I used to feel extremely daunted by the prospect of character creation. Making up a number of well-rounded individuals with realistic traits that can all be recognised for their differences as the story progresses is no mean feat!
One writing class I took a few years ago enlightened me to what I believe is the key to writing great characters: Conflict.
By conflict, I don’t mean that all your characters have to be rowing constantly, or that the only good books are set in the middle of a warzone. Conflict in a piece of writing can be far more subtle. To equate it to something more relatable, my tutor at the time liked to give examples of food analogies. So, consider the conflict of caramel and salt. They’re both great flavours in their own right, but put them together and it makes for an unexpectedly enhanced taste experience! That’s how you subtly but effectively build a believable bunch of conflicting (and often conflicted) characters.
To delve into this a little deeper, I’m going to discuss a few of the characters from my latest book, The Suffering, so I have to add in a spoiler alert! If you want to read The Suffering but haven’t yet got around to it, you may want to click out now! It’s available at Amazon US and UK in both Kindle Unlimited and standard Kindle format, as well as paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other international online retailers including Saxo and Takealot if you are interested in choosing The Suffering as your next read.
When I’ve been reading the book’s reviews, I’m amused to hear how some people love Cassie…while others don’t like her at all. Instead of feeling an internal rage for my ‘book child’ and jumping to her defence, this is exactly what I hoped would happen. From one of the first introductory scenes for Cassie, it’s made clear that she is a ‘Marmite’ type of girl, and it’s explained that she finds it particularly difficult to gel with most other women. She’s strong-willed and a little self-absorbed, and is quick to think the worst of others (before they think the worst of her!).
Martin & Tad
I had fun with a brief scene where Cassie’s best friend, Martin, is chastised by Tad. Tad is a dark and brooding type, who is also extremely handsome. Cassie and the other housemates don’t even notice Tad’s looks anymore, but Martin is painfully intimidated by him. As an environmental engineer, Tad takes the plight of the planet seriously, and isn’t impressed that Martin has brought take-away coffee cups into the house. It’s a silly, inconsequential kind of conflict, but I had fun with the contrast between Cassie not giving a damn what Tad thinks and Martin literally withering under his stare!
Pete, Gaia, and Jonah
Pete and Gaia have been dating for years, but Pete has always been jealous of the friendship Gaia has with Jonah. Pete is quiet and contemplative by nature, while Jonah is brash and loud. Jonah’s ability to make Gaia laugh is one of the main problems Pete has with him. The complete juxtaposition of personality types between the two boys was fun to write. As the ghostly oppression in the house builds, the strain on Pete and Gaia’s relationship grows, sending Gaia inevitably into Jonah’s open arms.
I picked these 3 examples because they hit on the main types of conflict you can use in your stories to build tension and create more believable characters as you world build.
- The ‘difficult’ character. Although Cassie can be a handful, and will push people away before they get the chance to hurt her, she also has plenty of redeeming character traits that complement her personality type. She’s tough and headstrong, and the other characters know where they stand with her. Her background gives insight into the reasons why she may have had to build a tough exterior. It works well to drop little breadcrumbs throughout the story, letting the reader gradually get to know them as the story progresses, instead of explaining everything in the first few chapters.
- The comic relief. These types of brief interactions are pretty easy to work into the narrative, but they can be extremely effective in giving the reader more of a sense of each character and the role they play. Martin is vulnerable here, abashed as he is by Tad. Poor Martin is soon to meet a sticky end in the story, and this scene helps to build sympathy for him. It’s only a couple of lines about a coffee cup, but it helps to establish Tad’s moral standing, Martin’s inhibitions, and Cassie’s indifference.
- The romantic conflict. Be it an arguing couple, a love triangle, or an unrequited adoration, romantic conflict can always add a little flair to your character’s worlds. However the situation may end, the tension between the characters can be exciting to explore, and fun for the reader as the story unravels.
Of course, the main conflict in the book comes from the 5 monstrous ghosts attacking each of the students, but that’s not the type of conflict I want to discuss here. There are 2 main definitions of conflict in the dictionary:
1, Noun. A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.
2, Verb. To be incompatible or at a variance; clash.Oxford Languages
When writing convincing characters in their domestic settings, focus on the second definition. What are some small clashes or conflicts that you can sprinkle into your chapters as you build your characters? And when I say ‘domestic setting’, this is just referring to your characters’ day-to-day lives. Whether that’s trudging to and from school or work, or navigating to a distant planet in a futuristic rocket ship, mundane conflicts can make all the difference.
Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvellous.Bill Moyers