Creating Conflict and Strong Characters

create conflict and strong characters

Every writer struggles with creating conflict and strong characters–stories and protagonists our readers can identify with and root for. In fiction, perfection is boring and Trouble is king.

What Conflict and Strong Characters are All About

Newbie writers are always told to ensure their stories contain conflict. But what is conflict and how does one create it?

According to the dictionary, conflict is incompatibility. It’s disagreement or disharmony. The best explanation I’ve heard about how to write conflict is contained in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

… you have to be your lead character’s best friend and worst enemy all at the same time. You need to send your hero on a walk through the woods. Then you have a bear chase him. You let him climb a tree. You chop the tree down. The bear chases him into the river. He grabs onto a log. It turns out to be an alligator. He grabs a floating stick and uses it to jam the beast’s jaws open. You give the bear a canoe and teach it how to paddle–

Block also says, “Fiction is just one damned thing after another” and, boy, does he have that right.

Who wants to read about a perfect character living a perfect life without the imperfection of interference? Not me. First of all, it’s not realistic. Second of all, although it’s what we say we want, I suspect living a perfect life is one of those things my mother was referring to when she said Be careful what you ask for.

What makes a book or story interesting is how characters navigate trouble, solve their problems, cope in the midst of chaos, stay cool under pressure, and smile with gritted teeth through the biggest failures of their lives. The aftermath of the trouble, problems, chaos, stress, and challenges is what really matters: how they changed and shaped the character.

What Conflict and Strong Characters Looks Like

Conflict wears many faces: Danger. Disturbance. Grief. Misfortune. Suffering. Heartache. Torment. Battles. Contests. Clashes.

Transport a city girl wearing a silk suit and four-inch heels to a dirt road in a rural setting. Immediate conflict. Then let the thunder and lightning begin…

Make the heroine an insurance adjuster and the hero the head of a stolen car ring. Instant conflict. Especially when the hero’s occupation is revealed right after they first make love.

Let’s say your main character just made partner at his architectural firm and beat out his competition because he’s a family man. Three weeks later his wife files for divorce and leaves town with their children. Talk about conflict.

Not only do the preceding examples contain conflict, they raise questions. Lots of questions. Unanswered questions create tension and suspense–which compounds the conflict.

To escalate matters, you can toss in a ticking time bomb–that deadline each protagonist faces before the excrement hits the fan. You can reveal that secret, the one that represents the protagonist’s biggest fear, the one the character must face before the ticking time bomb explodes. My personal favorite involves dialogue: the words that can’t be unsaid or the unsaid words that should have been spoken.

Character flaws are also a good tool to use. Doesn’t matter if characters are unaware of their flaws or if they know full well what flaws they have and simply can’t help themselves from messing up. Over and over again. The reader wonders: Will the character ever figure things out? If so, how? When?

Unanswered questions equal tension and suspense. Postpone giving answers. Or only provide partial answers. Or ask more questions before answering previous questions. Layer the tension and suspense with conflict, and you’re on the right track.

What Enhances Conflict and Strong Characters

Perspective

People come in all shapes and sizes, and with an endless variety of opinions. What good, from the perspective of conflict, is a character who keeps her opinions to herself? You guessed it: none.

But toss in a character with strong opinions, one who doesn’t hesitate to share them. Often. And loudly. No matter where she is.

Instant conflict.

This character doesn’t have to be the protagonist. In fact, this character has the potential to cause endless trouble and chaos if she isn’t the protagonist.

The Underdog

A power imbalance creates instant conflict. There’s little in life that’s more satisfying than the longshot beating the favorite in a competition. Davey and Goliath. Jack and the Beanstalk. Underdog and Simon Bar Sinister.

The Deep, Dark Secret

We all have secrets, past actions or words we fear will reflect poorly on us when the old spotlight shines down. Infidelity, embezzlement, and assault can have serious repercussions if they’re uncovered. But then again, so can undisclosed pregnancies, thoughtless comments, and poor decision-making.

What makes secrets such a great element of a good story is that we can use them in a variety of ways. Readers can know a secret the protagonist doesn’t know. Protagonists can know secrets that, if revealed, will result in death–either physically or emotionally. Multiple characters can share a secret, one that simply can’t be exposed without dire consequences.

The most important thing about using secrets is to reveal them at the worst possible time.

Choices

One final tool that helps create conflict and strong characters is giving the protagonist two options–one just as bad as the other. What a terrific way to force the protagonist to grow and develop. Option A is lousy. Option B downright sucks. Which forces the protagonist to dream up Option C.

For example, the protagonist receives a call from his brother, who just crashed his car into a tree. The protagonist arrives at the scene and realizes his brother is intoxicated. If the brother is arrested for another DUI, he’ll go to jail, so he begs the protagonist to tell the police he was driving. Clearly, neither option is ideal. Which option will the protagonist choose? Or will you, the director of the scene, be clever enough to come up with another option … one that startles your readers after drawing the tension out unbearably?


Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas about creating conflict and strong characters.

Mystery Making Event on March 6

SW Florida Reading Festival Mystery Making March 6, 2021.

You might be wondering what a mystery making event is. Well, let me explain…

Mystery Making is the brainchild of Sisters in Crime New England, a writers organization of which I’m a member. Back when we writers made live presentations, mystery making events were primarily conducted in libraries. A panel of four writers would work with an audience to create a brand-new mystery.

In a mystery making event, members of the audience suggest:

  • Character names
  • The plot and the setting (including time period)
  • Who the unsuspecting victim of foul play is
  • Who the villain is
  • What the motivation for the dastardly deed is

Nowadays, we’re conducting these events virtually and on March 6, Sisters in Crime New England (SinCNE) will be joining our sisters from the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter at the SW Florida Reading Festival. The Florida Gulf Coast Chapter’s booth at the festival includes recorded and live events.

Four of our chapter’s board members will present a live Mystery Making event from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, March 6. Join Lisa Lieberman, Lorraine Sharma Nelson, Tonya Price, and me. Registration information will be available soon.

Main Stage Event

Here is a video of a Main Stage event, Noir at the Bar, hosted by the Lee County Library System. Click the link or image to launch the video.

Save the date for Noir at the Bar, a main stage event at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

More Information

The SW Florida Reading Festival runs from March 1 to 13, is free, and involves the following types of activities:

  • Author panels
  • Author presentations
  • Book selling
  • Live author meet-and-greet sessions

Children’s programs air at 6 p.m. and adult programs air at 7 p.m. Featured authors appear in virtual online booths on Saturdays. More information and registration for the event can be found online here.

When the registration URL is available for Linda’s mystery making event on March 6, it will appear here.

Want to help Make a Mystery?

Join us for a Mystery Making event.

Join me and fellow mystery writers Debra H. Goldstein, Tilia Klebenov Jacobs, and Clea Simon brainstorm together to create a brand new mystery. Give us your audience suggestions and help make a mystery!

The Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield, MA hosts the event in coordination with Sisters in Crime New England. In the past, we presented these events in person but haven’t let the pandemic slow us down. Help make a mystery by registering and logging in on the date of the event. Then, once we begin, simply suggest character names, murder plots, settings. Feel free to suggest anything else that adds to the fun!

A maximum of 50 people can attend and the cost is $0, so register now. Click this URL to register: https://wakefieldlibrary.assabetinteractive.com/calendar/mystery-making-with-sisters-in-crime-new-england/

Click here to learn more about my writing events.

I participate in many of these mystery makings throughout the year. I also appear at other events such as book signings, author panels, and author interviews. Stay tuned for my next two books in the upcoming months. The second edition of Second Time Around will be available and a new book, co-written with author Herb Holeman is waiting for a publication date.

What Writing Community Means to Me

No, I’m not drinking two beers. One was my sister’s (she’s the photographer) and, in fact, I was drinking a soda. The photo was taken during a writer’s conference where I learned exactly what Writing Community means to me.

Conferences

I love going to writers’ conferences. Ironically, the best ones I attended were in New York City with RWA the year one of my daughters turned 11 (she’s never forgiven me for going away). The other two were in New Orleans, one with RWA and one in connection with my award nomination for my first mystery, Second Time Around. (Second Time Around will be re-released early next year.) There’s no greater feeling than the satisfaction of chatting with other writers.

Groups and Organizations

I was almost thirty years old before I experienced that feeling. Until I stepped into my first writer’s meeting, I’d always felt just a step out of whack with the world. Certain things would tickle my funny bone in a way no one else understood. I thought my imagination was wonderful thing. Sometimes, other people thought it was scary. Then there was the fact that I couldn’t go anywhere, and I mean anywhere, without a notebook and half a dozen pens.

Here’s what writing community means to me: The first moment I stepped into the monthly gathering of a group of writers, I knew I wasn’t really a step out of whack with the world. The disconnect I’d been feeling only occurred with people who weren’t writers. The immediate sense of understanding, the way we all looked at life from a quirky perspective, the unique (and often bizarre) senses of humor and imaginations … what a relief to know I wasn’t alone!

Since then, I’ve felt that same connection with not only writers but also musicians, artists, and those with a creative bent to their minds. It’s the community of writers. We all understand community in the sense of society, social standing, and in business.

We see that hashtag #writingcommunity all over social media (I’ve been using it a lot lately) and it’s no small thing.

Fellow Writers

Recently, I’ve become very involved in a couple of the writer’s groups of which I’ve been a member for years: Sisters in Crime New England and the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The interaction on Zoom during this pandemic has done a world of good for me. My boyfriend brought this to my attention. He said I seem happier and more engaged with the world. I’ve also become more productive–not only with my writing but with everything.

So, thank you, my fellow writers. You who have appeared on my podcast, who have welcomed me to your online meetings, who have helped me promote my own books and events. Together, we support each other and can accomplish anything!

Debra Bokur’s new Release: The Fire Thief

The first book in Debra Bokur’s mystery series, The Fire Thief, was released last month to rave reviews. The series is set in Hawaii and you can check it out on her website at https://www.debrabokur.com/.

Debra visited with me on The Writer’s Voice this week, and we talked about how her career as a celebrated journalist and editor of magazines and literary journals did NOT prepare her for writing and publishing fiction. You can listen to the podcast episode here. A short video excerpt will appear on my YouTube channel on Friday, here.

As most writers will agree, we tend to write long or short. When you’re a journalist, as Debra is, you tend to write to specific word counts required by the outlet publishing your work, such as 1,000 per piece. When you write fiction, you tend to write thousands and thousands of words … only to find you need to slash your word count by as much as 25%.

My experiences have been different from Debra’s. I found that writing a newspaper column and magazine articles actually helped me keep my fiction writing tight and in accordance with required word counts. Then again, I began writing fiction first and found it fairly easy to cut word count. Not every writer can toss away words with relish.

But when you begin writing short nonfiction it’s much more difficult to retrain yourself. Give Debra’s interview a listen and then share YOUR take on how writing one particular type of work did or did not prepare you for tackling another type.