On Characters and Conflict


Two weeks ago I posted Noveling 101 and a very interesting conversation about character and conflict cropped up in the comments. The gist of the conversation  boiled down to whether it is necessary for conflict to spur character growth. In my opinion, if you are writing character driven fiction, the answer is yes.

The conflict of the story is what forces the character to change and grow. It doesn’t matter if it is a coming of age story or an epic quest, the character should grow by the end of the book. (If they don’t, you are writing a different type of fiction.) If the character as they are in the beginning of the story could accomplish what they do in the end, nothing has changed. They have not grown as a person/character. This growth is forged under pressure and that pressure is the conflict of the story.

The comment was made that character is what gets one through adversity. Which is very true, but you still end up changed on the other side. Think of the defining moments of your life. The moments that make you who you are today. Those moments were likely during a point of conflict. In real life these moments are spread out over years, but in fiction they often have to happen within months or even days. That requires a lot of conflict.

When writing, it is helpful to know what your character wants, what is standing in their way, and how they must change to overcome that obstacle and reach their goal–or realize that their initial goal was small and reach an even higher one (depending on your story). Another way to put this is a character’s goal, motivation, and conflict forces them to progress through the story and grow. (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict–or GMC–is also the title of a wonderful writing book by Debra Dixon, which I highly recommend.)

So, challenge your characters. Put them under pressure. Force them to grow. Your character arc depends on it.

(Aside** Here’s a shout out to all of you who attended the magical words gatherings at ConCarolinas. You made my con so much fun! It was great seeing all of you. To those who couldn’t attend, I hope to see you at some other event. Magical Worders are just plain cool. I love hanging out with you. Okay, I’m done gushing now. ^_^)


18 comments to On Characters and Conflict

  • I think that what sometimes confuses aspiring writers about this is the broad range of things that fall under the heading of “conflict.” Sometimes it is the traditional definition — two people or two societies at odds with each other. A personal feud or rivalry, or a war between groups — those are conflicts. But there are other, more subtle approaches to conflict that also count. Remember that movie with James Franco? 127 HOURS; the one where he is trapped under a boulder. That is about conflict, too. A man against nature, a man battling his own emotions, fears, memories, etc. Conflict comes in many forms. And Kalayna is absolutely right when she says that some form of conflict is essential to character growth and narrative development.

  • I keep separate files for each character with goals, motivations, issues, etc on them. Helps me do a litmus test at the end of my book to see if I reached my goal with each.

  • Great post, Kalayna. Yes, character and drama are intertwined and conflict is at the heart of both. Good to be reminded of this!

  • I think this is such an interesting topic, and I’m feeling argumentative today, so I ask this: isn’t it possible that the heroic thing, the conflict, is that the character DOES NOT change? Like a “stay yourself” or “true to the values” kind of thing. I’m trying to think of an example, actually. Okay, here’s one: Samwise from Lord of the Rings: he stays loyal, gentle, kind, etc. and remains almost untouched by the experience, becomes mayor, etc. While the bearing of the ring radically changes Frodo. He’s uncorrupted by the ring because, in a sense, he remains the same. (the whole “I just want my own farm, not a whole land to command” thing.) There are lots of characters who change for the worse (or maybe the sad), like Buffy, who grows more and more distant and isolated by her role as the slayer.

    I’m just being picky. Overall, I totally agree that change is centeral to a novel, even if the change is just “well, now I know how to use a sword and I’ll go stab the BBU!” Of course it is more effective if it’s “now I know how to use a sword AND now I’m willing to take the responsibility of killing someone…”

  • Seconding your recommendation of Debra Dixon’s excellent book!

    Personally, I love novels where characters grow through experiencing conflict. I don’t mind a secondary character who remains unchanged or little changed (like Samwise), but the MC has to learn, grow, and change for me to be satisfied.

    This is why I’ve always had a problem with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. There’s plenty of conflict, loads of it, but no matter what crazy situations she gets herself into and out of, Stephanie never learns, never changes. I got bored after a while so stopped reading the series.

  • Megan B.

    And another type of conflict: Internal conflict (where the antagonistic force is oneself) that is spurred or brought to the surface by external happenings. In one of my WIPS, the main character’s greatest barrier is herself. She doesn’t fully devote her energies to the external conflict until she has an epiphany about herself. But it’s the external events that lead her to that moment. She may have been able to accomplish her external goals without that change in herself, but she would have handled things much differently, and would have had a different outlook afterward.

    And I agree with pea_faerie that sometimes it can be okay if the MC doesn’t change, provided the story is set up to put them in a position of changing or not. This will probably disappoint the reader, but if they’re disappointed in the character (as a person) and not in the writer, then I’d argue that’s just fine. Sadly I can’t think of any good examples, but I do think it could be done.

  • I agree with David, and I almost agree with Pea Faerie. Pea, I’ll take you up on this: would Sam have stepped up to being Mayor if he hadn’t been through so much with Frodo? He started the story pretty much as a simple gardener too shy to ask his beloved out. By the time he returns from the quest, he strides right up to Rosie. I think his changes are less obvious but they’re still there.

    As to David’s comment, I see this on the online writing workshop I belong to. It seems like every few months somebody starts a thread on what kind of conflict is necessary for what kind of story, and how much conflict, et cetera. Has any well-published author written a “how to write” book focusing on conflict? We could sure use that.

  • sagablessed

    First a great big WAAHHHH!! 🙁 I wanted to go! OK, self pity over.

    I am trying to think about a way for the character in my current WIP to develope and grow. I am thinking a two-fold manuver, however it remains to be seen. This WIP I am just kind of pantsing it, rather than charting my plotlines. It will be interesting to see how it evolves. But it gives me something to think about as I work on it.

  • Emily, I have to agree with Owllady. I think that Sam comes back a very different hobbit than he was. He becomes mayor (which I don’t think the Sam we meet at the beginning of the Fellowship could have done. He marries Rosie, and we KNOW he couldn’t even bring himself to dance with her early on. The change is subtle; it’s not change on the level that Pippin and Merry experience, but it is change, and I do think it’s significant. Just my $.02

  • Ken

    First, let me chime in on the Samwise example. I think he came back a very different hobbit. You sure as heck couldn’t take the Sam from Bilbo’s birthday party and plop him into Cirith Ungol, in front of Shelob, without him becoming a snack. He had to go through the Barrow Downs, he had to go through Moria, etc, before he had the tools that enabled him to stand his ground.
    In the long run, I don’t think that you can get away without any change happening to your characters. Even in the most static of characters (the “Hard-Boiled” Detectives like Sam Spade come to mind) eventually change does come even if its spread out over the course of several stories. If there’s no change at all, the character becomes predictible and stale.

  • Razziecat

    One of the ways that Sam in LOTR grows is in his view of the world around him. He’s never been out of the Shire. The outside world, with its elves and dragons and walking trees, is a pretty fantasy. In the course of his journey he experiences terror and beauty, deep sorrow and incredible joy. He starts out with honesty, loyalty and humility, and acquires courage, compassion and strength of will. All of these are tested a final time when he must “let go” of his friend and master, Frodo, when Frodo departs into the West.

    I recall someone (can’t remember who) saying that in every story, the hero must gain something, but must also lose something. That is the test I apply to every book I read, and everything I write.

  • A. R. Gideon

    Ok here are my thoughts. I think that an unchanging character can be used. I would say that throughout the entire sword of truth series, emperor jagang doesn’t change. In fact he refuses to change. He has his beliefs and no matter how well you prove his beliefs to be wrong to him, he will not accept it. It is his refusal to change and to see reason that makes you hate him so much.

  • Thanks everyone who chimed in.

    I have to agree with what others have said about Samwise. He made significant but subtle growth throughout the books. I also agree that characters don’t ALWAYS change. Even main characters–but you see this more often in Literary Fiction books than in genre books. Also, fleshed out characters typically change, but not every person named on the page needs a full arc.

    There is one type of character who rarely changes. This is what I call the paladin/true believer. Think Javert in Les Mis–He chooses to commit suicide rather than accept that his views of the world might not be correct. That said, he is a secondary character (a strong one, and a major antagonist, but still secondary.)

  • These have been some great discussions on character change, what it is and what causes it! I agree that sometimes the change can be subtle, like with Samwise. In those cases the character doesn’t change who s/he is, but does change by becoming more comfortable and confident with who s/he is. One other thing I’d throw in here because I just read a book where this happened–the character can’t change so much and so quickly that it becomes unrealistic. I love when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes in a split second after hearing the Whos singing, but most of the time that big a change in unbelievable.

  • Well everyone put me in my place! *grins* I admit, I was thinking of change in terms of values and what he held dear, not in terms of capabilities, which he obviously changed. He clearly got more capable, but his fundamental personality, his attitudes towards the world (because I don’t think he was overly fearful to begin with) didn’t. He was self-sacrifical at the beginning, and the same at the end. He was hopeful at the beginning, and hopeful at the end–and his hope is often what drove the plot.

    But yes, he grew (changed) in terms of his capabilities.

    My thoughts, though, were that you could build a plot with the conflict of the MC being NOT to change. Like Rick in the Walking Dead series–though I’ve not read past the first two, the first one ends (spoiler) with his son shooting Shane, Rick’s best friend, because Shane was going to kill Rick. His son says “it’s different shooting the live ones” and his father says “it shouldn’t feel the same ever” (or something similar) and yet, by later in the series, Rick is killing people (in the “Han shot first” model).Of course Rick changes, but that’s part of the point, he would rather not–he’d rather stay “civilized” (and arguably good). It’s a fight to maintain civilization/right and wrong (i.e. not killing people, not stealing, valuing other folks…)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    It seems that an interesting point of this discussion is that there are many different ways that a character might change in response to the events of a story, something for me to really think about with my own stories. Also, for those who are familiar with Dollhouse, Echo presents another interesting example. The whole premise is that she changes constantly – and yet she has a strong character arc throughout the series – and yet the fundamental point of her arc is that at her core she *is* always the same person.

  • I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion and wanted to chime in — and I’m totally paraphrasing a comment Mark Teppo made at Norwescon in 2011 — that Kirk in the reboot of Star Trek didn’t change that much but the characters around him did. Basically, Kirk was a jerk (Mark used a stronger word) and the other characters had to realize that he was the jerk for the job.

    But this is highly unusual to see in the protagonist in a SF/F story. The writer or writers (in the case of that movie) who can pull it off have to be really solid.

  • Pea, I feel compelled to add that I find Samwise a very interesting character, because he doesn’t change as dramatically as the other major players. I like that there are aspects of him that don’t disappear. He kind of becomes more himself, if you know what I mean. His best qualities are enhanced by the end of the story.

    I’d like to see a fantasy story with a mostly likable MC (though it doesn’t have to be a TOTALLY likable MC) who struggles NOT to change, and by the end, we see that he’s pretty much the same person but we’re okay with that. Not some fluff where the MC is good-to-the-bone annoying, but somebody really fleshed out. 🙂