The best moment of every author talk I ever give in a school is when I share the dirty secrets of being a professional author.
“Writers are horrible people,” I say, to a response that varies from gasps (grade three) to blank faces (grade eight). “Writers are mean and they have to be happy to be mean. Nothing ruins a story faster than a writer being nice to a character.”
Because the true villain in every story has to be the writer.
Not the leering, menacing quintessential antagonist trying to take over the world, but the writer who makes that world unsafe and uncomfortable for the protagonist in as many ways as possible – internal and external.
The writer who creates conflict.
Or, as Vladimir Nabokov succinctly put it: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
If your character gets comfortable on their branch, dangling their legs between the leaves and admiring the birds or, worse, going to sleep, throw a rock at them.
Why is conflict important?
Conflict isn’t just about fights or battles or arguments. It’s about problems. Big problems, small problems, internal problems, external problems. It’s about your character not being able to have the thing (or person) that they want.
Happy characters are boring characters – and boring characters create boring stories.
But characters with problems have to respond. They have to make decisions. And those decisions will drive your story – voila, plot!
Questions to help you create conflict
- What does my character want?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen to my character in achieving their goal?
- What’s the one thing they would not be willing to do to achieve that goal (spoiler, you’re going to put that impossible choice in front of them)?
- Who or what is the antagonist in my story? (Person? External force, such as nature or weather)
- How am I going to ensure that the protagonist and antagonist face off at some point?
- What is at stake if my protagonist does not reach their goal? (hint: make it big)
- How far am I, the writer, willing to go to make life difficult for my character? (hint: all the way is best – protecting your character will hurt your story)
Making your character uncomfortable
The most important thing to remember about conflict is that it has to be believable for your protagonist. There’s no point in magicking up problems because you think they’ll make your story more interesting.
Conflict is about understanding your character's strengths – then challenging them. It’s about understanding their weaknesses – then exploiting them.
But mostly it’s about understanding your protagonist’s goal – and then making it very difficult for them to achieve it.
See, mean and horrible.
Developing compelling characters
To develop compelling characters who keep your readers engaged, check out the course Fiction Essentials: Characters. Writing compelling, believable characters is the key skill in all fiction writing. So it’s vital that you create characters readers will connect with. If you don’t, no one will care about your story – in fact, they probably won’t get past the first few pages!
In this online course, we will help you develop not only the main players in your story, but your entire cast of characters. This is vital because each of them plays an integral part in whether or not your reader engages with your story.
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s next middle-grade novel will be out in July 2023. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.