How to Use Conflict to Create Interesting Characters

Drama and comedy spring from the collision of the needs, desires, and emotions of characters in a story. This is called conflict, and conflict is a prerequisite for all engaging storytelling.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a scene about a late-middle age man who is laid off from his job, and he drives to downtown Portland for an appointment with an employment agency. A writer could pen this scene in a couple of ways.

In the first version, the man drives to his meeting in sunny, dry weather and light traffic. He finds a parking space close to his destination. He arrives at the appointment early, meets with the headhunter. The meeting goes well, and he leaves it encouraged and convinced that he will have a new, higher-paying position by the end of the week. He returns to his car, drives home, and arrives safely to deliver the good news to his loving and supportive wife.

The worst thing you can do to your characters is to make them boring.

In the second version, the man, believing he has job security, buys an expensive car that he will be making hefty payments on for the next seven years. The next day, he gets fired. He finds a head hunter who will talk to him and sets up an appointment. He drives his new car to downtown Portland in a steady drizzle and heavy traffic. He manages to find a parking spot, but it has a 15-minute limit. He parks there anyway and rushes through the now pouring rain to his meeting. He has trouble finding the place but finally arrives twenty minutes late and soaked to the skin. He goes into the meeting confident that his knowledge and experience will net him a good position, but the meeting does not go well. The head hunter, a young woman in her twenties, tells him she might be able to find him a job, but it will probably pay only about 2/3 of what he was making in his old job. In frustration, he argues with her and finally storms out of the meeting. It is still raining as he walks back to his car, and as he approaches, he sees a meter maid shoving a ticket under his wiper blade. He grabs the ticket as he passes the car and confronts the meter maid. As they argue, he hears a terrible crash behind him. He turns and sees that a person who jumped from the adjacent building has landed on his brand new car.

Which version is more likely to hold a reader’s interest?

The second version works better than the first. In the first, everything goes right for the character. There may be a concern with losing his job, but he is confident of getting another one. Everything goes as planned. He has smooth, safe trips to the appointment and back. He finds a parking spot. The interview goes well. He can share the good news with his wife.

Yawn.

The second version is much more enjoyable. It’s got the inner turmoil of the man, caused by his predicament. This includes anger over being fired, uncertainty about the future, the frustration of being late for the meeting, and looking like a drowned rat when he arrives. Then there are the arguments with the head hunter and the meter maid. Finally, he is the victim of a seemingly random mishap that destroys his car.

The second version has what the first does not–conflict. The whole universe seems to be conspiring to frustrate this flawed character’s goals and aspirations, including his own thoughts and emotions. This conflict delivers a character with whom a reader can identify. It triggers emotions, such as pity or amusement in the reader and engages them in the story.

When you create a character, give them conflicts. The worst thing you can do to your characters is to make them boring. Let them be at war with themselves and the world around them.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril” available on Amazon.

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