Are you doing #NaNoWriMo? If so, I hope by now you have a solid story idea. But it’s possible you got started and realized your idea might not be strong enough, or complex enough, to sustain a whole novel.
A strong story needs conflict. Without conflict, you have one of those “slice of life” episodes that isn’t a real story. 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. Conflict comes from a character with a problem or a goal.
Some authors prefer to start with a plot idea, while others start with an interesting character. Either can work, but ultimately the plot and character must work together. Let’s look at character development, as it intersects with plot.
We’ll start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Hardly. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.
· Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.
· 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 babysit a sibling, 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 that example shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations that 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.
For example, my middle grade fantasy The Genie’s Gift is set in the fifteenth-century Middle East and draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights. It could have been simply a magical adventure tale, but the main character gives the story depth. She is anything but the typical swashbuckling hero:
Thirteen-year-old Anise, shy and timid, dreads marrying the man her father chooses for her. Her aunt tells her about the Genie Shakayak, the giver of the Gift of Sweet Speech, which allows one to charm everyone. Anise is determined to find the genie and ask for the gift, so she can control her own future. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?
Because Anise is so desperate to reach her goal, she tackles challenges far beyond her comfort zone. This makes the dramatic action even more dramatic, while providing a sympathetic character and a theme about not letting your fears stop you from achieving your dreams.
You can also create conflict by setting up situations that oppose a person’s desires. Sometimes these desires are for practical things. In my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a young temple dancer whose one goal is to win an upcoming contest. When her friend disappears, she has to decide if winning the contest is really more important than helping a friend.
Perhaps your character simply wants an ordinary life. 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 who is trying to take over the city, 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 – not only racism, but also childhood health problems, poverty, and a poor education. I showed his successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.
To build conflict:
- Start with the character’s goal. Create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s needs and desires.
- 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. (Or the reverse, someone who wants independence but still needs to be protected. Those two characters could even be in the same story. Life is complex, with many shades of gray, and books can explore that. Subtle concepts may be confusing for younger readers, but they are entirely appropriate for middle grade and young adult books.)
- 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.
- Your character may change or grow as a person during the story. This is called a character arc. A character who changes is usually more interesting than one who does not. However, growth does not always mean a reversal of attitude. The growth can come from reaffirming what the character already knew. For example, a child could know what is right but struggle to do it. In the end he does what is right, growing by following and reinforcing his beliefs.
- A character’s growth can reflect your theme, by showing what the character learns.
- Test the idea by considering different options. 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.
- The conflict must be important enough to sustain the story, and it must not be too easy to solve. This will vary by story length and readership age group.
- It should take more than one attempt to solve the problem – three tries works well for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, add more attempts, or have each attempt made up of several parts.
- To build original plots, brainstorm 10 possible things that could happen next. Pick the least likely, so long as it makes sense for the story.
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.
Do you tend to start with plot or with character? How does this affect your writing process?
This post was adapted from You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The book is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. 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.