Tuesday, September 06, 2022

How to Use Conflict to Show Character Development

By Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: If you want to know who a character truly is, put them under pressure.
 Angela Ackerman shares tips on how to show character development through conflict.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Available in ten languages, her guides are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. 

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.

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Take it away Angela...

Conflict is a key element of every story, supplying the problems, obstacles, adversaries, and blockers that make the protagonist’s road to their goal bumpy and uncertain. It has many superpowers, including giving readers a way to see who a character really is through how they respond to conflict. Does the character run and hide, or blame others for their misfortune? Will they ask for help when they’re over their head, or view that as weakness? And will they make the hard decisions, and if things go poorly, be strong enough to accept the consequences?

Conflict strips a character bare, and we see them for who they truly are, the good and the bad. And it is the crucible that tests and shapes them over the course of the story in ways that are needed if they are to succeed at achieving their goal.

Your Protagonist’s Journey: Zero to Hero

Stories all start with one thing: a protagonist who wants something they can’t have…yet. In other words, if the climax occurred at the beginning of your novel, your protagonist would fail miserably because they just don’t have what it takes to secure a win. In some way, they are at a disadvantage, in the wrong mindset, or don't have the tools, abilities, or strengths to get what they need.

Conflict, for all the pain it causes throughout the story, is a necessary training ground. It’s like a barky, granite-faced drill sergeant shouting at your character to drop and give him fifty push-ups, RIGHT NOW. Does your character want to? No. And yet he grabs some dirt and does it, because there’s a reason to – it must be done to get what he wants.

In the story, as a character faces hazards and opponents, they gain the knowledge, skills, internal understanding, and resiliency they’ll need to face bigger, scarier problems standing between them and their goal. In other words, they get closer to becoming the person they need to be, the one who is strong and capable enough of obtaining that goal.

(Here’s more with Making Sense Out of Character Wants and Needs)

Failure Is Necessary

It can be hard to watch a beloved character trip and fall. As their creators, we know their backstory and old hurts, and what this goal means to them: a need fulfilled, and ultimately a better, happier life. So, while we want to see them make good decisions and come out unscathed when they face problems and enemies, we must resist letting this happen. Escaping negative repercussions and avoiding failure will rob them of the character development they need to become stronger and more capable, which is what they need to achieve their goal.

Missteps, poor choices, and just-not-up-to-the-challenge moments generate uncomfortable emotions like powerlessness, insecurity, and disappointment. These emotions are unpleasant, and just as we do in the real world, our character will want to avoid them, and so they will try and examine what went wrong that caused them to fail.

This will prompt them to take a hard look at their strengths and weaknesses, and analyze any beliefs, needs, fears, or biases that might have impaired their decision-making. If they identify something holding them back, they’ll make changes so future outcomes are more favorable. This is the key to their growth, and ultimate success.

It sounds easy, but it’s anything but. Change is scary. Letting go is hard. Your character will resist change at first, and they may try to blame everyone, make excuses, or cling to beliefs that the world is just unfair, and everything is stacked against them. It takes strength and courage to make changes, and it might take more than a few missteps for them to realize this is what it is they must do.

(Here’s more with 5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail)

Conflict Keeps the Pressure On

At some point your character must decide how badly they want this goal, and once they decide they’re all-in, they embrace growth and change because it’s necessary. The closer they get to their goal, conflicts escalate, stakes rise, and there’s less room for failure. Only by finding their best selves can they maneuver past these harder challenges. They learn to spot fears and flaws that hamper them and discard these in favor of attributes, skills, and knowledge.

As our characters change, they get better at navigating the obstacles in front of them and see more successes. This helps them do the harder internal work needed to grow, resolving any inner conflict holding them back. They'll become the person they need to be, the one strong enough to handle whatever they encounter.

(Here’s more with Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Conflict Reveals What’s Broken Beyond Repair

Now, while the above is the typical path of development for characters on a change arc, conflict can lead characters down a darker path, too. Despite ample opportunities, if a character is unable to let go of past pain, biases, and dysfunctional thinking because their fear is too strong, failures will pile up and they'll wander farther from who they must become to win. In this case, their attitude and perspective can become increasingly negative, and desperation may cause their moral lines to shift or disappear.

On the surface, it may seem like conflict is just there to slow the character down on the way to their goal while supplying excitement to readers. In reality conflict is deeper, playing a meaningful role in who your character will become. And that’s the story that really draws readers in!

The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores 225 conflict scenarios that include power struggles, lost advantages, dangers, threats, moral dilemmas, ticking clocks, failures & mistakes, and much more. Brainstorm the perfect story problem or challenge, pushing your character to adapt and bring their A-game if they are to win.

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