Conflicted: Do I Really Have to Hurt My Characters?

photobucket image by irishb1

“I go to great lengths to avoid conflict in real life so filling my stories with sufficient conflict is my Achilles Heel. I like my characters. I don’t want to hurt them.” ~ Mary

This comment was left in response to Monday’s post, “Reasons for a Rewrite: The Ugly Truth,” in which I came clean and admitted why I had to delete the final 3/4ths of my story and start over. I’d released the tension at the 1/4 point when I got the couple together too soon. While there are stories in which a plot like this works, mine didn’t because there was no real reason to keep my characters apart after that.

I understand how difficult it can be to “hurt” our characters. I used to dread doing so, as my early efforts clearly show. It’s taken me time to see how making things tough on my characters actually helps them grow and leads to a more satisfying experience for a reader.

No conflict = no story.

Well, there might be a story without conflict, but it would run the risk of being a yawn-inducing read. Readers want to see characters in crisis. That doesn’t mean there needs to be a gun-toting villain closing in or ruthless landlord saying, “Get out.”

While external conflict does a good job of keeping characters apart, so does internal conflict. An emotional issue can drive a wedge between a hero and heroine. He can’t forgive himself for something in his past and thinks he’s undeserving of good things in the present. She is still grieving a lost love and is unable to let anyone else get close.

I overcame my fear of conflict in fiction when I accepted five truths.

1) My characters are tougher than I gave them credit for. I used to think of them as being like me. The truth is, they aren’t. They’re better. My heroines are brighter, braver, and more beautiful than I’ll ever be. My heroes are stronger, more loyal, and more self-possessed than the average man. My hero and heroine each have a backbone. They bend, but they don’t break.

2) Forcing my characters to deal with tough stuff helps them grow. Overcoming trials helps them become better people. Look at your life. I think it would be safe to say that you experienced more growth when you were going through hard times than you did when everything was peaches and roses. That can certainly be said of me.

3) The rewards are sweeter when one has overcome a great deal. Those writers who work for years, suffer rejections, and deal with debilitating bouts of doubt experience a near-euphoric state when, at long last, they sell. A hero and heroine who encounter obstacles, setbacks, and loss will be overjoyed when they’re finally able to be together.

4) As a reader, I enjoy conflict. I love when a writer crafts a tension-filled story that pulls me in and has me flipping pages faster than IHOP flips pancakes. I want to create that same experience for my readers. In order to do so, I must add conflict to the mix.

5) My characters want to get together. Because I write romance with happy endings, they will get together. That’s a given. My job as the writer is simply to keep them apart. Once I accepted the fact that conflict is OK because my hero and heroine have a happily ever after coming, I no longer ached each time I threw another obstacle at them.

I still experience a twinge now and then when I begin a scene in which I’m going to thwart their plans or rob them of something they want, but I console myself by consoling them. Goofy though it might sound, I look at the photographs I use as models for my characters and tell them, “Don’t worry. This will be tough, but better things are coming. Trust me.”

* * *

When I accepted these truths, I experienced a sense of relief. By adding conflict to my stories, I was increasing the pleasure my characters would experience when they finally got together, the reader’s pleasure when they race to the end to find out how things work out, and my pleasure as a writer, knowing I’m writing a story that won’t put people to sleep.

* * *

Is it hard for you to “hurt” your characters, or is conflict your friend?

Do you agree with the statement, No conflict = no story? Why or why not?

Do you tend to rely on internal conflict, external conflict, or a combination?


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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16 Responses to Conflicted: Do I Really Have to Hurt My Characters?

  1. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    In some stories I wrote I let my characters go through many hardships like separation, illness or accident or even worse things ( I wrote a story about two people falling in love with each other in World War 2 in Poland, surviving war and Holocaust). In some stories, I even let them get into conflict with each other. But my stories always have a Happy Ending (like in my own life..loool). And normally my main characters are two people falling in love with each other, and even if there is a conflict between them, I let it pass and let their relationship come out stronger and themselves come out strong from all they went through.

    For this is how it is, if an external or internal hardship doesn`t break you or destroy your relationship, you will always come out stronger and so will the relationship. This is how life is. Even a danger of death or a very traumatizing event (f. ex. earthquake, war, illness, attack) – if you survive it, it makes you a stronger person. And if you went through it with someone at your side you love, then this love will become stronger. I have experienced that myself.

    The hotter the fire a piece of gold has to go through, the brighter it shines afterwards….

    But as I said, I need the happy ending, the hope…in my stories and in real life….

  2. Jessica says:

    I agree that no conflict equals no story. And I guess I’m a big meanie because I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem hurting my characters. LOL

  3. Tamika Eason says:

    I capture the internal conflict better. My characters suffer from a lot of emotional issues that ultimately drive them. At the end of my projects I want to see my characters overcome:)

    Great post!

  4. Wendy says:

    This may surprise you, but no, not so hard. I feel things deeply, but as you wrote I usually know how it’s going to pan out and 1-3 apply, so I know they’ll tough it out. Better them than me. Ha!
    ~ Wendy

  5. Equal amounts of external conflict + internal conflict = good writing. I don’t always enjoy killing off characters I like or wreaking havoc in their lives, but I know it has to be done to drive the plot toward the greatest resolution and happy ending. I will say this, if I’m not paying attention, I’ll write like a reader. During that romantic tension, I’ll think, “Yes! Kiss her! Kiss her!” And I’ll jump the gun and let him. Then I have to go back and delete it becasue I’m wanting that as a reader. Later, I’d just be disappointed because it happened too soon. Thus the rewrite. 🙂 I enjoyed this post!

  6. lynn says:

    I grinned when I read that you talk to your characters photos to let them know they will be okay! In the past I’ve relied on internal conflict to move the story but growing as a writer, and writing more external conflict now. Great post!

  7. T. Anne says:

    I went through a phase where I wanted to write about happy people who found the loves of their lives quickly and were thrust into happily-ever-after before the end of chapter one. Those stories were short lived and are not viable for any market. Sad I know. 😉 I wish my life would work that way too, but unfortunately life seems to imitate art all too often. I think the Lord likes to grow us through adversity as well. The only happily-ever-after is when we’re home safe in His arms.

    • Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

      I would love to read a story with happy people and happiness all over and through all chapters….lol. Something to dream of. For real life often isn`t that way……

  8. Keli Gwyn says:

    I’m enjoying the comments. It’s fun seeing how many of you have no trouble being tough on your characters. I could take lessons from you: “Torturing” Your Characters 101. =) So, what would lesson one look like?

  9. I was a reader before deciding to be a writer. I am still a reader, and I like exactly what you describe as conflict. I want a reason to turn the page, to find out what next is going to happen to the character the author teaches me to appreciate early in the story. I want to read about characters that are bigger than life, because, just because, I do. Dazzle me with excitement! I try to write what I like to read.

  10. Mary says:

    Thanks again, Keli.

    I do believe that conflict of some sort is essential for the story to be engrossing, I’m just not good at it. Perhaps I’m just self-conscious about it because I hate reading what feels like contrived conflict. Or what my friend and I term “sandbox squabbles” that substitute for real conflict.

    I tend to do internal conflict more than external, but ideally I look for a blend of both for my stories. One can be resolved earlier than the other without losing the tension of the story.

    I think watching TV shows and movies can give some interesting insight into the way writers handle conflict. I read an interesting interview with the producers of CASTLE the other day and they were talking about dancing a fine line between annoying readers by not having a relationship progress and losing them because the relationship is resolved too early and the spark goes out.

    I’m trying really hard to be a plotter rather than a pantser on this book, so I’m very focused on conflict at the moment.

  11. SO TRUE!

    When I finally realized I had to introduce conflict to make story, everything clicked. But it was definitely difficult…because I do love them! But necessary… and the stories are so much better for it!

  12. I think that I “love to hate” conflict when I’m reading. A great story makes me go, “Why did that have to happen!” several times but it’s that very conflict that entices me to read on. It’s like when a villain gets voted off my favorite reality show. I cheer when they leave and then in the next episode I realize I miss the conflict they provided.

    In my own writing I struggle with striking a balance between resolving the conflict and staying true to reality. Right now I lean toward keeping things historically accurate but I wonder if the audience who reads historical romances likes things to be tied up more neatly. My two main characters do end up “happily ever after” but that’s not true for everyone around them.

    I recently read a historical romance where each and every conflict was resolved with an answer that almost dropped out of the sky. Characters had personality changes to suit the story and divine intervention was around every corner. Personally, I found the book much weaker for it. Conflict is a part of life, and though we often read to escape, I find it hard to relate to the characters and story if everything single thing is tied up with a pretty little bow.

  13. Terri Tffany says:

    LOL I think Jessica and I have a lot in common:) I love adding conflict to my characters’ lives. I sometimes worry if I am overdoing it though and have to back off some to keep the story somewhat real. Great post!

  14. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    Well, in the story I am writing at the moment I hurt characters AND entire countries. It plays in the future, and the countries of the northern hemisphere have been hit hard and their people/inhabitants have barely survived, while the former “Third-World”-countries are prospering now…. and my main characters have to go through many doubts, fears, sorrows and pain…

    I can be very mean , but I don`t like to be mean…

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