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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.

Human Motivations: Fodder for Fiction

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245

Some say when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, the air moves on the other side. That’s more than just an ancient saying—it’s physics. Science tells us for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s a law of the universe. We writers make use of that law of cause and effect in establishing motivation for our characters. We pair up needs and desires with the actions taken to fill them. The more needs and desires, the more layers to the plot.

But what catalysts will result in any given human behavior? Why, for example, would one of our characters smash his car into a roadblock? Why does our protagonist wash his hands every fifteen minutes? How can we make the actions of our villains believable?

No problem. Just review the pyramid of human needs as identified by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, fill your shopping cart, and proceed to the checkout counter.

According to Maslow’s theory, we must satisfy the needs at each level of the pyramid before moving up to the next higher level. The catch is that humans may choose to fulfill those needs through positive or negative means. How your characters meet their needs is up to you.

  1. The lowest stratum of the pyramid covers biological and physiological needs such as air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. Science tells us that when humans undergo prolonged deprivation of any of these needs, such as might be experienced in a concentration camp, the need for food and sex are the last two drives to go, and then only just before death. The struggle to secure these needs may result in love triangles, jealousy, and theft, to name a few. Or it may result in marriage, a good work ethic, ambition and striving to excel.
  2. The next level deals with safety needs such as security, order, law, limits, and stability. Recognizing that there is safety in numbers, every culture has developed rules by which its inhabitants must live. Even anti-social groups have established ground rules, laws, and norms. Just ask anyone who’s been in prison—or worked in one.
  3. Once we have managed to deal with the first two levels, we can move up the ladder to the next one dealing with the need to belong and love. Humans are a gregarious lot. We need relationships. The family unit was established to meet these first three needs. So were gangs. Like the old Three Dog Night song said, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
  4. The penultimate level of need includes self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, and prestige. This need may lead to entrepreneurial ambition, and the drive to learn new things. It may also lead to manipulative, controlling behavior, and obsession with money and/or possessions.
  5. At the top of the pyramid are the self-actualization needs. Humans are built with the drive to realize their personal potential: they seek fulfillment, personal growth, and peak experiences. At this level we find altruistic behavior, mentoring, heroism, and religious fervor.

Because humans are creatures of endless complexity, we may fulfill more than one of these levels at a time. For example, the CEO of a charitable non-profit may not only be fulfilling his need for self-actualization, but for wealth and status. And the school bully (or even the physically violent parent) might be fulfilling the need for dominance and control.

Psychology tells us every human behavior has at its root the goal of survival. And that doesn’t apply only to physical survival. Humans do strange or even horrible things to survive emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. Find someone suffering pain from the loss of any given need, and you’ll find someone willing to do almost anything to find relief from that pain or fear. Enter self-medicating behaviors such as alcoholism and other substance use and abuse in an effort to reach and then maintain what science calls homeostasis, or balance.

According to New York’s Gotham Writer’s Workshop, every character must have a desire he struggles to fulfill. The grandness of that desire is not as important as how badly the character wants it. It could be anything as mundane as the desire to quit smoking. Or it could be as dark as the desire to get rid of a rival. The absence of desire makes for flat characters.

So, look over Maslow’s amalgamation of human needs and drives. Choose one or more, spoon in a dollop of desire, and you’ll have the makings of a deep, multi-faceted character worthy of your writing time.

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 June 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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