Conflict and characterization

I got a call from my son last night. He works as a security guard, but his real passion in life is filmmaking. And when a filmmaker doesn’t have a gig—or money for one of their pet projects—that filmmaker turns to scriptwriting.

Matt has had this idea for a while about a guy who is faced with a challenge. The woman in his life, an upwardly mobile young executive, accepts a six-month job in Thailand. The protagonist is faced with a conflict, if you will. How the story turns out is how that conflict is addressed. And how the protagonist addresses that conflict depends on his character.

Will he give up on her? Will he convince her to stay? Will he try to pursue her?

Well, the story’s not written yet, so I don’t want to give up the ending. But just the situation makes for an interesting concept.

Characterization is an essential building block to telling any story. And characterization involves more than just conflict. Most people start with physical description. One of the flaws I see here is the tendency to make everyone good attractive and physically fit, and everyone evil ugly. That is the Disney approach, but it tends toward the cliché. Instead, try to make them unique and somewhat normal looking. Why not a hero that is a couch potato? Why not have an elderly woman with arthritis save the day?

The second step is to talk about motivation. Why would the character be involved in this story, and what would they realistically do? Would he normally run from a fight, or is he looking for trouble? The rule of thumb is: if you have a fantastic story, make your characters as ordinary as possible; if you have a relatively normal story, make your characters off the wall. This balances plausibility with entertainment. Have a boring story with boring characters, and you had just as soon run a bath with lukewarm water.

Finally we come to conflict. The external conflict is pretty obvious. In most stories, that is the basic plotline. The protagonist is trying to accomplish something, and the antagonist—or villain—is trying to stop him or her. Basic stuff. Throw in some secondary characters—sidekick, skeptic, counselor, contagonist—and you have the beginnings of an interesting story.

But there are two kinds of conflict. There’s external conflict, and there’s internal conflict. That’s the conflict inside the character. When a character is conflicted—has a reason for doing something, but also a reason for not doing it—it makes for a lot more interesting story. That’s how subplots often work. It also helps flesh out the character—who they are, why they do what they do, and why we should care.

Finally, there is conflict between characters. I’m not talking about the main conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. I’m talking about conflict between the good guys. Take a look at the first film in the Star Wars series—the one done in 1977, the classic. You’ve got a teenage idealistic boy, the hero. You have his counselor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. So far, so good. Then they are thrust into a situation where they join forces with a smuggler and his animal-like sidekick. Tension begins, because motivations between the four of them are different. When they rescue Princess Leia, the fireworks really start, and the fun begins. Think how bland the story would be without the conflict between these five people. In the end, they work together for the common good. But for the most part, the story is really about how the five of them relate.

That’s the secret I keep reminding myself. Conflict between main characters develops characterization. And it makes the story a lot more interesting. Take a look at your favorite book, and see how much conflict there is to begin with, and how that helps the characterization.

Then let me know what you think.

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