How to Write Conflicted Characters

This week we’re going to talk about your characters…and how they might be conflicted within the narrative you’ve written around them. We’re going over the conflicted characters in your story.

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SUMMARY: Character confliction is a key contributor to the conflict and excitement factor in your novel. If you strictly focus on action and fight scenes, your readers might bore of the same-old-same-old repetition. Adding internal confliction is just another layer to add to progress your story arc and character depth.

Writing Conflicted Characters

Every story needs conflict. We might go so far to say that conflict is your story, but that isn’t entirely the truth. Some have experiences more than others, but no one in this world has experienced no conflict in their life. Not even the most praised and proper princess.

Why You Should Be Adding Conflict Into Every Scene:

  • Tension: Conflict creates uncertainty and readers are pressed to turn pages to reveal the outcome.
  • Stakes: Conflict makes us aware of worst case scenarios and what might happen if the protagonist fails.
  • Character Development: Conflict tests your characters, forcing them to grow and change in (hopefully) interesting ways.

When a story lacks conflict, it’s dull and single-celled; but when you add a little disgruntlement and struggle, there’s something for the reader to latch onto. There’s common ground.

For a reader to get engrossed in your story, they need connection and the characters and conflict need to feel real. Actually, real. Not, like, teen romance, heartthrob real, where everything is a last-minute, quick decision. Things need to build, and internal conflict is a key component to this.

Nothing is truly black and white. There’s grey in every corner of this world and your characters should reflect a similar sentiment.

What Conflicted Characters Might Look Like:

PHYSICAL SIGNALS OF CONFLICTED CHARACTERS include, lips pressing together in a slight grimace, increased swallowing or blinking, a wavering smile, darting gaze, avoiding direct eye contact, hesitant gestures, broken dialogue, opening and closing one’s mouth, struggling to find the correct words, voicing support, but the tone lacks enthusiasm, becoming quiet and less animated, scratching one’s neck, rubbing or pulling one’s ear, asking seemingly obvious questions to gain further insight, soft head shaking, gathering opinions of others, sitting and reflecting, pulling grows, looking downward, bent at knees, conflicted or surprised voice, general restlessness, rubbing a hand through the air, smoothing one’s clothes or hair in an attempt to keep your hands busy, blowing cheeks out, then swallowing the air and releasing it, wrinkling one’s nose.                                                                               

INTERNAL SENSATIONS OF CONFLICTED CHARACTERS include, headaches, a heavy body, tightness in one’s chest, a sinking feeling in one’s stomach, loss of appetite.

MENTAL RESPONSES TO CONFLICTED CHARACTERS include, frozen thoughts, hoping for an interruption to delay answering, a racing mind as one searches for answers.

LONG-TERM SIGNS OF CONFLICTED CHARACTERS include, flight response, failing grades, lack of productivity, broken or unfulfilled promises, lack of productivity, a loss of self-esteem, loss of respect from others for unfinished or inaccurate work.

Tips for Writing Conflicted Characters

Give your characters clear goals…and then tear them away from them.

One of the easiest ways to add conflict is to set obstacles (whether physical or otherwise) between your character and their dream. When you know what your characters want, you’ll know exactly what you’ll need to do to inhibit them from reaching those goals. Do they want to get a puppy? Looks like they’re gonna be allergic.

(Also, golly would that suuuuuck.)

A little of this…and a lot of that.

When you’re deciding what kind and how much conflict to add, just think about what you want the end of the scene to be. When you know where you ultimately want to go, you can determine how you’re going to get there.

Gift your characters opinions, and then put them to the test.

When people have certain morals, it creates easy conflict when those morals are objected or they’re in a situation where they have to choose between what they believe and something else they fear. An easy example is if your character believes in woman’s rights, and what happens when they’re put to the test and the “wrong” answer might mean a death sentence or a shot through the head.

Opposites still attract.

Remember that saying from middle school science class, when your teacher kept saying, “opposites attract, ya’ll!” No? Maybe that was just me… Either way, the saying stuck in my noggin and it still rings true. Tie two people together at the hip. They both need something the other has, but they just can’t stand each other for one reason or a million. What interesting ways can you bring two completely opposite people together?

Revel in your character’s failures.

As writers, we kill people off, set them on fire, break their hearts, and watch them fail – often all on the same day. The thing we must remember here is that these sometimes little, sometimes big conflicts aren’t so unseemly. They add depth to your characters and to you story, which only drives the story further into your readers hearts and mind.

The long story short, back your characters against a wall and figure out creative ways for them to resolve their issues. Does that tangible issue create internal monologue where you can dive deeper into the psyche of your characters and add complexity to their overall persona?

ACTION: Take one chapter in your novel and outline each conflict. Is there only one? Or none? You might ask yourself what the purpose of the scene is, or if this scene is necessary to drive the main plot.

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