Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What do your characters value?

In this post, I talked about my own internal conflict between my ideals and my reality. This morning, I realized this is the seed for internal conflict in characters. 
We are always in conflict. Some conflicts are larger than others. A character needs high-stakes conflict to keep a reader reading. And high-stakes conflict always involves values. Life vs. honor has often been a big conflict in books. What if your character values loyalty? What if she also values friends and family? Now what happens if she finds herself in a situation where she can’t be loyal to both? 
Small conflict in the midst of these larger-than-life conflicts can help you make bridging scenes more tension-filled. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon is claustrophobic, but he keeps having to go through underground passageways and the like. Many of those scenes would be dreadfully boring were it not for Robert Langdon’s conflict. He wants to get out of there; he needs to keep going.
Just think about Indiana Jones and the snakes.
On a light note, what if your character had been told to give up caffeine? The doctors have told him his stress is too high and he’s heading for a heart attack. Maybe throughout the story he has been trying to keep his stress under control, which has to be hard, because the author has been chucking stress at him in fits of sadistic authorial fun. He really wants a cup of coffee. It’s a small thing, but it will run through all the scenes, adding a layer of tension. 
You can take it to high stakes if you want. Maybe he reaches a point in the novel where he has been awake for three days and cannot fall asleep or someone he loves will die.  
Now he’s in conflict with his need to stay alive, his desire for a cup of coffee, and his need to keep a friend alive. What if this character values survival above everything else? What if in the past he has been a lousy friend?
Finding that internal conflict in your characters, both the larger-than-life kind and the everyday kind, all comes back to values. 
So, what do your characters value? How do those values conflict?


  1. Really nicely put. Love this pithy description of internal conflicts. Right now, in current Blaze, the heroine is trying to curb her spontaneous nature because she has finally realized the costs of her actions. The hero is uber-responsible type who is driven to take care of whoever is in need of it -- they are trying to act differently than who they are. She's trying to be more "responsible" and he is going for "spontaneous" -- but it's a huge conflict with who they are inside. Makes it a lot of fun :)


  2. That's very true, Jennifer - in real life the biggest internal conflict involve values, so in fiction. In fiction, however, we, as writers have to be very careful what we set up against it, what are the stakes. E.g. in romance our heroine's love of freedom vs love of her life may be a difficult personal choice, but it would not make her any less respectable, or trustworthy. When she's got a choice of the love of her life vs loyalty otwards her best friend that's another story.

    Thanks for the great post. It's definetely worth sharing :)