Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: Have characters agree on what's important'
Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: Have characters agree on what's important'

Writing Tip: Have characters agree on what's important

One of the recurring issues when writing is the never-ending question about the quality of conflict. What is good conflict? What is juicy conflict that sets the story on fire and keeps momentum until the end—and how do you identify conflict that’s boring and peters out quickly?

Recently, I realized another way to identify good conflict. It’s just a simply trick—more a thought, really—but it might help someone, which is why I write this article.

The trick is:

Don’t have the conflict about what’s important. Have everyone agree that something is important, but disagree on how or why or what to do about it.

Let’s dissect that.

In an older story of mine, I had a central conflict about “freedom”. One person believed pure freedom was good and needed, while the other believed rules and order were truly crucial. (To the point that the first character ignored laws and customs entirely, and the second even leaned towards supporting slavery.)

It seemed like a good conflict to me. Something with weight, something to explore throughout an entire story.

But … it wasn’t, purely because I framed it as the characters disagreeing on what’s important.

You can’t have a discussion about freedom, when one thinks it’s crucial … and the other doesn’t care. There is no real tension when one character is immovable in how important they find true freedom, and the other character just doesn’t care. It’s not part of the equation for them. They believe in order and laws, while freedom is way down on their list of priorities.

Conversely, the first character thinks laws simply … shouldn’t exist. So any discussion or plot point around that would just cause shrugs on their part.

How would such a conflict work better? By simply framing it following the trick above.

  • The two characters agree about one specific thing and how important it is.
  • The conflict is about how to achieve this, or how to solve that issue, or what is worth sacrificing.

For example, both characters think family is extremely important. They both value their families, spend a lot of time with them, believe that they’re the corner stone of society.

This makes every scene, plot point, thread about family tense for both of them. Nobody is shrugging. They always care, which makes the reader care.

The conflict, however, comes from …

  • Because of money, laws, hierarchy, the first character is forced to be away from their family a lot. Maybe they even lost a kid due to terrible laws, or lost a son due to being forced to join the army.
  • On the other hand, the second character truly believes the opposite: laws are necessary to protect your family and ensure you can live in peace. That rules and hierarchy are good because, in their view, they’d get rid of most of the danger to your family.

At its core, these characters are the same and the conflict is the same.

But I hope you agree that this reframing is much, much stronger.

  • The story is focused on one theme, which is streamlined and easy to follow
  • All characters think this theme is extremely important, so they care about each scene and each development. (There aren’t chapters / episodes / storylines where a character just stands still, or you really have to reach for some conflict of introspection that might create tension.)
  • But despite this simplicity or “consensus”, you still have endless opportunities for conflict and dilemmas. (Precisely because you have two opposing forces fighting over the same thing.)

Applying this “trick” to my more recent stories, I find my setups for conflicts growing much stronger. I don’t fall back on “fake conflict” by default, as I used to do, where the story turns into several chapters of disagreements and characters standing still while others are angry.

That’s the article!

In summary, make sure all characters in your story agree on what’s important, then create conflict by making them disagree about the specifics of it.

That’s all,