Thoughts on Charater and Conflict

In an email thread, a couple of writer-friends and I were talking about writing issues. One of the difficulties was character conflict: making it real and rough and not easy to solve. I kind of spewed forth a bit of a mini lesson, gleaned from my time at Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA, ’cause this stuff gets packed into your head and pops out occasionally.

So here are my thoughts on character and conflict!

Note that there’s a wee spoiler for Just Business here, as well as a spoiler for Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Part of coming up with hard conflicts for characters is knowing the goals and the motivation behind a character…both internal and external. This is two parts of an acronym you’ll see sometimes in romance writing circles: GMC

Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Not General Motor Corporation.

There’s a classic book called, strangely enough, GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict by Debra Dixon.

Basically, for your main characters (including your antagonist and/or villain if you have one), you should have a good idea of what their goals are, both internally and externally. External goals are the one they show the world, while the internal ones are the goals of their heart. Note that you need to know these.

The character doesn’t always know what their own internal goals are…though those goals will move and inform their actions more so than the external ones.

You should also know the motivation behind those goals, both internally and externally. This is what drives the character towards their goal, the why of it.

Conflict comes in when you throw roadblocks in front of the characters during their quest to obtain these goals. What’s stopping them from getting their goal? What’s even better is if you can set it up so that there’s a conflict between the internal and external goal. And yes, there can and should be internal and external conflicts!

Justin, in Just Business has the external goal of finishing his MBA, getting a kickass job with Sam, and helping his family. His internal goal is the desire to trust and love someone again. These two goals end up in conflict when he falls for a co-worker…because he may lose the job he likes and wants and needs, and thus fail to help his family.

Internal conflicts are nearly always stronger than external ones. (I’d actually say always, but there’s an exception to every rule.) External conflicts are less messy and more easily solved in a way. Internal conflicts get caught up on emotions and desires and fears, which are messy messy messy.

Which brings us to how to dial up the conflict:

Know what it is that your character most fears, what won’t they do, what compromises won’t they ever make…

Then come up with situations that break them completely when they must to come face to face with their worst fears. Or where they may have to do exactly what they loath. Or compromise their integrity.

This is internal conflict.

I mean, yes, car chases are exciting, but we all know how they work.

What’s the fear behind the chase? What is the character going to lose if they get caught? What if they do get caught? How does that change things? How do they get out of that jam?

If you can think of an easy solution, keep brainstorming until you come up with a problem that hits the character right in their fears or their personal integrity or whatnot. Make them suffer, basically. Give them the choice between the worst of the worst options. Play with what’s inside them and use that against them.

Because overcoming the most adverse internal conflict is far more satisfying than solving the external one.

In some what odd happenstance, considering I’m an agency client now, Don Maass taught the Writing the Breakout Novel workshop my first term at the Seton Hill MFA program. One of the things I’ve kept from that day is this:

What’s the worst thing that can happen to you character right now? Make it even worse, then make it happen.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to Captain America now that all his friends are dead and he’s living in the future?

Discover that the Winter Soldier, his enemy, is actually Bucky Barnes, a man he loves, the man he didn’t save.

How do you make it even worse?

“Who the hell is Bucky?”

It’s not the external conflict that kicks us in the feels. It’s the internal one.