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Quite the Character

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245According to author, editor, and writing consultant Jeff Gerke there are two kinds of writers—I call them Plotters and Character-philes. No, this has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with how our brains are wired. Gerke says fiction writers will be good at either crafting a complex, multi-stranded plot, or building deep, multi-faceted and interesting characters, but not both. With that in mind, and in the interest of helping my fellow Plotters thicken the portion of their cerebral cortexes wherein their Character-philes lie dormant, I submit some tidbits I’ve picked up.

By the time we reach the age of twenty or so, all of us will have developed psychological, mental, spiritual, and even physical battle scars, along with the mechanisms for coping with them. And by the time we’ve put a few decades under our belt, we’re as bent and dented as any used vehicle on a second-rate car lot. Gerke’s message is to embrace your hard-earned dings. Exorcise your ghosts through your characters. For example, show your protagonist struggling to survive a tumultuous relationship with her mother, father, or even her boyfriend’s obnoxious cat. Or better yet, show your antagonist’s inner turmoil over an action he’s taken, or is about to take. Readers love delving into the dichotomy of good versus evil that apparently resides in every human being, so heap the internal conflict high.

Got any phobias? How about a couple of recalcitrant neuroses? Do you engage in obsessive compulsive rituals or carry a load of guilt over youthful—or even recent—indiscretions? Good. Confession time: One such incident from my past became the basis for my essay “The Four People I DON’T Want to See in Heaven.” Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to see David Brown in Heaven. David was in my third grade class. He lived just up the street from me, so we often walked home from school at about the same time. One afternoon, when we reached a particularly isolated spot, David offered to show me His Bits if I would show him Mine. Never having seen that particular part of the male anatomy before, I figured that sounded like a great idea. I told David to go first, and he did. However, being raised in an extremely conservative household, I had second thoughts about my end of the bargain. Modesty won out, and after completing my observations, I turned and ran home as fast as my nine year-old legs would carry me, leaving an undoubtedly wiser David with his pants around his ankles.Had any epiphanies along your self-discovery journey? Excellent. Draw on all of those life experiences to build colorful, deeply human characters. You don’t have to admit to a thing, and your readers will wonder how you grew to be so wise.

Then there’s the dynamic known in psychological circles as the Normalcy Bias. How many horror or suspense movies have we watched where a female character hears a noise from the basement and proceeds to check it out? We in the audience know it’s a bad idea, but the character is a victim of the too-human characteristic that whispers in her ear, “Nothing bad has ever happened before when you went into the basement, so nothing bad will happen now.” The ways to enhance your characters through use of this it-can’t-happen-here trait are endless. For example, does the mother watching her toddler play in the park realize that the handsome young gentleman who seems to turn up everywhere is actually stalking her? Of course not, it has to be a coincidence. Or do the villagers who live at the foot of an active volcano fear imminent destruction? Poppycock. The thing has been spewing smoke and cinders for decades. Go to sleep children, all is well.

And how about fear? We humans harbor fears-a-plenty. We’re born with the fear of abandonment, and then proceed to pile up more terrors over our lifetimes. We fear people, places, situations, the future, insects, certain animals, etc. Haul out your own fears. Hold them up to the light, and then bless your characters with a fistful. Someone said that readers look to writers to help them discover ways of dealing with their own life issues. So scare the bejeebers out of your readers, and then lead them to safety—or not. Either way, they’ll love you for it.

Then there’s the human ability to survive through adaptation. It’s the process by which the bizarre becomes the norm. If an action is repeated often enough and over a long enough period of time—even if it involves horrifying or twisted behavior—the people who witness it, or even those who are victims of it, adapt to it. They may not like it on some level, but they will eventually not only accept that behavior, but embrace and even mirror it. It’s part of our arsenal of survival strategies. Tough and resilient characters, anyone?

Ah, the human condition. Time to turn your lemons into lemonade.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Characters in Conflict

by Chris Eboch


A strong story needs 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.

1. Why is it important to the character?

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

2. 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).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers 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, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus 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 romantic suspense novel, Rattled (written as Kris Bock), Erin likes her adventures safely in books. But when she finds a clue to a century-old lost treasure, she’s thrust into a wilderness expedition full of dangers from wild animals, nasty humans, and even nature. 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. 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 Han Solo in Star Wars.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person’s accomplishments more impressive. In Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, 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 successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.

Some writers 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, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

To Build Conflict:

What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football, 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, 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.

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published in the June 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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