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Using Conflict to Form Character

Character emerges when a clear want comes up against conflict, which is when we begin to see what the character is made of, what the character values and hopes for, even basics of everyday thinking and personality.

This is an excerpt from the lecture of Construct Compelling Characters, an instructor-led four-week workshop running on Screenwriters University.

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Character emerges when a clear want comes up against conflict, which is when we begin to see what the character is made of, what the character values and hopes for, even basics of everyday thinking and personality. It’s like the famous like from Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.”

This is the case for all of your characters…and so we might even say, an effective character is one wherein we see clear want and potential conflict coexisting within the same person.

Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of theLambs gets introduced to us from the opening scene as a student at the academy, and when she’s called into Skinner’s office, and he rather coyly suggests he has an assignment for her—going in and interviewing the serial killer Hannibal Lecter—automatically we see what’s at stake, what’s at risk for her: is an ambitious, intelligent trainee really going to be capable of going toe-to-toe with a notorious (and highly intelligent) serial killer? From the start she seems ill-equipped, from the start there’s conflict just in how her character has been set up. If the film began with an untouchable and brilliant agent, the best the FBI has to offer, being called into jack Crawford’s office, and the agent said, “Piece of cake, sir,” we probably wouldn’t be much interested or invested. Starling, on the other hand, asks the question the audience is wondering, too: “Why me, sir?” The conflict is part of who she is as a character: an ambitious but inexperienced FBI trainee—a student!—on the trail of the serial killer Buffalo Bill.

If you have a film premise you’re working on now, look at your protagonist and make sure there’s not only a clear internal motivation, something that the protagonist has personally at risk in the situation—for Starling, it’s her upbringing, her poor childhood in West Virginia that she desperately wants to get away from and transcend (which Lecter immediately picks up on and exploits)—but also see that there’s an inherent level of conflict in how you’ve set up the character, some way that either...

1) suggests the limitations of the character or
2) subverts our expectation of a character trope or
3) both.

Here’s an exercise to demonstrate how some sort of inherent conflict or playing against expectations—as in FBI trainee—leads to ideas about not just character but story and structure, tone, all of it. Take a quick look:

What If…

A killer… began killing people?
A hero… began helping people?
A liar… began lying?
A trustworthy person… began telling the truth?

What you see here, hopefully, is that the across-the-line matchups do nothing for us at all, because they only tell us what we knew to be true. But a killer who begins helping people? What kind of killer? And why would he begin helping someone else? Who? Is this because the killer feels remorse for his killing? Or because the killer actually has a heart of gold? These are rather broad questions—and also begins putting us in the realm of trope and playing with them and against them—but nevertheless the mismatch gets us thinking not just of a role or a plot function but a person, who we have to think about a little more deeply to begin to understand. And begins with building character conflict into the equation from the beginning.

If you’ve got a film idea and a protagonist idea you’re working on now, and you’re having trouble finding what those inherent conflicts would be—or those internal, personal motivations—try this: imagine YOU are in the position of the protagonist in the story. What would you do? What would you fear, and how would you feel? What would you value? What would be at risk?

The writer has to be able to connect with empathy first and foremost, before there’s any chance an audience will. Don’t simply think, Oh, my detective would be right on top of things. What if YOU were the detective? How would it affect your personal or private life…what personal fears would come up as you tackled a particular case? What would be the best you hoped for, the worst you feared?

We don’t have to be in their specific situations to understand and connect with what drives Clarice Starling, Dorothy, or Neo. We see something of our ordinary lives and struggles in their struggle…and so the hero becomes a proxy for the audience, and we connect and cheer them on, cover our eyes when things look dire, and feel elation if they succeed.

See more in Construct Compelling Characters, an instructor-led character development workshop!


compelling characters SU

What You'll Learn:

  • How an effective and sympathetic protagonist is driven by both external and internal motivations
  • The essentials of character arc and its role not just in structure but in how an audience connects with the protagonist and feels the stakes
  • How complex characterizations arise from clear motivations meeting with conflict
  • The difference between character growth and breaking character
  • How stakes are proportional to not just a character’s strengths but his shortcomings
  • How character informs all else—plot, tone, theme, even setting and world