Thursday, April 08, 2021

3 Powerful Ways Pros Create Character Conflict

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Conflict is a lot more than arguing. Laurence MacNaughton shares three ways you can create conflict that matters to the story.

Have you ever written a scene where two characters argue, but it just seems to fall flat? Have you ever felt like a dialogue scene never sizzles, no matter how much conflict you pump into it?

Your story might have a bad case of character bickering. By that I mean that the characters are arguing, maybe insulting one another, but the conflict doesn't really show who they are as people.

Bickering feels bratty and shallow. True character conflict feels much deeper and more gripping.

If you suspect that your characters might be bickering, don't worry. The bad news is that it will take a little bit of digging and brainstorming to fix the problem. The good news is that there is a solution. Three of them, in fact.

1. Give Them a Bigger Problem

What's your main character's problem?

No, really, what problem are they dealing with right now, in this scene? If you can't answer that question off the top of your head, then that tells you what's wrong with this scene.

Every scene in a story is about a character trying to achieve an important short-term goal.

That's so important that I'll say it another way: in every scene, your character needs to be focused on solving some kind of problem.

It could be as terrifying as trying to defuse a bomb, or as simple as trying to get a bite to eat. But there needs to be some kind of crucial problem they must solve here and now.

And when I say crucial, I mean that they have an important reason to solve this problem. As in, something bad will happen if they don't. The bomb will go off, for example, or they will be starving and miserable.

It's your story. You decide what kind of problem your character has in this scene. When in doubt, make the problem bigger. Raise the stakes. Make it vitally important that the character achieve something, or else they will suffer.

Then figure out how the other character is stopping them from achieving it. Bonus points if you can figure out how to give the other character a competing goal, so that only one of them can win, and the other one must lose.

Do that, and the conflict suddenly becomes very real. There is no more room for bickering.

(Here’s more with Your Scene Needs a Problem)

2. Lock Them Together

Here's another option. Instead of putting your characters in direct opposition, is there a way that you can force them to work together, albeit unhappily?

This requires giving them a problem that they both need to solve. Make it urgent. Make it so important that they have to talk about this right here, right now.

Whatever this problem is, they both desperately want to solve it and get everything back to normal. Here's the twist: they have completely opposing ideas about how to proceed.

This requires taking a closer look at the characters themselves. Look at their personalities and their personal rules of life. Find some way in which they are opposite, and use that to create their opposing viewpoints.

For example, let's say he's a rebel who bends or breaks every rule, and she does everything by the book. He operates on gut instinct. She follows the established rules and procedures. How would these two approach the problem of defusing that bomb?

You already know which one wants to systematically go through the manual step-by-step, and which one is going to trust their gut regardless of what the manual says. As the clock ticks down and they argue about which wire to cut, the conflict becomes a clash of personalities.

Much more interesting than bickering.

(Here’s more with The Two Best Tips for Writing a Strong Story: Put Characters in Conflict)

3. Give Your Main Character a Ghost

Is your main character haunted by something from the past? Did they make a mistake long ago that they still regret? Did something terrible happen to them that deeply affected who they are?

If not, can you make something up? Think about their personality and what could have shaped it. Dig deep into your character's closet. See if there's a skeleton you can pull out and dust off.

Spend some time thinking about how that past experience affected your character. What sort of rules did they make up to prevent ever experiencing that pain or loss again?

Maybe she's a by-the-book nerd because one time, years ago, she broke the rules and someone close to her was hurt or killed because of it, so she swore to live on the straight and narrow from that moment on.

Maybe he's a natural born rule-breaker because he grew up in poverty, and had to do whatever was necessary to help his family survive, so he learned to live life outside the rules.

Think about your characters and make up something that works for your story.

If you can give your main character a ghost, that means that you can give them some sort of buried fear or limiting belief that affects their behavior. That will bring them into real, meaningful conflict with someone who opposes them.

You don't have to reveal the ghost right here in this scene. But you can drop hints that something terrible is buried in the past. That will arouse your reader's curiosity. Consider explaining the ghost at a dramatic moment later in the story.

Bonus round: If you're up for a challenge, you can also give the opposing character a ghost. This isn't necessary unless the other character is a major part of your book. If this is just a minor character who shows up for a scene or two, then don't worry about it. Giving the other character a ghost will make them a major part of the story, because it will give them a separate subplot to resolve. Just something to think about.

(Here’s more with Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

Now It's Your Turn

Can you figure out what problem the main character is trying to solve in this scene, and find a way to make it a bigger problem?

Can you put these two characters on the same side, both trying to solve the problem, but give them dramatically opposite approaches?

Can you dig into your character's past and find a reason why they act this way, so that the other character's actions really push their buttons?

You certainly don't have to use all three of these techniques in your scene. But look them over and see if one of them sparks any ideas. Then you can see your scene with fresh eyes and replace all of the bickering with gripping conflict that makes your scene come alive.

Try it, and let me know how it went. Leave me a comment or contact me on my author website at

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at

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About It Happened One Doomsday

Magic is real. Only a handful of natural-born sorcerers can wield its arcane power against demons, foul creatures, and the forces of darkness. These protectors of the powerless are descendants of an elite order. The best magic-users in the world.

Unfortunately, Dru isn’t one of them.

Sure, she’s got a smidge of magical potential. She can use crystals to see enchantments or brew up an occasional potion. And she can research practically anything in the library of dusty leather-bound tomes she keeps stacked in the back of her little store. There, sandwiched between a pawn shop and a 24-hour liquor mart, she sells enough crystals, incense, and magic charms to scrape by. But everything changes the day a handsome mechanic pulls up in a possessed black muscle car, his eyes glowing red.

Just being near Greyson raises Dru’s magical powers to dizzying heights. But he’s been cursed to transform into a demonic creature that could bring about the end of the world.

Then she discovers that the Harbingers, seven fallen sorcerers, want to wipe the planet clean of humans and install themselves as new lords of an unfettered magical realm. And when they unearth the Apocalypse Scroll, the possibility of a fiery cosmic do-over suddenly becomes very real.

There’s only one chance to break Greyson’s curse and save the world from a fiery Doomsday – and it’s about to fall into Dru’s magically inexperienced hands....

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