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: 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.