Conflict is determined by your main character or your main character is determined by your conflict. Sometimes you get the character first and sometimes the conflict comes to you first. Either way, one will determine the other.
In order to create an arc for your character you can find a conflict that plays off one of their weaknesses or flaws. For example, you have a character whose weakness is extreme shyness you can put them in a position to overcome that shyness OR you can put them in a situation where they learn to turn this into an advantage and use their strengths to overcome the obstacle.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Iron Man—He has been handed everything he wanted on a silver spoon. He has no purpose in life. His weakness was being a rich, spoiled brat with no purpose basically.
Weakness: Spoiled brat that has everything and he doesn’t have to work for anything.
Conflict: take away all that he has and open his eyes to the reality of the world.
Why this works: Now that he sees the reality of what his father’s business has done and how it can be used for evil, he must change. He must now work hard to live. He has a purpose to change things.
So put him in a cave where he has nothing except his wits, a new friend, and some metal. He makes something of it and finds purpose.
Guardians of the Galaxy—Quill loses his mother and his home in a moment. He is raised by a thieving crew. He lacks a family and feels unloved. So throw him in prison with an odd mix of aliens and threaten the galaxy with doom. Quill bonds with those aliens as life threatening situations tend to do. He finds a new family in them, and saves the galaxy.
Weakness: Lack of family or friends
Conflict: Ronan is trying to get the sphere from Quill to destroy the galaxy and remake it.
Why this works: Quill can’t save the galaxy on his own. He must rely on people for help, people he bonds with and become a family, making him a stronger character.
Jurassic Park—We have layers with this one such as Alan Grant, brilliant archeologist, weakness: hates children, so he must be put in charge of children. He learns that children are not so bad. John Hammond- his weakness is overconfidence, a dreamer who ignores the risks by throwing technology and money at it. So he must watch as that technology fails all around him in a very catastrophic way.
Weakness: He’s a dreamer who ignores risks because it doesn’t fit with his vision. He believes all problems can be fixed by throwing money and technology at it.
Conflict: That technology fails and his dream reality crumbles.
Why this works: In the book, Hubris is his downfall…he dies. In the movie, he survives, a changed man. He sees the err of his ways. (well sort of.)
Doctor Strange— He is the best surgeon and he knows it. A terrible wreck takes away the ability to use his hands for surgery. He lost everything he valued, but stubbornly hangs onto that pride. He is still prideful of his mind, his ability to learn quickly. However that pride gets in the way of understanding.
Weakness: Pride is his weakness.
Conflict: the source of his pride (nimble hands) is taken away.
Why this works: He is brought low and learns to view the world from a different perspective, literally and figuratively! He learns that you can learn quickly, but true understanding comes at its own pace.
Planning your Character & Conflict
For character first:
Look at your character and list out some weaknesses. Your character does have them right? If your character doesn’t have one or more weakness or flaw, you have a Mary Sue and you need to fix that.
Next, choose one weakness to work on. You can work on the others in subsequent stories if you want. What conflict would help/force the character to face and overcome that weakness?
Physically weak character—> Physical Battle Challenge in which they learns to use speed and wits to make up for their lack of muscle.
Pride—> something to bring them to their knees and learn to stand up again like in Doctor Strange.
Greed & Stinginess—> Face death to see that money is nothing as in A Christmas Carol. He learns that
For conflict first:
Take a look at the conflict. What kind of character would this conflict help them overcome the weakness? With my second manuscript (unpublished) I had an idea for magical race of people needing to hide their ability from the government to survive. For my main character, I thought about what kind of character would be the least likely to bring her people to safety and yet still be part of the royal court to witness all sides of the story I wanted to tell.
I came up with a mother daughter seamstress duo. They are asked to make the wedding dress for the king’s new bride. So they are in the castle for fittings, but also are in the merchant part of the city too. Daughter, like many young and optimistic youth, dreams of living with her magic freely. She is young and rash. She starts plotting trouble and gets in over her head as she discovers a plot to finish the genocide begun so many years ago. (This is a 99k story in my drawer, likely to stay there forever.)
Perhaps you have an idea for a story set in space. The solar system has been colonized and as humans tend to do, war indirectly amongst the different groups. There is a massive conspiracy that involves many groups throughout the solar system, and only one person can unravel it and prevent massive destruction and all-out war. A washed up alcoholic detective that nobody wants to work with anymore. To make matters worse, working this case brings up memories of his own history that make it personal and more difficult for him. (Leviathan Wakes, The Expanse Series https://amzn.to/2J5nMe4 Not appropriate for young readers.)
Either way, a good story will exploit your main character’s weakness creating a good inner conflict and usually helps develop the theme or life lesson of the story.
Are you writing a book? Writing it is only half the battle.
From Rough Draft to Published will help you make informed decisions to get your book published. In it you will learn answers to questions such as:
Do you need an editor?
Should you publish traditionally or self-publish?
How can you find a good writing group?
Do you need an agent?
How do you write a query letter?