Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Character Conflict

A client once said to me that he was having trouble with conflict in his story. The problem wasn't that the characters weren't getting along. The problem came from the other end of the scale -- things were going too smoothly.

The author had a protagonist and a sidekick and a problem. Both characters knew what they had to do, so they worked together and did it. Problem solved. But too quickly, too neatly. And the writer didn’t see how he could insert any conflict since the characters were working together and knew certain things had to be done to bring the plot to a conclusion. And yet … the writer didn’t want things to go so smoothly. What kind of a story is it if everything runs along the tracks with no derailments? A boring story.

Of course you can always insert problems that arise from outside influences or from the antagonist. But you can also have problems between the two characters, despite their common goal.

Look at your own life. I'm sure you have had occasions when you wanted to set up a lunch with friends or a family reunion. You think it's going to be easy. Everyone wants to get together; everyone is glad you're all finally going to have a sit-down to discuss things.

And yet, when you try to work it all out, suddenly everyone has a different opinion. No one wants the same thing or even the same outcome. Lo and behold, even your friends and relatives see things differently than you do.

If you look at things not just from this is where my character is and this is where he needs to be and this is the straightest way to get there, but rather from the different points of views and concerns of all the parties, you have conflict. It will arise naturally.

And if you’re still having problems, talk to your sweet freelance editor. She knows how to create problems.

Do things ever run too smoothly in your book or story? What diabolical or clever means have you used to create conflict between characters?

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of the novels Dismembering the Past and Angel Sometimes, three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe.


  1. Great post Helen! Sometimes we are too focused on our characters's goals and our own view of the best way to reach those goals. A simple place to find potential points of conflict is at the family dinner table. Simply describe a character's current situation and the goal, then ask how to get from A to B, sit back and listen.

  2. I find that conflict naturally arises when I write from multiple points of view. I was reminded of this yesterday as I evaluated a first-person, single-POV manuscript that had almost no conflict.

  3. Perhaps the characters were too much alike, which leads to the question, why have two separate characters when they might actually be one? If you think of the great protagonist/sidekick pairs, e.g. Spencer and Hawk, Modesty and Willie, Pancho and Cisco, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the sidekick has a different personality, background and abilities which help the protag succeed, but at the same time cause some tension. There's a lot of racial tension between Spencer and Hawk that gets diffused through humor. There's also a difference in values which need to be subverted to the goals of the story.

  4. Good post, Helen, and good follow up comments, Mark. After reading the blog, I was going to suggest sidekicks that are opposites to create conflict, but Mark said it so well, I will hush now and go to work.

  5. I always enjoy when you post on the Blood Red Pencil. Such insightful thoughts.

    Personally, I have a hard time following through on conflict because I get too attached to characters. And sometimes I wonder how much is too much conflict. In a novel I am working on at present, my main characters boss felt too stereotypical to me because of his expectations. So there I was wondering about the conflict level was too forced and predictable.

  6. Helen,
    Lack of conflict does make for a boring story as you say. Your suggestions for creating conflict are excellent.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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