Friday, April 1, 2016

Creating Tension: Character Conflicts

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

On the past three Fridays we've been talking about creating tension in our novels. If you're just joining us now, you can find those conversations here:


Today, we're talking about our characters. Be excited friends!

The number one way to fill your story with tension is to keep your characters constantly off balance. There should never be a moment when your characters--specifically your main character--isn't wrestling with something. When you think about your favorite stories, you'll realize something:

Most of the tension-filled moments exist because there is conflict between characters.

So! How do we do that? How do we keep our protagonist (main character) out of sync with the other characters in the story? For simplicity's sake, let's split our character relationships into four categories:

Enemies

This is clearly the easiest place to build tension. Conflict between your protagonist and antagonist (central character opposing the main character) will be at the very heart of your story. It will, by it's very nature, move things forward. Things to consider:

1. Your villain should be a worthy opponent. Creating a character who doesn't have the smarts or the ability or the charisma to ably stand in the way in of your protagonist isn't going to do you any favors in the tension department. There must be something about your bad guy that positions him across from your lead. If not, the conflict between the two will feel flat and not at all risky for your main character. And things must be risky.

2. Your villain's motivation should conflict with the hero's. I'm always amazed when I read a book alongside a friend and they end up rooting for the villain. There could be many reasons for that, but one is very simple: perhaps they identify more with the villain's motivation. If your hero and your villain want the same thing, that's awesome! Stellar. But if they want it for the same reasons, your story can quickly become a snooze-fest.

Let's say your hero and your villain are racing. Your hero wants to cross the finish line first to honor the memory of his father who was a celebrated racing champion. But your villain? He wants to cross the finish line first because he wants the shiny trophy, or because he wants the prize money--OR--maybe your villain's motivation is darker than that. Maybe his primary motivation is to spoil the  hero's chances. How contrary can you make your villain? Work at it. Work at the "why" behind his actions and set it squarely at odds with the hero's own motivation.

3. Your hero and villain should spend time in close proximity. I just read a story where the main character and her nemesis were assigned to the same dorm room. This is good. When two opposing forces rub against one another, we get friction. The idea of enemies is not enough. We need to see the tension on the page. Lock your enemies up together. Watch what happens.

Friends

Sidekicks are easily some of my favorite characters in literature. Written well, they can provide a beautiful contrast to your protagonist and add color and flavor to a story. But things shouldn't be all roses between your main character and his friends. Consider:

1. Friends don't tell friends everything. Contrary to all the sappy quotes out there, most friends have secrets. Exploit this! How do your characters feel about an unspoken something between them? Tense, yes? At least one of them will feel the discomfort of subterfuge. And what happens when the secret gets out? Tension! Yes!

2. Opposites attract. While most friends have at least one thing they can bond over, your story will lack tension if your main character's BFF is simply a clone of the protagonist. Give your sidekick her own interests and her own motivations. If she's helping the main character as they journey through the story, let her fight the villain in her own way. Maybe she's impetuous where your lead is methodical. Maybe she's a blabbermouth and your lead is reserved. Maybe she never, ever backs down from a fight and your lead does all she can do avoid them. I'm certain you can find ways to turn these opposites into a problem.

3. Disagreements are king. Just because two people care about one another does not mean they agree on everything. In fact, they may not agree on much at all. What if they disagree on important things? Like how to fight the bad guy. Or whether lying is ever okay. Or if they really should steal the treasured jewel. What if your lead unwittingly drags your sidekick into a battle he doesn't agree with? Tension, yes?

Family

Everyone has family. Even your orphan hero originated somewhere and his own history should play mightily into his actions. Whether your lead's family members play an important role in the story or not, you'd be wise to think through their influence on your main character.

1. Abandonment comes in all shapes and sizes. We like reading about heroes who press toward their goal despite the odds stacked against them. Often this starts early in life for a hero--his family has abandoned him and he's struggling through alone. While this path provides a lot of fodder, consider the fact that many of us FEEL abandoned by our family at some stage and--real or not--you can use this truth to add tension. Maybe your hero feels his dreams aren't supported at home. Maybe his ever-present family doesn't do their part around the house leaving weighty responsibilities to him. Maybe he feels the sting of constantly disappointing his parents. Feeling alone is a sentiment we all understand. Building that into your family relationships will create that thick atmosphere that always breeds intensity inside a home.

2. Sibling rivalry. Competition exists in nearly every household. Brothers and sisters, even husbands and wives. None of us are immune to that competitive streak and allowing those things to build between your characters can add a fabulous dose of conflict.

3. Dysfunction works. Not only is the dysfunctional family relate-able, but they present a buzzing hive of tension. I think of Katniss's mom, and Harry's aunt and uncle. I think of Eleanor's family in Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park. The dysfunction in that household is so uncomfortable you can't wait for Eleanor to walk out the front door each day. It's the very definition of tension. A perfect blend of internal and external conflict--something family relationships are excellent at bringing to life.

Romantic Interests

Romantic relationships are not easy. And the hard truth is that not all of them survive. As a teen, THANK GOD for that. No. Seriously. Thank Him. As a writer, use this fact of life to make your readers ask themselves, "Are these two really going to make it?" The thoughts I gave you up there in the FRIENDS section would also apply here but here are a few additional tid bits:

1. Careful with insta-love. In most cases, there should be some conflict and tension leading up to your main character making that true love connection with THE ONE. Don't make it easy on your love-birds. Throw some road blocks in there. Pre-existing relationships or forbidden interaction. Initial dislike is one of my favorites. Make your hero fight through his first impressions before you let him find happiness. Readers want real. Insta-love is fine now and then, but it rarely feels authentic.

2. Toxic relationships work on the page. Have you ever been around two people who bring out the absolute worst in one another? It's unbearable. On the page though--especially if there's attraction--toxicity works. It invades dialogue and streams of consciousness. It spreads like a poison and keeps emotions high. Terrible in real life. Awesome on the page.

3. Show Off Selfishness. Because we're all sort of longing for the perfect relationship, it can be very tempting to write our characters into one. But without tension, that perfect relationship isn't worth reading. Let your characters make mistakes. Let them be selfish. Show the reader the consequences of selfishness in an intimate relationship. Make Romeo and Juliet fight through their own failures to be together. It makes a happy ending so much more satisfying.
Each relationship your main character has carries with it the potential to add some serious tension to your story. I bet you were thinking about your own cast of characters as you read. I hope you'll examine those relationships and use something here to create tension and stir up conflict.

Tell me, which relationships are hardest for you to write? Easiest? Does writing conflict into a relationship come easily to you or do you have to work at it?

35 comments:

  1. Conflict between friends or between two groups of friends is my absolute favorite. In the book I'm writing for #WeWriteBooks, the MC and her best friend both know a secret (about the MC), but no one else on their team knows it. I also love writing conflicting romances. My love interest loves jumping into things head first (he's a spur-of-the-moment type guy) but the MC has to have a carefully considered plan for everything. Needless to say, that makes for some great conflict. :) Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore!

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    1. Sounds interesting, Linea!

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    2. Thanks!

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    3. I'm so glad you're thinking about these things!

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  2. The hardest type for me to write (at least in my WIP) is actually hero/villan. The story's true "bad guy" isn't actually a person...(it's intangible things, such as grief, illness, selfishness, and lack of faith that make life hard for my MC). Then again, she was abandoned by her father, so maybe he is the villan figure...?

    As far as putting conflict in relationships, I never used to be great at it (I tried to do it but, since all of my characters were stereotypes, the conflicts were sort of fake) but it's a bit easier in my current WIP...mainly because my MC isn't exactly a "people person"...

    Thanks for the post, Shammon, I REALLY liked this one and it will come in handy as my MC keeps bungling her relationships!

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    1. Ooo...an introvert would create great conflict! Also, even if your villain is intangible, you can still use it for some thick conflict. If I remember correctly from your premise, the MC's newfound friend discovers she has cancer (the same that killed the MC's mom, I think). The cancer may not be a physical being, but it would sure create conflict within your MC--stirring up grief from her mom's death, maybe anger as well, and fear for her friend. I think an intangible villain could create a conflict just as bad as a tangible one, maybe worse, because there's nothing the MC can actually fight against--the conflict is within herself, in her relationships, and her emotions. Anyway, that's just my thoughts. :) Good luck!

      (Oh, and I read in the last GTW post that you get to go to Hawaii for research. Have fun!!)

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    2. Thanks, Linea, you had some great thoughts!!

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    3. It's beneficial to have ALL SORTS of conflict in your story. Not just the traditional villain. Internal struggles should most definitely play a part! I think we'll talk about that soon as well!

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  3. Character Conflict! Oh, yes I am excited :D
    Conflict in relationships is one of my favorite things. It makes the story so much more exciting when we see each character has their own goals and worldview, and when they differ from the people around them, naturally there will be tension.
    Thanks for the epic post! :)

    Deborah

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    1. Yes! Every character is the lead in their own tale and it's important that we don't forget that.

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  4. The relationships that are always the hardest for me to write are the ones where the characters are actually supposed to get along--and that's a good number of them. Surprisingly, the only relationship that feels natural to write and requires little to no extra thought is the one where my two side-heroes don't get along all the time. But writing conflict into relationships doesn't come easily to me either, except in this one case. This is something I definitely need to work on and will be thinking about a lot more often. Pupils and mentors don't always get along, and even the main character and his friend alone on their epic quest probably won't agree on everything, now that you mention it.

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    1. You are absolutely right! Thinking through each relationship will give you all sorts of ideas for conflict.

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  5. Thank you for this post! It is so helpful! :)

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  6. Thanks so much for these posts! Being in that annoying middle part of my WIP these sort of things help a lot! Personally I find family relationships the hardest. It's always very tempting for me to kill off a characters parents beforehand but before I know it my story is completely over-populated with orphans! I find writing friendships the easiest--I especially enjoy writing about people with different personalities and the banter that insues from there! But my favourite has got to be romantic relationships...especially the toxic ones!

    A question though: any suggestions on how to create tension between an enemy the protagonist can't actually identify? My MCs are battling with an organisation but they don't know who the leader actually is... This means my characters become quite agitated as they don't know whom to direct their anger to, but I still feel it doesn't have enough tension.

    Anyway thanks again for a brilliant post!

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    1. Oh, middles. I know I'm there now too.

      An unknown adversary is fabulous. You can handle it a zillion different ways, but consider making your characters suspicious of EVERY possible option. That will add lots of tension. What if they start to suspect one another?

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  7. I like death for creating conflict. Death makes a beautiful antagonist, when you think about it. Especially in wartime stories :-)

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    1. Or maybe if your writing historical Salem Witch Trials? That's death conflict.

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    2. Yes . . . although I think if I were writing a story about Salem, I would probably have more PERSONAL conflict--as in, somebody accuses somebody else of being a witch, leading to their death, etc. In other words, that's death that doesn't NEED to happen; it just happens because of the actions of individual humans (who are, of course, the antagonists). Whereas in a war story, the conflict is really impersonal, because the soldiers on the opposite sides don't even know each other. They aren't killing out of personal animosity . . . so when somebody dies in that situation, you don't really blame "the bad guys" or "the other side." You just blame Death, period. That's what I mean when I say that Death is the antagonist in my story.

      (I'm afraid that really didn't make a whole lot of sense. Sorry about that.)

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    3. It made sense. :)

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    4. Death can work. In the Book Thief, Death is the narrator, but I wouldn't call him the antagonist. He just is. He's the result. In fact he's a very sympathetic character. It very much depends on how you depict Death.

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    5. Right. In my story, Death is the thing that everybody's scared of, the thing that they all want to fight, so that's why I call it the antagonist. But of course, Death doesn't have to be "the bad guy."

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    6. Or "the bad guy" doesn't have to be creating death, if there is a bad guy.

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    7. Did that make sense? I mean, death usually comes from sickness, and diseases. (I mean, like historical, because diseases aren't too deadly anymore, like... I am blank!) I mean, death doesn't always come from "the bad guy". That's if he's dead serious.

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  8. Wow, thanks so much for the post! It is helpful. It has got me thinking some. I hate when authors make characters flawless. While I am writing, I will keep this in mind. I am plotting a romance novel right now, not writing it...yet. This is going to help!! <3
    Thanks so much!
    Gianna

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  9. I love the tip about side characters! So often, side characters are just blank slates there to provide the perfect advice at the perfect time. I love when the sidekicks get their own story lines, because it makes the world feel more developed and the story more immersing. Excellent post!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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  10. Wow, great! This is the thing I get stuck on the most. Thanks! :D
    Allison

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  11. Thanks a lot!! This is going to help!! :)
    Mary Anne

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  12. This is my first time I read your post and I hope not the last one! You managed successfully to describe all the main characters' conflicts which can occur in the story! I think using character relationships in the story helps readers to know how the characters act differently around different characters and in the different situations, however, I think that the relationship which starts in the story needs to be grow and be different in the end! So there is not doubt that this literature way of writing helps interest readers with a written story!
    Thank you so much for sharing such an interesting content and useful tips here!

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    1. Very, very good point! Relationships never stay the same. Like characters, they are always growing and evolving. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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