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Create Conflict in Your Characters

There are no murders, no kidnappings, no killer robots, no evil wizards, no spies, no ghastly villains, no wars and not a single shot fired in Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel. In fact, the title pretty much describes what this book is about: Conversations with Friends.

And yet this is a captivating page-turner of a book. The kind where, when you finally look up from the pages, you realize it’s an hour later and your coffee is cold. It’s that good.

So how does she do it? How does she take conversations with friends and make them so engaging?

She does what all those other authors do when they write about murders and kidnappings and killer robots, etc. She creates conflict. As I say, this is not the car chase, shoot em up, high octane kind of conflict, but it is conflict.

Note that I’m referring to conflict in the literary sense, where characters face challenges and opposition as they try to achieve their goals – as they do in every story. This isn’t necessarily the dictionary definition of conflict, which covers battles, wars and serious disagreements, though it could be that as well. If you find the idea of conflict too harsh, you can think of it as drama.

Rooney creates this conflict in two main ways:

1) Conflict between characters

Frances is the narrator, a student living in Dublin. Her best friend is Bobbi, but Frances and Bobbi used to be lovers. This immediately raises questions about their current relationship. Can they really be best friends? How mutual was the decision to be friends? Is one still hoping the friendship will again become something more?

But Frances and Bobbi are more than best friends. They also form a spoken word poetry double act where Frances writes the poems and Bobbi performs them. So they need each other for more than friendship. Is this a relationship of convenience then?

These questions becomes especially pertinent when, through their performances, they meet a pair of popular socialite artists, a couple, Melissa and Nick. Bobbi and Frances compete, in their own ways, for the attention of the couple, which leads to more tension between them and in their new relationships with Melissa and Nick individually.

Without giving too much of the story away, all is not quite as perfect with Nick and Melissa’s marriage as it first appears. They sleep in separate rooms, and we learn that the marriage has already survived affairs. This makes readers aware of the tension between Nick and Melissa too, and raises the stakes for their relationships with Frances and Bobbi in a will-they, won’t-they way.

2) Conflict within characters

Frances is a strikingly reliable narrator, especially for a first-person narrator. She is so good at reading people that when she says they feel something or mean something else when they say one thing, it’s very likely that she’s right. Except when it comes to what she is feeling herself, then she’s incredibly unreliable.

Everyone tells Frances that she is so beautiful, but Frances never says that about herself. In fact, she’s quite unhappy about her appearance, and so Rooney creates this internal conflict within Frances on top of all the other conflict between the other characters.

So how can you apply this to your own story?

Find fault

One easy way to create these levels of conflict between your characters is to play the blame game: when something goes wrong, who could your characters blame if not themselves?

It’s useful to use specific examples from your work in progress. Look at a moment when your character doesn’t achieve a particular aim. Maybe they didn’t get to the meeting on time. Maybe they didn’t get that date. Or get in the getaway car. Or destroy the killer robot. (I’ve got a thing for killer robots, did you notice?)

Once you’ve identified the lost goal, then ask if you character could blame another character, and decide which other character would provide the most conflict.

Maybe your character doesn’t directly confront the other, but it’s often enough for them to have that thought, to have that nagging feeling that the other person kept them from the one thing they really wanted at that time. That helps to build that internal conflict.

This works best, as shown in Conversations with Friends, when built up gradually, with small matters at first that eventually grow into something close to, if not full on, hatred for the other character.

Engaging readers

Psychologists use the blame game technique to let patients see that blaming others isn’t always an effective or empowering strategy to overcome any issues in their life or to cope with negative experiences.

A blaming strategy doesn’t work well for fictional characters either. As with real people, it’s likely to keep them even further from their ultimate goal. And so this can be another moment, later in the story, when they have the realization that blaming others isn’t working and they have to take a new approach, try something different.

That new approach could lead to even more conflict or, depending on where it comes in the story, be part of the character’s moment of self-realization towards the end.

The point is to keep looking for those moments when you can create conflict between and within characters to create a story where the readers will even forget about the coffee.

How do you create conflict in your story? How do you set your characters against each other? Do you have any techniques on how to find those moment of internal conflict? Please share your ideas in the comments.

About Jim Dempsey [1]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [2]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [3] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [4]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [5] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [6].