The Art of Conflict: Why You NEED to
Develop Your Characters
One of the most common questions I hear when people are beginning to write a new story is, “Where do I begin my story?”. Chances are, if you’re asking this question then you haven’t fully fleshed out your novel. And in order to know where to begin your story, you must develop your characters. I know that when I first started writing, I was eager to jump into my story without fully developing my characters. That was a huge mistake.
Think about what keeps you interested in a story, or going back to read it over and over again. Is it the lush imagery and world-building the author has done? Maybe. But if you had a 400-page book in front of you full of purely setting and description, chances are you would ditch it before you hit 100 pages.
A story’s plot is what keeps readers interested.
In a nutshell, a plot is the sequence of events that take place in a story. It is the story itself, unfolding scene after scene to form the three acts of a plot.
But in order for there to even be a plot, something needs to continually push the action forward. And that comes in the form of conflict.
Conflict is the heart of your novel.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s at least thought of a novel idea before. Or anyone who has read a lot of fiction books.
The events in a story (or plot) take place because the protagonist desires something, and that desire conflicts strongly with the antagonist’s desire. You see where I’m going with this? It’s all about the protagonist and the antagonist, and their individual desires.
When you boil a novel’s plot down like this, you can see pretty clearly how important it is to have well-defined characters. As a writer, you have to know your characters inside and out. Know what their hopes and dreams are, and what their deepest fears are. These are the foundation of your plot.
In J.K. Rowling’s infamous Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the heart of the story is the conflict between Harry and Voldemort. Voldemort’s desire is to kill Harry, and later “world domination”. For obvious reasons, Harry’s desire is to not be killed by Voldemort, but this desire evolves as the story progresses and Harry sees that Voldemort is a threat to all witches and wizards. Then Harry’s desire becomes stopping Voldemort’s domination.
In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, the Capitol desires to watch twenty-four teenager fight to the death. As tribute, Katniss’s desire is to survive. Once again, as the series progresses, the Capitol (personified by President Snow), desires to specifically kill Katniss and suppress the rising rebellions amongst the factions. Therefore, Katniss’s desire becomes stopping President Snow, and ensuring a successful rebellion against the Capitol.
Your story is not the world you created. It is not the setting, or even the circumstances. Your characters are the story.
But don’t mistake my message here.
Not all characters are created equally. Not all characters hold equal importance, or equal relevance. The only characters that matter to your story’s conflict are the protagonist and the antagonist.
Why? Because they are the only two figures that create the novel’s conflict, and therefore the novel’s plot. Side characters are undoubtedly important to the plot and even the outcome of the story, but they are nonessential to the conflict.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s conflict with Voldemort remains the same regardless of who the other characters in the story are. And, regardless of their role in the overall plot. Voldemort would still want to kill Harry and become supreme evil overlord regardless of whether or not he had the help of Peter Pettigrew. And Harry would still want to survive Voldemort and stop his evil self whether or not he had the support and help of Ron and Hermione.
Action Step: Develop Your Characters
All stories begin with conflict.
Now that we’ve covered what exactly is at the heart of your story – the conflict and the protagonist and antagonist – you should have a clear idea of what to do next.
Fleshing out your protagonist and antagonist is the most important step in creating your story’s conflict and plot. What are their desires? What are their fears? How do those things oppose one another? Characters = conflict = plot = a novel.
Looking for help developing your characters? Check out my post: How to Develop Your Characters with Beautiful People
Let’s talk about it
Have you fully fleshed out your protagonist and antagonist? Do you have a solid understanding of the conflict between them, and how it drives your story forward? Let me know in the comments!