One More Thought on Characters and Conflict

If you follow me on Twitter—and you should—you might have seen me tweet the following:

As I explain in the subsequent tweet thread (and here, in the promised blog post): if you want character conflict to work, the two characters have to be in conflict.

Maybe they both want the same scarce resource (first place in the karate championship, the Iron Throne).

Maybe one character wants something and another character is either deliberately or inadvertently preventing them from getting it (a parent telling their daughter she cannot participate in the big soccer game because it’s on the same day as her sister’s wedding, a boyfriend telling a girlfriend that her new job at the fashion magazine can’t be more important than his birthday).

Maybe two characters want the same thing but in ways that conflict with each other (two childhood friends trying to maintain their friendship after one proposes marriage and the other says no).

What doesn’t work—and I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out, but it also looks like some storytellers never figure this out, so okay—is the type of conflict where two characters both want the same thing but they’re caught in some kind of contrived misunderstanding that could be solved by literally two seconds of communication.

The character with the ring box in hand, watching as their beloved embraces another person (who is actually a cousin or a good friend or whatever, but our protagonist won’t even bother to ask, they’ll just stuff the ring box in their pocket and walk away).

The two siblings who both want to keep their childhood home safe but almost end up sororiciding each other after the younger sister misunderstands a letter that the older one wrote five years ago (I told you this whole thing was originally prompted by Game of Thrones).

The reason writers come up with this kind of conflict, as far as I can guess, is because they can’t figure out how to generate an authentic conflict between two sympathetic characters without making one of them look “bad.”

But conflict isn’t always about who’s right and who’s wrong. It doesn’t have to be about good and evil. It can be about two people who want different things, or who want the same thing but in different ways, or who are working towards the same goal but want to take different paths to get there.

To solve that kind of conflict, one or both characters will have to learn, grow, or change. The relationship will evolve in a way that is emotionally satisfying. We’ll learn something about ourselves by watching these characters process their conflict, vs. the kind of no-change-required conflict where all we learn is that we really should ask our significant other whether their cousin happened to be in town last week.

So that’s my final thought on characters and conflict.

For now. ❤️

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