Character Arc and Conflict: You Can’t Have One Without the Other
The only constant in life is change. If you need proof, try sticking to a daily schedule. I dare you. Real folks don’t live in a vacuum, and neither should your characters. Give them a life you can knock off the rails once the plot kicks into high gear.
In real life, I’m not going to be thrown off schedule by tripping over a dead woman in my driveway when I venture out in my PJs, half-asleep, to bring in the morning paper. A jumbo-sized wizard who looks like Bigfoot isn’t going to come roaring down our street on a flying motorcycle to swoop me up and carry me off to Hogwarts while I’m weeding the petunias.
Though I wish.
If I’m your character, what am I going to do about the dead body? Scream, faint, call 911 as soon as I race into the house and try to remember, in my panicked state, where I left my cell phone?
What if I find my phone under the couch cushions along with a petrified PB&J sandwich, and as I’m tearing back outside I stop because the dead woman is gone?
This is my character, and I know exactly what she’ll do next because I finished my detailed character worksheet. It will guide me through writing about the mayhem that’s going to wreak havoc with this suburban mom’s life, all because a killer rudely dumped a corpse in her driveway.
There are two types of conflict in fiction: internal and external.
The external conflict in every story is the plot. In this one, it’s the dead woman in the driveway, the inciting incident that gets the plot rolling. The story problem is how did she end up in the driveway and who killed her?
Here are two complications to the story I’ve come up with so far:
1. The police don’t believe my character found a body in her driveway, because, hello, corpses don’t get up and walk away.
2. The dead or maybe-not-dead woman, is the homewrecker who stole my character’s husband and destroyed her marriage.
My character’s life experiences—I think her name might be Sherry—left her with a broken heart, and a cynical streak. Her formerly sunny and trusting personality had been as wide as the Mississippi. But life also gifted her with her son, and he desperately wants his parents to get back together.
That’s her son’s goal in the story, to reunite his parents. Yes, that’s right—don’t overlook secondary characters when you’re handing out goals.
Sherry’s internal conflict is that she still loves her ex, even though he betrayed her. She knows she needs to move on, but at the opening of the story she has no clue how.
That’s her initial goal, but it changes when the homewrecker turns up again—definitely dead this time—and Sherry’s ex is the prime suspect. Sherry must find the real killer to save her ex from a murder rap, otherwise their son will be devastated. The police aren’t looking because they think they have their man, so Sherry has a clear goal.
That goal is also her motivation, her reason for setting out to catch a murderer.
What skills does she have that will help her? She’s a newspaper columnist. She uses the 5 Ws she learned in journalism school to crack the case: who, what, where, when, why—and if it’s important, how. She’s also a mystery buff. And she has her son, who ends up being her Watson.
At the beginning of the story Sherry is a newly-divorced working mom. At the end of the story she’s still a newly-divorced working mom, but she saved her family, broken as it is, and she saved her son from a fatherless life. She also saved her ex-husband’s bacon. Well, you can’t win ’em all.
Sherry can add “nabbed a killer” to her resume of life experiences. She’s grateful for the cynical streak the divorce carved in her personality, which made her question every clue she found. And she no long wants to slap her ex silly every time she sees him. Not bad for two weeks work.
Sherry has the same life, the same job, but she’s not the same person she was in Chapter One. She started in one place and ended up in another. In a nutshell, that’s character arc.
Summing up the two types of conflict:
External conflict is the plot, the problem in the story your character must solve to reach his or her goal.
Internal conflict is your character’s emotional scars, the really big bruises left behind by their life experiences. Minor internal conflicts are fears and phobias.
Complications can arise from either one. An external complication is Sherry’s ex being arrested. If the external complication exacerbates your character’s internal conflict, even better.
If Sherry discovers that her ex cheated on her with someone else, long before the homewrecker came along, that would be external and internal. External because it indicates that she never knew this man, not really, and internal because it’s another hurt to get over.
Every external complication moves the goal farther away from your character. That’s why there’s often more than one murder in a mystery novel. It increases tension and suspense. And makes it harder for your detective to solve the case.
External complications also raise the stakes for your character. Would Sherry’s story be as compelling if she decided to investigate the homewrecker’s death out of curiosity? No, because that’s weak motivation and there’s no risk.
Motivation is the reason your characters do what they do in the story. The stronger the motivation, the more risk to your character, the more compelling the story.
Your second most important job as writer—remember the first is establishing an emotional connection between your readers and your characters—is to grab the reader by the throat on page one and don’t let go until you type the end.
We’ll wrap up this series on characterization next time, with a discussion of your third most important job as a writer—making readers believe in your characters and your story.
Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”