Tag Archives: conflict

Mixed Emotions

Besides having conflicting desires, well-crafted characters have conflicting emotions and emotional responses toward each other. These emotions are not driven so much by the character’s values as by 1) cultural preferences, 2) previous experience, and 3) primitive drives, according to Nancy Cress. Examples she gives are 1) you secretly enjoy your boorish brother’s crude jokes, but you’re repelled by them too, 2) you like your boss but don’t trust her because of her reputation for firing people easily—and you want to keep your job, 3) you’ve become homeless and are starving, but you know stealing is wrong, yet you must eat.

How can you portray mixed emotions in fiction? By showing the differing emotions in separate scenes, show conflicting emotions in the same scene, and by using character thought and narration to explain the contradiction.

Here are a couple of possible scenarios:

-Alternating scenes of “I love you” with scenes of “I hate you.” (Read the Nanny Diaries)

-In one scene, I love you right now alternates with I hate you in the next minute. Do this with caution, as the characters need to be consistent to be believable. Don’t allow a character to act in a sloppy or confusing manner. Do this by showing each emotion separately in earlier scenes before combining contradictory feelings. Be sure that the motivations and forces creating the emotions are clear.

Depict emotion through  heated dialog, bodily responses, emotional actions  like a slap across the face, tears, a middle finger, or through character thoughts. These are all great for subtext. Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to see much of this in action.

You will not depict emotion through telling narration, although you can narrate why a character feels as she does. Be careful with this because it can be detached and slow the pace  of your scene, although here the omniscient voice can work if the scene has been set-up and offers a fresh perspective. Be sure that you fully understand the contradictions in the minds of your characters and, without overwriting, make it more complex and dramatic. Metaphors are helpful with this.


  • Identify what emotions your characters are feeling.
  • Have you prepared the groundwork for these mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of the emotions?
  • Decide how best to portray the conflicting emotions—in separate scenes, in the same scene, through narration, or in a combination of these.
  • Have you included enough emotional indicators for the reader to share each  emotion the character feels?

Prompt:  Write a scene about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object. (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream


Filed under Creating Compelling Characters

Character Desire

What do you want from life?  ~The Tubes

 Characters want things. They need things. Some are the mundane: food, shelter.

Other things are less essential: friends, stuff. The key to a good, well-rounded and complex character is in her wants and needs. The foundation for all characterization is the character’s desire.  It gives him the strength to keep on keeping on against the odds. It drives her actions so that she can realize her desire.

In the story, “Friendly Skies” by TC Boyle, the character only wants one thing: to land back on solid ground. Her need for safety puts the entire story into motion and we, the reader, can’t imagine things working out any differently than they do.

Think about Kafka’s “The Metamorphasis” where the main character had transformed into a cockroach over night. More than anything else, he doesn’t want to burden his family.

Look at your work. Can you write one sentence that conveys the deep desire of your character? Do it now.

The above description is a bit simplistic. A complex character will have more than one desire. She’ll have many, and here’s where it gets interesting. Some desires may fly in the face of the character’s or society’s values, creating conflict, or the character may hold two equally, but conflicting desires. This is what life is about. If we want our characters to appear real to our readers, they must be complex and conflicted. Little Miss Sunshine only holds an audience for a very short time!

How do we learn about these desires? Through the character’s choices, what he has to say to other characters, what he withholds from other characters, how he behaves, and through his thoughts and narration.

Remember that desire is packed with emotion. Desire is emotion, and human emotions are not neat. They are conflicting and mutable. Be cautions of making your character’s emotion too messy or you’ll end up with an unbelievable character. We want to be surprised but trust the character at the same time.

There are many ways to portray  your character’s desire. One excellent solution is to show how characters feel, think and behave in relationship with other characters. People think and act differently, depending who they are around and so with characters. Through different interactions, the reader can learn the facets of your characters’ person.

Compelling characters:

Hold two or more conflicting values/desires

Personalities are depicted by which value or desire the character chooses.

The character’s attitude about his choices builds characterization.

Small choices should be consistent with larger desires and can act as foreshadowing of the larger choices to come.


Write a back story for your protagonist as a short story or flash fiction. What has shaped her/him? How is her/his current desires driven by their past? Now do the same for your antagonist, if possible. Memoir writers, you can do this too. How has your past informed your present in relation to the story you are writing?

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Tension, Suspense and Conflict in Your Writing #1

“Tension is the Mother of Fiction” ~Jerome Stern



According to Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction (W.W. Norton and Company 2000), “When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.” Stern advises the writer that tension is created out of conflict: between characters, between the characters and forces of nature, society, or vampires. Characters may even have conflict with themselves. Tension is integral to all aspects to storytelling. Tension is part of what involves the reader in the story—“the more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension….” (Stern) Tension may resolve, end, or continue at the end of the story, but the story remains memorable after the cover is closed on it if the tension lingers.

Alice La Plant, in The Making of a Story—A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), defines tension as “the juxtaposition of two opposing forces.”

My dictionary (www.dictionary.com) lists two definitions that fit:
—mental or emotional strain; stress
—situation or condition of hostility, suspense, or uneasiness

In his Revision & Self-Editing—Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel, James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) says “modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction.”


Stern identifies suspense “as the way you get your audience to worry.” It’s essential to any narrative; it’s the stakes. Suspense is that element that keeps your reader wondering what will happen next—“hoping for one resolution and fearing others.”

LaPlant defines suspense as “The state of being uncertain, unresolved. The sense that something of dramatic importance is about to happen.”

Dictionary.com says: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.


LaPlant links conflict to tension: “Tension arising from opposite forces that is considered necessary by some to sustain a reader’s interest.”

The conflict—crisis—resolution model is the most predominant model for story telling. This is the model that defines a story as having an arc, or the Freitag triangle, named for the 19th century literary critic who developed the theory. Freitag identified five stages of the short-story: 1) the beginning exposition where the characters, setting and situation are introduced; 2) the rising action where the characters feel increasingly intense conflict; 3) the climax or the culmination of the conflict; 4) the falling action, denouement, when the tension is eased; 5) the resolution where the story ends.

This is the model taught in schools and posits that there are three kinds of conflict, those Stern lists under tension: man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

It is not the only model for stories! But it is a good starting point to understand the importance of suspense-tension-conflict in a work of fiction or creative non-fiction.


   [v. kuhhttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngn-flikt; n. kon-flikt]

verb (used without object)

1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.

2. to fight or contend; do battle.


3. a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.

4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.

5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.

6. a striking together; collision.

7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.


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