Have you ever wondered if you were a hack? A fraud, perhaps? Maybe you noticed your idea was pretty close to this better, more well-known idea. You feared your readers would say “oh, that’s just X with a Y spin on it, and Z is just a lame version of so-and-so” and the more you think about it, the more you realize that they’re correct.
Stop worrying. The Lego Movie and Kung Fu Panda have the same theme, but no one cares. There are exactly 7,956,145 spy movies out there involving betrayal and deceit, and twice that many military films. Believe it or not, but thousands of books use the same plot or share the same characteristics, quirks, gimmicks, etc.
So your story can be good, entertaining, and “original”, but can still reuse some of the same plot points, character tropes, and so on. I mention all of that to say that character-centered conflict is one of the most classic ways of telling a story, and it gives you a simple, straightforward game plan.
What do I mean by character-based conflict? For one, I don’t mean internal conflict: while that is useful in its own right, it doesn’t necessarily place your protagonist in the middle of the story. You want your reader to care about the main character for two reasons: one, because he or she is likable, and two, because they have great importance to the plot. If you’re doing your job right, the reader cares about the village about to be smashed by the powerful warlord and the traveling minstrel with a heart for the helpless. But how to make the two align?
Character-based conflict is a problem that directly confronts a given character and is specifically meant to challenge them. By including one of the following three elements in your main plot, you can add a tried-and-true element of challenge for your hero/heroine.
The “three elements” I just mentioned are as follows: Incompetence, Nullification, and Ineptness. Naturally, you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, so I’ll alleviate some of that confusion with examples for your enlightenment. You’re welcome.
Incompetence is the main tool of a sports film. Take any one…say, Rocky III. What’s the main thing about Rocky III? Well, you just kept wondering whether or not Rocky is physically fit enough to challenge Drago and come out in one piece. So the main conflict in the film comes from Rocky either being too incompetent to fight his opponent or his struggle to train and get better. In other words, someone has shown up who can do the hero’s thing better than he can.
Nullification is just breaking the main character’s legs. (Not really, but I’ll explain) Remember how kryptonite would just take away Superman’s powers? This method of storytelling is removing the hero/heroine’s special superpower and letting the readers watch as they struggle to defeat the villain without it. This works best with well-established characters and doesn’t on people with no special powers at all, so be mindful of who you employ this on.
Ineptness is a way of placing a character’s struggles where they can’t reach. They may have these amazing talents for spying and fighting, but they’re really bad at cooking. Or parenting. Or running a business. Maybe they’re good at collecting butterflies, but, say, not so good at defeating evil masterminds intent on destroying all of existence as we know it. You get the idea: the problem is somewhere outside of the hero’s expertise.
The reason why these character-based struggles work so well is that you can easily use multiple of them in a story simultaneously: in a spy novel, one character might be worried that he won’t be able to overcome his archnemesis in a fist fight, another concerned that her skills in janitorial duties might not be useful here, and the third mortified that the sliver in his wrist that gave him special powers has been removed. Instantly, you’ve got a story.
The one last thing you need to do is weave the object of conflict into the main plot: remember that kind-hearted minstrel in the doomed town? Well, let’s say that the minstrel has a magic lute that he uses to enchant people, and that’s what he’s going to do to defeat the warlord. However, horror of horrors, it seems that the warlord was also a street performer, and also has one of these magic lutes. Someone shows up who can do hero things better than the hero can. Will the minstrel overcome his difficulties and prove the stronger of the two? Now we’re talking.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!