Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Character vs. Conflict, and Does it Really Matter?

question to writers: what do you think of the concept “conflict before character”? do you feel its a core principle in storytelling?

The resulting discussion on the LegendFire Facebook group centered on the question of which was more important to the story – the characters or the conflict. Many people answered that character is more important. I answered that conflict is more essential. Maybe it’s because I enjoy playing devil’s advocate, but it’s mostly because of my strong emphasis on plot in my writing process. Yet after some more thought, I’ve come over to the position that others on Facebook gave: conflict and character are equally important because one is entangled in the other.

If you’ve read my post on the four things every story needs, you’ll notice that three of the four directly relate to the story’s plot. I didn’t address character in that post at all. Conflict creates plot. Resolving conflict takes time. It is a process, and that process creates a story.

Yet conflict requires at least two opposing forces. These forces are embodied as characters – the actors acting, the people fighting and doing the things that the plot describes. It’s through this fact that I’ve arrived at my current stance on the matter:

Conflict is what makes a story a story. Character is what makes a story interesting.

Just because I focus on plot and often write about plot doesn’t mean that character is any less important. But if you’re hungering for in-depth discussions on characters and how to write them, you should look elsewhere. Apprentice Wordsmith is a blog about helping beginners with the foundations of writing and storytelling. The intricacies of character psychology and motivation is not a beginner-level discussion, in my opinion, so you won’t hear me talk about it much here.

The main reason I wanted to write a post on this topic, though, is to demonstrate a point I made on Facebook: that conflict helps make interesting characters. To be fair, I’ll also show how the inverse is true: how characters can make a conflict interesting.

Character Enhanced by Conflict

One of the principles that I write by is that characters won’t act or change unless they are forced to. Conflict gives rise to that need to change and act.

To be clear, when I say a character is “forced” to act, I don’t mean that the character must be coerced. I’m using “force” as a stronger synonym for “motivate”. A character needs a reason to act and engage in the plot/conflict. It can be a conscious choice, or the situation could demand a response. I gravitate toward the latter in my own work, so I tend to think in terms of force and demands. But even the most proactive protagonist – someone who wants to change or actively seeks trouble – needs something happening around them to respond to, some reason for acting. Or maybe the conflict arises because of the protagonist’s actions, and the entire story is the protagonist dealing with the consequences.

For our example scenario, though, I’m going to stay in my wheelhouse – a situation that prompts our protagonist to action.

A gentleman thief crosses paths with a detective who is on their trail. For now, the detective is completely oblivious about their new acquaintance’s criminal alter ego. How does the thief react?

The thief protagonist now has choices of how to grow beyond the trope. Will they go into hiding, fearing their demise? Will they sabotage the investigation? Or will the pair form a genuine friendship, making for some delicious drama when the truth finally comes to light?

Conflict Enhanced by Character

If your story centers around a large-scale or even epic-size conflict – I’m talking about government conspiracies and world wars – it’s difficult to get the reader to buy in. That’s because readers are individuals, not organizations or nations. Readers are looking for stories about individuals, about people they can relate to on some level. Creating characters who have a personal stake in the larger conflict is the way you can persuade readers to care about your story.

A nation is in the grip of civil war. Two twin brothers are on opposite sides of the conflict. They meet on the battlefield – the only ones of their respective regiments still standing. Do they kill each other? Do they part ways, both of them keeping the encounter a secret? Or do they both desert, sick of this long needless war?

The fates of these brothers are directly linked to the changing tides of the war. Your readers may not care about which side is in the right or who wins in the end. But they will care about whether or not these brothers live or die because they are individuals with very personal stakes in the conflict.

My Point

You can start writing your story from one place or the other. You can start with an archetypal character and add conflict to them to make them interesting (a process I’ll talk about in more detail next month). Or you can start with a conflict and use personal stakes to tie individual characters to it. In the end, every good story has both – characters readers want to read about and a conflict that compels them to keep reading. Thus, it doesn’t matter which one you consider more important that the other. Start wherever makes the most sense for you and for the story you want to tell. Develop the other when it becomes relevant.

What do you think? Do you focus on character or on conflict? Why? Let’s continue the discussion down in the comments.

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