Why Life-or-Death isn’t the Best Character Conflict – and What Is

24 Jul

Characters Need Conflict

We torture them, make them fall off cliffs – it’s all part of an exciting plot. So wouldn’t it seem like your character running for their life would be the best conflict you can get? Nope!

Life-or-death is not the type of struggle that will resonate most with your readers. It is not the struggle that will keep them turning pages. This comes as a surprise to many authors, but it’s true.

Here’s the reason why – there is nothing in a life-or-death struggle that actually ties to the character. Anyone can be facing a life threatening situation. It has nothing to do with the character’s inner self, and there’s no growth that comes of it. The character leaves from the fire, they barely survive. It’s exciting, but the character hasn’t changed.

What is the Most Important Conflict?

For a struggle to be truly riveting, to be emotionally powerful to your readers, it has to impact the character’s inner self. Readers want to be caught up in your characters. They want to relate to them, to feel like they’re real people. The best way to do this is to give your character an internal struggle. Everyone goes through inner turmoil, so when a character does, we relate.

You see the difference between that and a character who just fights for their life?

When your character struggles to overcome their flaws or something from their past that’s holding them back, that is the most important struggle they can have. Whenever your character’s goals are inhibited by something within themselves that the character has to overcome, that is when your readers will cheer.

An Example

Let’s look at an example of this in The Hunger Games. The life or death situation is an integral part of the plot. But Katniss’ struggle in being able to love Peeta – that is what kept us reading. The question of whether she will be able to put aside all of her inhibitions to pretend to love Peeta, when he really does love her, is the struggle that we were most interested in. That was the struggle that added complexity to her character and made her feel real.

So, yes, life-and-death struggles are important for your plot, but character struggles are what will make your book stand out.

What are your ideas? What struggles do you make your characters face? Let us know in the comments!

Also, pop on over to aliventures.com to read my guest post – “Four Ways to Fall in Love with Writing (Again)”.

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19 Responses to “Why Life-or-Death isn’t the Best Character Conflict – and What Is”

  1. Diana Springer July 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    Moral issues – whether to tell the truth or keep something a secret. Sacrifices whether in personal life or professional. Sometimes these types of inner conflicts can tell us so much more about the characters.

    • Jessica Flory July 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      I love it! That’s a perfect example. Decisions like that are hard in real life, and putting your character through them will reveal a lot.

  2. Rachel July 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Very true. Just finished “The Truth About Forever,” and while it was slow in the beginning, it turned out to be an amazing book. No life or death issues, though the MC is struggling with her father’s death, and how it impacted the remaining members of her family.

    Nothing life threatening going on, and yet the author managed the last half of the book so beautifully, I stayed up all night to finish it.

    • Rachel July 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      Meant to add that nearly everything in your novel has to ultimately connect back to your character’s internal conflict. However, you have to keep in mind that internal struggle is revealed through what your character says and does.

      Easier said than done, sometimes.

      • Jessica Flory July 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

        So true, Rachel, and excellent points! I love it when I find a book like that, where I can’t sleep because I NEED to keep reading. And I completely agree that the character’s internal conflict is key in writing a memorable novel, but true, easier said than done.

  3. riversofeden1 July 25, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Love this a lot and so true. In effect, inner struggles are always what makes us grow, when we simply flow in the struggle and learn. How to convey that through a character…………..have to dig deep and for me that requires just sitting at the computer and thinking how one would respond in the midst of hurts and such. Starting out in this and these words help a lot. Thanks again.

    • Jessica Flory July 25, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

      Thanks for the lovely words! I’m glad the post was helpful. Too many writers ignore their character’s inner conflict, so I’m glad you take the time to think through what the plot is doing to the character and how they would respond.

    • Rachel July 25, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      Just wanted to point out for anyone looking to go deep into their characters- there’s a program called “Character Writer” that’s based on the Enneagram, that makes it easy to choose a character’s personality.

      You can use it to pick any one of the 9 personality types, and then the program will tell you what the person’s inner goals are, how they react under stress, and how that personality type relates to a specific character and personality type.

      You can also add any one of a number of mental disorders, as well as make adjustments based on childhood trauma, etc.

      It’s pretty neat, and if you can try it out for free (but you won’t be able to save your work- try copying and pasting the info somewhere else instead).

      • Jessica Flory July 25, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

        Wow that sounds great! I’ll definitely give it a try 🙂

      • riversofeden1 July 26, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

        Thanks so much. So good to know.

  4. Coryl o'Reilly July 27, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I get incredibly tired of seeing characters constantly escaping the jaws of death–sometimes I’d prefer if they just died in the middle of the story. (-cough- I may be talking about Twilight here.)

    I think that one of the struggles I see too often and am starting to dislike is the conflict of loving or not loving someone, like the example you illustrated with The Hunger Games. It’s just been overplayed a lot and I need to see something new. (And love is something I don’t quite fully understand. I’ve always thought it to be you are or you aren’t, and any second-guessing is just evidence that you aren’t.)

    Mental issues and, as I’ve come to realise, religious beliefs are great for showing internal struggle. The same with insecurities about a crucial aspect of the character that comes up. For example, I have one character who is a magic user, and he isn’t very confident in certain aspects of that skill. However, he needs to overcome it and face it many, many times throughout the story.

    • Jessica Flory July 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      Haha, I love it, Coryl! Twilight is a great example of the life-or-death situation NOT adding good conflict 🙂 And it’s true, the love conflict is used quite a bit, which is why it makes for a good example but is also why it may not necessarily be the best choice in your own story.

      I love your thoughts, and your character struggling with doubts about their skill in the magic system is perfect. You’ve nailed it on that one. A character struggling and eventually overcoming doubts in themselves is sure to be a memorable, relatable character. Especially since it seems like your character will be forced into situations where they have to use the magic, and they have to get passed their insecurities to do it. Awesome!

      Thanks for sharing your insight!

    • Rachel July 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

      Coryl, I’m curious what other kinds of conflicts you’d be interested in seeing? I suppose the whole love thing is so common because its so powerful, but I also see a lot of death issues lately.

      In general, though, I’m hesitant to say that lacking confidence in using a skill is enough of an internal struggle. It would have to connect to some inner flaw in the character – something that ties into what makes the character who they are- in order to be really powerful.

      Then when the MC can overcome it, he’s not just overcoming it, but overcoming whatever internal flaw he personally has.

      • Rachel July 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

        I wish I could edit my comments- I always think of something after I’ve pressed “enter.”

        Anyway, wanted to point out that the The Hunger Games love issue isn’t just whether she loves Peeta or not- it’s tied to her personal inner flaw: her inability to trust due to her father’s death and her mother’s resultant depression which nearly killed her and her sister.

        So yes, it’s a love story, but it’s more powerful because it’s tied to her trust issues. What makes it even more powerful is that her survival literally depends on being able to love, (and therefore trust) Peeta.

        It’s the two of those things together, plus the theme of kids against kids, that made The Hunger Games the success it was.

  5. Jessica Flory July 29, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Perfect, Rachel! Excellent comments. And I always do that too, push enter and then think of something else, so you’re not alone 🙂

    You’ve really hit the definition of “character flaw and arc to overcome it” on the head. There must be an outward manifestation of an inner flaw linked to the character’s past. Something in the plot MUST force the character to overcome that flaw (and their past holding them back), and the stakes to do so must be high, like in The Hunger Games.

    So lacking confidence in a skill is a good flaw, but it would work even better if it was tied to something in the character’s past that they had to overcome. If they can’t, the cost must be huge.

    Thanks for your comments and insights, Coryl and Rachel. Awesome!

  6. Pinar Tarhan August 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    There’s a lot, and none are about life or death. I have two characters, for instance, who think they are opposites because they’re just not looking closely enough-they are quick to judge and dismiss. But then empathy has strange ways of making them objective and pleasantly surprised. Hope that wasn’t too vague. 🙂

    • Jessica Flory August 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

      No, that was perfect! That sounds like a great conflict 🙂

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