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Fiction: Conflicted Characters

Characters are the essential, driving element in fiction, and the reader should feel as if they are real. So what makes real people? You probably already know that your main characters need to be fleshed out in great detail, that you should know as much about them as you possibly can. But the kind of details you include are also important.

Characters need to have conflict and contradiction in their personalities. Think about yourself: you have your own inner struggles, different aspects of yourself fighting to win dominance. Maybe your sweet tooth struggles against an equally strong desire to be in control. Maybe you have a strong temper but also want harmony. These inner battles drive your life—they're the currents determining your direction on the river as you go.

Conflict is vital to fiction, and inner conflict is usually the most compelling. Maybe you can't really relate to a rock climber's struggle to scale a cliff, but you can apply his struggles with courage and determination to your own life and your own personal situations. Emotional struggles add another layer to the external struggles that may be going on in a story. Your character's personality conflicts should be at the center of the narrative, driving what happens next, just like in real life. It will make your story believable.

Conflict also lends complexity to your characters. Nothing is truly black and white. There are no pure dumb blond cheerleaders or frumpy old maid librarians. When you get a closer look at people, they are always something more. By letting us see your character's inner struggles you show us that they are not simple and that they have dimensions and depth.

In this exercise, you are going to practice developing a character with conflict. Imagine two people having an argument. What are they arguing about? What are they saying in defense of their respective positions? Freewrite about this image. Then when you're done, see if you can imagine a character in which this conflict or a similar one is internalized inside one person. Write a character sketch describing the person from that jumping off point. When creating your sketch, instead of describing the conflict in an overt way ("John was always struggling with his desire to save money"), try to do it indirectly. With the previous example, you could describe John in a store weighing whether or not to buy something. Show rather than tell the reader your character´┐Żs traits.


Once you complete this exercise, you can get a critique from a writing teacher.


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