresponds to a hero’s weaknesses. This will push the hero to develop and grow and create a more interesting storyline and character arc.

Changeability

It is important that a villain be changeable. A villain having the ability to change threatens the opposition and has the potential to stall the hero’s progress. A stagnant villain is boring and easier to defeat.

Possibility of change also opens up avenues for a villain or antagonist becoming a reluctant ally. An unexpected turn can increase reader interest and allow for the goals of the hero and villain to temporarily align before returning to battling against each other.

The villain achieving his or her goal is often more important than individual conflict with the hero and can break ties and push him or her to accept temporary alliances in order to further a goal.

Personality

Villains must have rounded personalities with depth in order to be believable and interesting.

To be rounded, a villain cannot be all evil or do evil things for evil’s sake. He or she should have multiple motivations, which are often conflicting and a source of inner struggle.

To create depth, villains should have a complex history and challenging experiences. Often he or she will have suffered some level of psychological or emotional damage that has skewed his or her perception of love, power, and/or right and wrong. The villain’s initial state at the beginning of the story should be shaped by past experiences without relying too heavily on common tropes.

Evolution

A villain must evolve and have a definable character arc. His or her goals, motives, and agendas should change throughout the story depending on what is experienced.

Evolving doesn’t necessarily mean “seeing the light” or changing for the better. Villains can become worse or more damaged if that is what the experiences dictate.

Villains should also learn from his or her mistakes. Do not allow a villain to repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes. It will be seen as unbelievable and irritating. Villains should be trying to defeat the hero just as hard as the hero is trying to defeat the villain.

Questionable Morality

Villains are rarely completely immoral. They simply have a warped sense of morality due to past experiences. This atypical morality may be derived from superior intelligence that makes a villain believe he or she knows better and sees more clearly than others.

This leads a villain to develop their own moral code. The villain usually believes in the “rightness” of his or her own code and believes that societal or religious morality does not apply because he or she is above it.

Determination

Well-crafted villains don’t give up easily. A villain is most often single-mindedly driven or obsessed with achieving a goal. However, it’s important that a villain still have moment away from this drive where the reader can learn more above him or her and see more deeply into his or her psyche. Truly obsessed characters are tiresome to read.

A driven personality is one the focuses intently on the idea of winning, and this attitude can be a consuming aspect of a villain’s nature because it ties the self to the achievement of the goal. It also pushes a villain to refuse to fail, which can push a person well beyond what a regular person would be willing to do.

When developing a villain, consider these elements and go beyond concepts of good and evil or right and wrong and focus on making a villain as interesting and, in some ways, relatable and likable, as your hero.