Building Your Characters from the Inside – Part 2: Conflict

by Susan May Warren

On the 12th, we talked about sitting down with your character and getting to the bottom of who he thinks he is to discover their values, dreams and fears. (If you missed it you can find it here.)

WHY do we need to know what they value? Because we want to make them SUFFER.

But why do we want suffering? Isn’t that cruel?

Hey – that’s the price of a good story! Lots of angst and suffering. Suffering makes the character uncomfortable, and causes…CONFLICT!

Hint #2: Create Conflict they can’t live with!

Conflict is what drives a story. We talked about inner conflict – that conflict in values. And we pinpointed the external conflict by determining our characters greatest dreams and greatest fears. Now, let’s use all that to create some conflict. Conflict can come from many sources – other people, weather, events outside our control, bad choices we make. A good story is driven by the characters choices…and enhanced by their noble cause and motivations. We want our characters to be frustrated and feel out of control.

What do I mean?

Not long ago I was trying to re varnish an old dresser. I’m kind of a Design on a Dime kind of gal and I love doing creative household projects. Also, we’re on a tight budget, and I have a strong desire to please my husband and stay on that budget, while creating a beautiful home for my family. If I look deeper, I want to be approved by my husband for a various number of reason. So, there’s my inner values. Approval and frugality. Greatest dream then, would be to create a masterpiece without much money. And my fear would be falling into a money pit. I have succeeded in the past — I recently made my own ottoman. And I found this old dresser at a garage sale and fell in love, knowing it would fit perfectly in my family room. I wrestled it into my car and brought it home, ready to create a masterpiece. Immediately I happened upon problems. I ran out of time in my day, I ran out of materials, I had dragonflies glue themselves upside on the surface while it was drying. That night we had a rainstorm. As I listened to the rain, frustration welled up inside me. I had done everything to transform this stupid dresser to no avail, it was starting to cost me money, and it’s wasn’t looking so hot. Did I chose frugality, or beauty? With my greatest fear looking over me, I turned to God. And in that surrender God told me that He’d fix everything. That it might not look like what I’d envisioned, but it would be perfect all the same. And it’s true…its rustic appearance (minus the dragonflies) fits perfectly into my rustic home. My greatest dream.

This is a summary of a good book plot.

Competence: What do you do well?

What is that thing you fall back on as your strength? Can you organize, take charge of things? Can you re-varnish furniture? Can you write? Let’s go back to the Fugitive. Dr. Kimball did what to help him solve his wife’s murder? He went to a hospital, and submerged himself in that life…even breaking out to help someone who needed surgery. He counted on his competence to get him through. But this is where you can hurt your character the most.

You’ve all heard that good plotting makes each situation worse. Taking away a characters competence, bit by bit makes the situation worse. For example, in the Fugitive…when Dr. Kimball saves the little boy, suddenly the Big Dog has a new lead on him, and he’s trapped again, his end goal thwarted. One of my favorite scenes in Hunt is when Sean Connery turns to Ryan, after meeting him, and says, “Oh, I’ve heard of the book you wrote – it’s all wrong.” Suddenly everything they’ve assumed about Ryan’s skills is destroyed, and there looms a dark question…are we all in big trouble?

In my book Happily Ever After, my main character, Joe is handyman. He prides himself on being able to tackle any situation and fitting in wherever he is. But what if everything he does backfires, through his fault, or no fault of his own? His involvement to help someone only leads to more trouble for them. Suddenly, even his identity as a drifter/handyman, the guy who can solve problems, the temporary savior is shaken. In the end, his confidence needs to be completely destroyed, which is a great place for God to step in and do something incredible. It also helps to build to your Black Moment.

Which we’ll talk about This Friday, January 27th.

So, in the meantime, make another cup of coffee…and Ask your Hero/Heroine what they do well.

If you missed Part 1: Values you can find that here.

And don’t forget this year, at Novel.Academy, we’re diving deep into the editing process with a series called Extreme Book Makeover! We’ll be looking at everything from the structure and characterization, to scenes, scene tension, storyworld, dialogue, emotions, wordsmithing and even polishing your novel. Get that course, and over 100 more when you join Novel.Academy. Check out our free lessons and see for yourself!

Your Story Matters. Go, Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale,BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of theInspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her