How To Write Conflict And Strong Emotions

So this wasn’t exactly my plan for today, but Grace @ Writerly suggested that I do a post on how to write conflict and strong emotions. Now, I’ve never particularly had trouble with this — giving my characters petty reasons to tear each other apart greatly amuses me, actually — but who knows? Maybe some of you need help with this too. Anyway, here’s what I got.

As you may have guessed from my last post, I don’t come up with plot first. I come up with characters. Deeply flawed characters. For me, that means the character has a belief rooted so deeply in their soul that they don’t even know it’s affecting their decisions. This belief doesn’t even have to be bad. It just has to affect the way they treat others.

For example, let’s look at some of my MCs from my upcoming Camp NaNo novel. (Yay! Another excuse for me to talk about them!) Tim Hayward believes that no one in his family really cares about him. Of course, he’s got a host of other issues as well, but this is one of the core problems. So he feels justified in treating his family like dirt, because he feels that no matter what he does, he’ll never please them.

On the other hand, his sister Nancy has been blessed and cursed with a more realistic view of their family. That is, she knows that her parents value all their children, but definitely favor their oldest son, Gabe. She believes that what other people do is out of her control, and it’s better just to roll with life. While this is a much healthier belief than Tim’s, it’s also resulted in her refusing to confront anyone about harmful behaviors, because she believes there’s nothing she can do.

It’s important to remember that two people can have the same belief and react to it entirely differently. Someone else who thinks their family doesn’t care about them might become reclusive and simply ignore them as much as possible. Or, they might treat them well on the outside, but resent them inwardly. Or — because everyone has conflicting values, beliefs, and actions — they might continue to desperately try to please their family even though they believe it’s pointless. It really all depends on personality.

So how does this create conflict? Well, going back to Tim and Nancy. Both siblings have explosive tempers and hate to change their minds. This naturally creates tension between them. To make matters worse, neither sibling tries to understand the other, as Tim is convinced that Nancy does not care about him, and Nancy is convinced that no matter what she does she won’t be able to change her brother.

As for strong emotions? Well, if all your characters’ actions are based off deep-set beliefs, you better bet that some deep emotions will be coming to the surface. How do you behave when someone challenges your most cherished beliefs? Forget about how you behave — how do you feel? It’s not a great feeling, is it? And depending on your personality, you might fight back, pretend to agree to avoid the conflict, or a host of other reactions.

What you want to do to capitalize off this inner conflict is to put the characters in a situation where eventually, they can’t opt out of conflict any more. Even the most conflict-averse characters will have to face their inner contradictions someday. And that’s great practice for real life, ‘cause that’s gonna happen to you someday, I guarantee.

But Faith. Lots of people die with really wrong ideas about the world. Life isn’t a story. We don’t all have to face our “inner contradictions” or whatever.

Well, yes. And no. We’ll have to face some of them. Because guess what? We all have about 1,000,000,000. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA *cries*

Actually, one way to see if an author has thought through some of the other contradictions a character believes, instead of just the ones pertinent to their story, is to check their sequels. If the character gets bland and uninteresting in subsequent books/movies, you can bet the writers didn’t think them through too far. A notable exception to this are characters in plot-centric stories like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, which don’t revolve around the characters coming to terms with personal issues. This is widely known as a Flat Arc, but you probably already knew that. And even those characters have fleshed-out personalities.

Finally, you might be running into the Author Omnipotence problem. Which, simply put, means that you as an author can see into all your characters’ minds and know exactly what one character has to do to another to resolve the conflict immediately. If you find yourself doing this, stop and ask yourself two questions.

  1. Does this character realistically have the resources to know what they’re doing is exactly what the other character needs?
  2. Is it in this character’s personality to do this, even if they know this will help the other person?
  3. Can I use my omnipotence to create more problems instead of solving them? Aka…I know exactly what would help this character, so I know exactly what will hurt them, too. Do that instead. (Yes, we’re an evil bunch.)
  4. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with the prospect of hurting a character in mind.

If it’s not in any of your characters’ personalities to help/hurt another character, you may need to diversify your cast’s personality pool.

When all else fails, remember that humans are extremely petty, and can start conflict over the stupidest reasons. For example, who vs. whom. Or correcting someone’s grammar on the internet. Or starting a war over a soccer match. (This actually happened.)

Stay crazy, friends. I’m gonna go give my characters more contradictions now.

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