Are characters defined by conflicts?

Posted: July 7, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , , ,

I spent most of yesterday writing a murder mystery party, a commissioned piece for a friend. Writing something like that is all about the characters. Description and dialogue will mostly be covered by the behaviour of the players on the night. What you get to create, as a writer, is the characters, their conflicts, and of course the clues and background that will lead to the revelation (or escape) of the killer.

The nature of the piece, filling it with secrets and arguments, made me reflect on the relationship between characters and conflict, and it made me wonder – are characters primarily defined by their conflicts?

Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character

Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character

Think about it. What do you know about the sheriff in High Noon? Probably just that he’s standing up to the criminals defending his town. What’s the defining shared feature of the heroes of Star Wars? They’re rebels, their very careers defined by the conflict they’re in. Or look at Harry Potter – his whole life, from the way his face looks to his family circumstances to his often neglectful attitude towards education, it’s all defined by his conflict with Voldemort. Without that conflict, Harry would just be one more ordinary wizard.

You could argue that conflict is a reflection of character, but given the central role of conflict in making stories dynamic, is it maybe the other way around? Are interesting characters interesting because of the conflicts that they represent, the struggles they go through, the things that they value enough to get into a fight over them?

Does conflict make the character?

Not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know. Which do you think is the driving force?


Picture by Global X via Flickr creative commons

  1. CJ says:

    I wouldn’t say that conflict makes the character all the time, but it does make for interesting characters in general. It’s a rare protagonist who doesn’t have some kind of conflict going on, whether internal or external.

    • Agreed. I can’t think of even one who doesn’t – even Winnie the Pooh is in constant conflict with his own desire to eat too much honey, and obstacles like bees that get in his way.

  2. everwalker says:

    It is a tricky one. They’re so interdependent. I guess I’d say that conflict makes a character, but the character makes the conflict INTERESTING. Different characters will react to the same situation in different ways, and that’s what makes them individuals. Similarly, a conflict is an excellent way to demonstrate the character’s personality for the readers to see. They aren’t the conflict – they must be interesting without it – but conflict is a good way to showcase them.

    I think.

  3. skudssister says:

    Not just the conflict per se – how people react to conflict (in fiction or real life) is surely a measure of their character….?

    • Good point. You don’t have to be part of the conflict for it to affect you and for your reaction to it be part of who you are.

      • glenatron says:

        It might be more accurate to say that character and conflict are both driving aspects of ( maybe *the* driving aspects ) of narrative. The characters don’t have to be conflicted internally – I seem to recall you enjoying that book about Mars where we learn very little of the protagonist – but their response to the conflict that they are engaged with is what drives the story.

        • True. But then, you could argue that being stuck on Mars is practically the defining feature of the protagonist of The Martian. Everything we see about him is about that struggle.

          Which, now I think about it, was a problem with the book. Hm.

  4. jokelly65 says:

    I think the conflict only defines aspects of the characters personality involved in the conflict. a soldier at war, can be brave or cowardly. Aggressive or passive, fearful or foolhardy
    but the conflict might not show the loving father, or devoted husband or how much he enjoys watching the Smurfs every Saturday while eating breakfast. Then again I am not a professional writer 🙂

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