Characters in Conflict

For a strong story, you need conflict. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character – what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily.

Let’s start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Not really. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

• Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

• Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

Back to the kid with the math test. Here’s what we came up with when I did this exercise in a workshop: If he doesn’t pass, maybe he will fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. That’s why it’s important. Assuming we create a character readers will like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test, and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges—he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit his distracting little sister, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we would relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a big football game Sunday afternoon, and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study for his test. Plus, of course, he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Fears and Desires

As this exercise shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s desires. If they crave safety, put them in danger. But if they crave danger, keep them out of it.
In my Mayan historical novel The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest, she’s forced to act. In my Haunted series, Jon would like to be an ordinary kid, fit in, and stay out of trouble. But his sister constantly drags him into trouble as she tries to help ghosts without letting the grown-ups know what she and Jon are doing. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person’s accomplishments more impressive. In my book Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, written under the name M.M. Eboch, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome – childhood health problems, poverty, a poor education. I showed his troubles, and not just his successes, to help the reader understand just what he achieved.

Here are a few more tips on setting up conflict:

• What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension to the story. It can be as simple as our soccer player who wants to practice soccer, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence.
• Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. Perhaps your character has a temper, or is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications, and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.
• Before you start, test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

Some writers tend to start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless of which style you prefer, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

Chris Eboch is the author of the Haunted series for ages eight to 12, about siblings who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. See more of her writing tips at her blog, Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop: or visit her website at