We’ve talked about writing sympathetic characters, writing three-dimensional characters, and giving our characters pasts. All of these things are meant to create characters that readers can truly connect to in one way or another. Writing conflict is what activates the connection we’ve established.
If a character sits around doing nothing, there is no story. If they get up and do some things, but those things don’t have a meaningful impact on their lives, the story is boring. As writers, it’s our job to make lovable, relatable characters…and then torment them.
This gig is definitely not for everyone.
Writing conflict can be one of the most challenging aspects of creating a story for this very reason. We love our characters, and don’t want them to suffer. But if they don’t suffer, we don’t create the excitement, escape, or catharsis that readers come to stories to experience.
There are two main types of conflict I look at when creating my characters’ stories: internal and external. These conflicts will be strongest when they’re tied to the characters driving goals, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about more in the coming months!
Internal conflict is how the characters tear themselves up inside. It’s the self-doubt, the worry, the guilt that everyone experiences from time to time, only amped to a thousand degrees (at least).
Then there’s external conflict. This is how the antagonizing force rips up the characters—whether it be their world, situation, or ex-college roommate’s cousin’s sister who always hated them for whatever reason.
I had a lot of fun developing the internal and external conflict for Duration of Stay. Zemanni is one of my favorite characters of all time. Because I wrote/plotted Tied up in Customs, Entry Visa, and Duration of Stay at the same time, I was able to build up his conflicts over all three books.
Zemanni’s primary goal is to obtain resources (wealth), giving him more independence and power. He’s introduced as a badass, shapeshifting bounty hunter/assassin from the Scorpii system—and Scorpiians are kind of boogeymen among most of the sentients in the known galaxy.
In Tied up in Customs, Zemanni tries to assume the identity of the Earthling Eric Peterson in order to gain influence over Eric’s new accidental wife, Sorca. (Cultural differences between planets can lead to some strange situations 🙂 Get it? “Tied up in Customs”? *ahem* Anyway…). Not only does Zemanni fail in deceiving Sorca, but the DNA he steals from Eric to copy him ends up corrupting Zemanni’s own DNA, setting up both the internal and external conflict Zemanni will endure in the coming books.
Zemanni knows he’ll eventually assimilate Eric’s do-gooder DNA properly and go back to being his own cold, calculating, efficient self. Then in Entry Visa, Zemanni sets his goal on another lucrative opportunity—a pair of Lyrian smugglers whose pelts would fetch an even higher price than the bounties on their heads. With the internal conflict of Eric’s corrupting DNA distracting him, Zemanni fails yet again, only this time, he’s physically maimed.
Up to this point, all of this is shown through dialogue and actions, with the focus staying with the main characters of those two books. In Duration of Stay, I finally was able to get into Zemanni’s head and see/show what was really going on. By that time, both his internal and external conflicts had reached a tipping point.
Internally, he’s still struggling with the new “warmth” in his thoughts and the alien desire to help others. It wouldn’t be so hard if he didn’t actually like having those feelings, causing even greater internal conflict. He can’t shapeshift anymore and is stuck as Eric Peterson 2.0.
Zemanni has no idea how to manage a corporeal body with static organs and biological needs, forcing him to turn to an Earthling for assistance—and he’s never relied on another sentient before. Brooke has her own conflicts, which feed into Zemanni’s as they become closer. Each of them has an external antagonist (an ex-boyfriend for Brooke and a rival Scoripiian for Zemanni), and external situations working against them.
The best internal and external conflicts feed into each other. They grow from and influence the circumstances surrounding the characters (aka, the story 🙂 ).
What I’ve listed above are the highlights of Zemanni’s conflicts. The stories themselves go deeper—and the books in this series are only around 20,000 – 25,000 words long! When you have a series with full-length novels (mine are usually 60,000 – 82,000 words), the opportunity to go deep into conflicts that stretch over multiple books can make for an even more enthralling experience.
But we’ll talk about that more when we get to plotting series 😉