Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Using Conflict Lists to Get Characters Going

I've got a student who writes well, but without any depth.  Her characters think about and do what's required for the narrative at that moment, but don't inhabit a wider world. To push her to give her characters more than one thing to think about at any one time, I devised a conflict list exercise.  

We started with a character, a student. Then we went through the list coming up with suitable conflicts....

Mind:  Worried that she will fail imminent exams.
Body:  Hungover from party.
Emotions: Worried that boyfriend may be cheating on her.
Family: Parents want her to do well and become a doctor - she doesn't want to be a doctor.
Relationship: Boyfriend may be cheating.
Friends: Advising her to confront boyfriend.
Physical environment - natural: Can't study in the sunshine.
Physical environment - man made: Her laptop has broken, losing her notes.
Individuals in society: Teachers not supportive.
Wider society: Bank demanding she pays off overdraft.  

Then we tried one for a would-be writer...

Mind:  Reading too much negative material about downfall of publishing.
Body:  Back ache from poor posture over computer.
Emotions: Lacking confidence that the novel is any good. 
Family: Unsupportive - why can't she get a job?
Relationship: Won't look after kids at the weekend so she can write.
Friends: Writing buddy has just landed mega publishing deal.
Physical environment - natural: Rainy days mean kids need entertaining at home.
Physical environment - man made: Uses same computer as kids.
Individuals in society: Publishers/agents reject her work. 
Wider society: Cost of living has gone up, needs to earn money soon. 

I'm not saying that every character has to have every type of conflict, but working through a conflict list will suggest areas that the character could be dealing with as the story happens. 


Karen said...

I love the would-be writer conflicts and could definitely relate to most of them!

Great idea to widen the narrative in that way though - I'm going to think about that list while I'm editing.

Jim Murdoch said...

My first thought here is that your student fits both lists and that's because none of us is just one thing all the time. That fact alone is a source of conflict: the writer wants to write, the student knows she should study. She goes home to visit her parents for the holidays and she's no longer the Student or the Writer, she's the Daughter and all the answers to those issues change. Or at least their pecking order does.

Liz Harris said...

A useful list, Sarah; it could help in those moments when one's inspiration seems to be taking a break.

Liz X

Sarah Duncan said...

The examples were of imaginary characters, not the real student, but it's interesting how the range of conflict makes the characters appear real.

I think it's a useful way of adding depth to characters, especially when you're starting out with them.

womagwriter said...

Great idea - you need not just conflict but conflicts, and if all can be solved by the same actions on the part of the protag, you've got a fab story.

Kate Kyle said...

I like the idea of the conflict lists. It helps to see the characters as a whole in all (as many as we can think of) contexts he/she exists in, which makes him/her real. It's also a good prompt of what needs to be solved as you go along writing the story

Sarah Duncan said...

As you say, conflict lists are great prompts for what is needed to give a character depth. No conflict = no story. Lots of conflict = fab story.