Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!

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7 thoughts on “Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

  1. A friend’s “motto” or at least “life description” lately has been the phrase “conflict drives story”. He’s been both accepting of it and aggravated by it. He understands that conflict pushes us forward (both fiction characters and us as real people).
    I was thinking about that some more, why do we like reading about fictional characters overcoming conflict? I think because we see conflict in the world around us and we want to see ourselves overcoming it. Additionally, we intuitively know that we don’t grow as human beings, creating character, unless we overcome conflict in our own lives.

    The bible points this out in Romans 5:3-5 “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

    Interestingly, a theological issue I’ve been pondering lately is the idea that God doesn’t do evil, humans do evil and God gives all humans the free will to do evil. God could stop evil, (or natural disasters) but he doesn’t, or at least not always (I believe he does, and we often don’t realize he does). On the other end, God doesn’t want us to be weak, he wants us to be strong in faith, so He puts conflict in our path, or at least doesn’t remove conflict from our path.
    The idea I have been pondering has to do with direct vs. indirect action. I believe that God doesn’t directly do evil/make conflict, but that he does indirectly allow evil/conflict. But, when God is omnipotent, and omniscient, sometimes it’s hard to know where the line between the two is.

    Anyways, just something I’ve been rolling around my head for a while.

  2. I agree with Andrew, I don’t look at it as conflict or suffering, but growth. I usually start a story with a pretty well defined character arc in mind and then build plots that allow me to beautifully and dramatically create this arc, which almost always involves both conflict and suffering 🙂

    Great article, will definitely follow your blog!

  3. Speaking of conflict and suffering, John, would you care to comment on your ongoing feud with Jeffrey Overstreet? I’d understand if you’d rather keep it private, but I’m curious to hear your side of the story.

    • That’s quite all right, Reader. I enjoy it whenever I get to hear from you. 😉

      In honesty, there isn’t a conflict going on anymore. Not that I know of. I’ll try to condense this as much as I can: I decided to ignore him, because I saw what happened when I pressed an issue several times. Never threatened him or called him names, but I discovered how he took repeated/unaddressed criticism when he posted (selective) quotes from a private email to make me look very nasty, tattled on me to his fans (which of course spread the ill will like wildfire), and the fans started making snap judgments about me from scouring my blog and Facebook page. No one harassed me, but I felt it was legitimate character assassination, so I reported his Facebook post, and it seems Facebook agreed with me. They took the post down. That only made it worse, because somehow I got accused of hacking and cyberbullying. But a small, still voice encouraged me to let it go and just give up on this spat. So, I did. Which is rare for me. I haven’t checked on anything he’s done or said since then.

      And honestly, I like it that way. Does that series of events still irritate me? Of course. But I don’t want to invest in him or his ego anymore, and am much happier for it.

      For what it’s worth, I am sorry if I said anything libelous against him, and I apologize for holding onto this crap for so long. I’m capable of better things, and you deserve to see something better from me.

      Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, Reader. God bless you! May your Christmas be rich, bright, and prosperous.

  4. Thanks for the reply, John. I knew there was more to the story than what Mr. Overstreet elected to make public. Sounds like your decision to drop the issue was ultimately the mature one. The real test now is to not let the incident gnaw at your craw like rotgut whiskey on an empty stomach. Thank you for the holiday well wishes and keep writing!

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