The bad news is, my entry to the Writers’ Forum ‘A-Z’ competition (they wanted an 800-word A-Z feature on any aspect of writing) DIDN’T win or even get an honourable mention 😦 BUT that means, WF’s loss is our gain because here it is, just for you: the A-Z of character conflicts.
We all know a key element in fiction is conflict but it’s easy to think this just means ‘fighting’. It took me a while to realise conflict is more about giving your character problems or obstacles (both internal and external) to overcome. I’ve often thought a list of possible conflicts would be useful. There are many more than 26 of course but here are some ideas (and for the purpose of brevity, ‘hero’ in this piece stands for any main character, male or female):
A: Addiction. Drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, nicotine or shopping: give your characters an addition and you give them problems.
B: Bullying. It’s not confined to the playground: bullying happens in the workplace and within marriages too.
C: Cowardice. Many heroes start life as cowards, resisting the ‘call to action’. eg: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Part of reader satisfaction is seeing a character change and grow. If your hero’s fearful, force him to face those fears.
D: Difference: ‘Fish out of water’ is a popular theme in fiction. If your character is ‘different’ – an outcast or an oddity – that isolation and struggle for acceptance could drive a compelling plot.
E: Enemy. Most protagonists need an opposing antagonist (for every hero, a villain). This is the most obvious character-versus-character conflict: someone who’s trying to thwart your hero’s aims.
F: Family: marital strife, sibling rivalry, power struggles, ‘boomerang kids’, post-natal depression, arranged marriages and so on. Family relationships offer dozens of possibilities.
G: Guilt: A fascinating inner conflict. Guilt can torment a character, as he tries to hide it or come to terms with it.
H: Hunger. A hungry (or thirsty) or starving character has a basic need to fulfil. It’s a real plot driver and whole novels have been written around it (eg: Helen Dunmore’s The Siege).
I: Indecision. Procrastinating, indecisive characters are in mental turmoil. Just look what happened to Hamlet.
J: Jealousy. Ditto, Othello.
K: Killjoy. A misery-guts can prevent characters from achieving their dreams (eg: a tyrannical father or boss) or – like Ebenezer Scrooge – make life miserable for themselves.
L: Lies. Most crime fiction involves lies but untruths in any kind of fiction create confusion, fear (eg: of being found out) and tension.
M: Money. Lack of cash is a problem in itself but desire for money can also lead to crime and rifts (eg: a shared lottery win, a contested will).
N: Narcissist. Self-obsessed and vain, with an inflated sense of their own importance and lacking empathy, narcissists are the characters we love to hate. Typical narcissists: Dorian Grey and the husband in the play Gaslight, who manipulates his wife into believing she’s going mad.
O: Opposites: put complete opposites together in a confined space (preferably somewhere confined – an office, or the family Christmas dinner) and conflict will naturally occur.
P: Phobias. The hero of The Da Vinci Code is claustrophobic (tricky when his only escape route is a narrow tunnel) but there are hundreds of phobias, from fear of clowns (coulrophobia) to the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia) Google phobias and take your pick.
Q: Quarrel: A courtroom battle, a row over a parking space or a fight between nations. A ‘bust-up’ – big or small – is an obvious conflict but if it suits your story, why not?
R: Religion: Anything that divides society – such as religion – will provide issues and conflict. Your characters may be torn between obedience, doubting their faith, in love with someone from another religion or at war. Great novels inspired by religion include Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (now a film too), about Orthodox Judaism, Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley (Mormonism) and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson about a girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community.
S: Society. Person-versus-society – eg: characters who struggle with a community or a controlling government (eg: The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984). It doesn’t have to be science-fiction, though. You could write about slavery in ancient Rome, the suffragette movement or the miners’ strike.
T: Technology. A car breaks down, a plane’s engine dies, a writer’s laptop explodes, robots turn against humanity. When technology ‘fails’, problems ensue.
U: Underprivileged. If your character’s poor, uneducated or otherwise lacking, due to their background, they will struggle to get ahead. It’s the basis of all ‘rags to riches’ stories.
V: Vendettas. Family feuds, often involving misplaced loyalty and forbidden love, will force characters to act, even against their will. An obvious example is Romeo and Juliet.
W: Weather. Snowdrifts, floods, storms, heatwaves. Any kind of extreme weather or force of nature (a landslide, a tsunami) can present your character with a raft of problems to overcome.
X: Xenophobia. Give your hero a fear, distrust or even hatred of someone of another nationality and then put him in close contact with just that person. And let the sparks fly.
Y: Youth. If you want to raise the stakes, it may help to make your character young or naïve (or seemingly young, such as an adult with learning disabilities). That character will be vulnerable, may struggle to interpret the world and might also lack the resources to easily solve his problems.
Z: Zombies. Or ghosts, aliens, vampires, werewolves: take your pick of malevolent forces. They don’t have to be confined to horror or sci-fi fiction. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a 2009 parody of Austen’s classic novel and later, a film. When it comes to character conflicts, as long as you can make it work, there really are no rules!