Increase Character Conflict – Guest Post by Camy Tang

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Here are some tips for making a bland or episodic story more interesting by introducing deep character conflicts.

Sometimes, a writer will get feedback that the characters are unlikable or uninteresting, or the story is only “okay.” This is usually a good indication that the story needs more conflict.

For popular fiction, the best type of conflict involves personal character conflict. Some writers refer to this as “throwing rocks” at your character.

This type of internal conflict can also directly impact the external storyline, so you get maximum bang for your writing buck.

Conflict will automatically create more interest for readers because they want to see how the protagonist responds under pressure—giving an indication of what the character is truly like. Conflict also raises the emotional stakes of a story, and emotion always ensures reader interest.

Here are a few tips for increasing character conflict in a story:

Make the Character Face His/Her Greatest Fear

This involves going deep into your character development to determine what your character fears the most.

It could be something external, like an object or a place, or it could be a person.

It could also be something more abstract, like a concept, an issue, or a certain type of situation or circumstance that puts the character in a difficult place emotionally.

Once you’ve determined the character’s fear, then hit him/her with it with all the strength you’ve got in your pen. Be ruthless. This is not the time to be squeamish. This will guarantee an exciting movement to your story, and your readers will be anxious to find out how the character handles the stress.

Force the Character to Do What He/She Would Otherwise Never Do

Figure out what your character would profess never to do, even at gunpoint. What would totally go against his/her moral code or inner value? What would complete abhor your character to be forced to do? “I’ll do anything but don’t make me do …”

Once you’ve figured that out, create a situation that boxes the character in until he/she is forced to do exactly what they otherwise would never do.

Make sure the character’s motivation for doing it is strong—a good motivation is as important as the despicable action itself. If your readers don’t understand why the character is acting this way or doesn’t buy the reason, then you’ve lost them.

Boxing the character into this impossible situation will create rising tension and suspense as well as intense personal conflict.

Make the Character Fail at the External Goal

Consider what would happen if the character didn’t achieve their goal at the end of the story. If they completely failed. Imagine the emotional and physical consequences of this failure.

Then write it.

Write, intending things to end tragically and disastrously for the character. No hope, no redemption, nothing positive.

This will force you to write the most conflict for your character that you can. It will force you to heap problems upon the character and story, because you are aiming for a tragic ending—you are writing the story into the ground.

Then, give yourself an extra 30-40 pages and write a turnaround. Help can come from outside sources (although don’t make it too unbelievable) but turn the tide from utter desolation to something hopeful.

Practice and Rewrite

This might take a few revisions of your story. You might decide on one sort of conflict, then change your mind or want to try a different type of conflict. That’s okay. Practice make perfect. And the more you work on conflict in revisions, the stronger the conflict will become.

Just don’t give up.

Want more information on characterization? Camy has free articles on her Story Sensei blog and also available is her Story Sensei Characterization worksheet.

Camy writes Christian contemporary romance and romantic suspense as Camy Tang and Regency romance as USA Today bestselling author Camille Elliot. She lives in San Jose, California, with her engineer husband and rambunctious dog. She is a staff worker for her church youth group and leads one of the Sunday worship teams. Visit her websites at http://www.camytang.com/ and http://www.camilleelliot.com/ to read free short stories and subscribe to her quarterly newsletter.

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22 replies

  1. Yep. I throw rocks at characters. I used to never be able to kill characters but now I can. It is still hard and I sometimes cry quite honestly but it is a tool for storytelling. And killing characters is an excellent rock to throw. Taking away a characters friends or family can add motivation and emotion. And for some reason, at least for me, it is easier to write characters who have a painful past and heartbreaking story.

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  2. I’m currently working on a story that examines the failures we bring on ourselves by refusing to step out of the cages we build around our lives. Basically, everything that happens is the hero’s fault. Much of it would have happened anyway, but not as badly as if he’d just done nothing.

    It certainly makes for an odd hero’s journey.

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  3. I remember another author mention 2 interesting statements concerning story telling.
    1) “The goal of writing [and most art] is to create emotion.”
    2) “If you have a really boring part in your book, you probably don’t have enough conflict. When that happens, shove your hero up a tree, surround it with crocodiles, and start sawing limbs.”
    It’s very interesting, especially as a new author, how you don’t want to hurt your hero, but to make the story interesting you have to have conflict. It goes against our internal conflict avoidance system, but it’s necessary when writing.

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  4. Is it possible to throw too many rocks at our characters, and have a bunch of bad things happen to them?

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    • I don’t thinks so…

      One of the main points in story writing is to make the Hero’s victory look doubtful, which adds more suspense and intensity to the book. You want to keep on reading because you aren’t sure if the Hero will win in the end because of all the conflicts and rocks that are thrown at him. Towards the end of the book is when you want it to look bleakest, so I’m not sure if you can throw too many rocks.

      Well, maybe you could if you make it really depressing and the cost from the Hero greater than the gain of the Victory. I don’t know. I’m still new at this. I hope this helps.

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    • You can overwhelm the reader if you don’t provide some light. Feel free to throw lots of rocks, but give the reader a glimmer that the character is gaining traction somehow, even if the character herself thinks it’s hopeless.

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    • I agree with Levia, Rebecca. However, I also caution authors that the conflict has to directly relate to the character’s external goal for the story and not be just bad things that happen to the character. Otherwise, the conflict will see “aimless” and the reader might lose interest.

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  5. Excellent advice. Thank you!

    Something of my own to add (though this comes mostly from a consumer’s POV):
    Make sure the rocks serve a purpose. Don’t throw the rocks, rub the salt, and kill someone just because you can…(or because you don’t know what else to do :P)
    Also, rest stops can be beneficial for both the reader and the hero. (I know I’ve gotten annoyed/bored/sickened to the point of Not Reading Anymore because the writer didn’t know when to stop hacking limbs!) But you have to decide whether or not you’re giving the recuperation time because you feel sorry for your character or because he/she seriously needs it. If it’s the latter, then by all means, do it! If it’s the former, you should probably hold off and throw a few tacks beneath the blankets. 😉

    Thanks again for the tips!
    -Symona

    Note: I clicked the Story Sensei Characterization sheet link and it didn’t work. I got a “404 page not found” tab…

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  6. I followed you! Love your books, by the way!

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  7. Re: Make the Character Face His/Her Greatest Fear

    I’ve pretty much written nothing but sci-fi or fantasy stuff lately and I’ve taken quite a few opportunities to put my characters under the influence of mind-bending illusions or artificially-created tests that reveal, maybe not their greatest fears, but some kind of weakness or longing.

    Re: Throwing Rocks

    Recently I was wondering if my teenage heroine, who is largely spending the story helping others, was lacking any compelling weakness or immaturity. I decided that in one battle near the midpoint, she would lose pretty badly and her companion would have to deal with the villain mostly himself, as a way to goose her motivation to become better skilled with her fighting weapon. It didn’t ultimately put her in a worse predicament, but it did ding her pride. Sometimes you just need to increase a character’s doubts rather than throwing another obstacle at them.

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    • Jason, many times the character’s internal arc is directly impacted by the external conflicts that you throw at them. As Christopher Vogler said, the character’s internal journey should parallel and complement the character’s external journey. We usually associate conflict with only the external journey, but most of the time, that conflict should impact both external and internal in some way. Otherwise the character has no internal arc and no internal growth, which can make for a boring character, at least in popular fiction.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Sorry I didn’t respond sooner–I was sick for a few days and then had a bunch of work to do this morning. I’m glad you guys enjoyed the article!

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