November 19, 2013

Using Conflict to Understand Our Characters

Man screaming with text: Characters & Conflict

All stories need conflict. As agent Donald Maass says, we need tension on every page. But that doesn’t mean our characters should come to fisticuffs on a regular basis.

Instead, conflict refers to whatever stands between our characters and what they want. Why does it take them 300 or so pages to reach their goals or fulfill their desires? (Assuming they do succeed and we’re not writing a tragedy.)

Some obstacles will be internal (“they don’t believe they have the right to X,” “they’re too scared to go after Y,” etc.), and some obstacles will be external (a meddling mother, a job loss, a terrorist, etc.). Usually, we combine internal and external conflicts for a richer story.

That means we have to understand how our characters approach and resolve conflict. Our characters are often very different from us, so it can be difficult to perceive how their conflict management styles work for them. This is where a cool tool I discovered might help. *smile*

Conflict 101

In an article geared toward engineers, Vern R. Johnson observes:

“Whenever there is change, the possibility exists that those involved will disagree about what direction to take.”

Our stories are all about change. That’s why conflict should exist throughout our stories. He goes on to list three causes of conflict in work situations, but these easily apply to our writing as well:

  • Information: Characters might be operating from different background knowledge or insider/secret information.
  • Goals: Characters will have conflicting goals and desires.
  • Values: Characters might value different things.

This last item is interesting and we don’t talk about it as much, but this is where this tool I mentioned can help. He developed a questionnaire for people to discover what they value and how that influences how they resolve conflicts.

The Conflict Resolution Questionnaire

On Saturday, I posted a link to his Conflict Resolution Questionnaire on Facebook. Many people commented on my Facebook post, sharing what they’d discovered about themselves by taking the questionnaire.

On FB, I pointed out how I found it interesting both on a personal level and on a character-focused writer level. If we understand our characters’ styles, we’ll be better able to explore their reactions when faced with conflict.

Will they be accommodating or argumentative during the initial stages? What steps might they take to resolve the issue? What might they focus on when trying to convince others? We can gain those insights by taking the quiz and filling in how our characters would think.

No Style Is Wrong

Within the comments on FB, it became apparent that our culture tends to value some conflict resolution styles over others. This, despite the fact that the quiz made it clear that there’s no “one right way” to approach conflict. So I wanted to talk more about the different styles and how they reflect our characters’ values and how each style has pros and cons.

(Note: Our characters might approach different situations with different styles, so don’t think this is a black-and-white label. It’s possible to score in multiple areas.)

The questionnaire rates everyone on a scale of assertiveness and cooperativeness:

Conflict chart
(Image credit: Vern R. Johnson)

Competing (Shark):
High Assertiveness/Low Cooperativeness

At first glance, this might seem to be a too-cutthroat approach. The cons of this style are well known. Sharks can be authoritarian and argumentative, which can breed hostility.

But there are pros to this approach too. This is often the quickest way to solve conflict. As Serena Yung pointed out in my FB comments, a firefighter crew leader might need to be a shark. They don’t have time to reach a consensus on how to attack a problem. And sometimes we need our characters to not back down from a fight, so these aren’t “bad” traits.

Sharks Value Goals: Sharks are goal oriented. To them, goals matter more than the hurt feelings of others, so when the consequences of failure are more important than stepped-on toes, sharks succeed where others tiptoe.

Avoiding (Turtle):
Low Assertiveness/Low Cooperativeness

Turtles avoid confrontation whenever possible. The cons with this style are that problems can linger or fester for long periods, never being addressed or resolved.

The pros here are they’re able to postpone dealing with issues until a more convenient time. They often might have a deeper understanding of the issues because they’re listening to the various positions without looking for an opportunity to state their case. They don’t get easily worked up over problems.

Turtles Value Non-Escalation: Turtles don’t escalate conflict. To them, most issues aren’t worth the argument, so when tempers are hot or conflicts might resolve themselves given time or new information, turtles succeed where others push unnecessarily.

Accommodating (Teddy Bear):
Low Assertiveness/High Cooperativeness

Teddy bears give in to others. (Note: In the second version of the quiz, this is called the Harmonizing style.)  The cons with this style are that sometimes resentment can build when they never get what they want, and others can exploit them, thinking them weak.

The pros with teddy bears are that hurt feelings are minimized and relationships are maintained. They deeply care about others and what others desire. They want to solve the conflict and move forward.

Teddy Bears Value Relationships: Teddy bears are relationship oriented. To them, most conflicts aren’t worth the damage to the relationship to push the point, so when problems are solved through friendship or group effort, teddy bears succeed where others lick their wounds.

Collaborating (Owl):
High Assertiveness/High Cooperativeness

I’m an owl, and as I mentioned on Facebook, that means I’m opinionated and open-minded to seeing all sides. Society tends to consider this an “ideal” blend, so the pros here are more obvious. Owls build trust and commitment—think alliances and diplomacy.

But there are cons to this approach. Working with others to find common ground and reach a consensus can be very time and energy consuming. Quite frankly, the pace of our stories doesn’t often allow for that level of back-and-forth negotiation. Owls also tend to focus on finding a “perfect” solution that will give everyone what they want and not create negative feelings, and that optimal solution may or may not exist.

Owls Value Results: Owls are concerned with long-term results. To them, consequences can be tangible and intangible, so when goals and feelings are important to the long term, owls succeed where others win only half a victory.

Compromising (Fox):
Medium Assertiveness/Medium Cooperativeness

The cons for this give-a-little-get-a-little style are that no one ever ends up completely happy and the solutions might not address all of the problems. All positions are treated equally, even if some are more important than others. Everything is “less than optimal.”

The pros with this approach are that foxes can reach fair agreements where owls fail. In complex situations, that “perfect” solution owls long for often doesn’t exist. Foxes are able to balance the power of different arguments and find a middle ground.

Foxes Value Equality: Foxes desire equality of power. To them, arguments about which position is more “important” don’t matter, so when people of varying styles need to meet halfway, foxes succeed where others just argue in circles.

(Note: The quiz implies that for most people, the compromising style would be temporary. However, some people commented on FB that they scored for this style overall.)

Every Style Has a Story

As this analysis demonstrates, there is no “one right way” to handle conflict. The context of the situation (time pressure, consequences of failure, need for group effort, etc.) all determine how effective each style would be. Sharks aren’t characters to demonize and turtles aren’t characters to dismiss. Every style can work in certain situations.

Personally, I find this fascinating for our real lives too. As a romance author, I wonder if certain combinations of styles create healthier or unhealthier relationships. Or if hung juries result from a lack of a fox on the jury. Or a million other questions. (And I certainly understand my ability to see both sides and discern nuances more now.)

Hopefully, this knowledge translates to better characterization. Maybe we’d balance conflicts between those that allow our characters to shine and those that force them out of their comfort zone. Maybe our characters’ arcs would include them learning how to be flexible in their responses to different situations. Or maybe they’d move from a style that doesn’t work for them toward one that does.

Yay! Using conflict to deepen readers’ understanding of our characters and create richer character arcs. Who knew conflict could be so fun? *smile*

Did you take the quiz for yourself or your characters (or both)? (Share your results!) Have you thought of conflict resolution as having different styles before? Will this help you better understand your characters (or yourself)? How else could we apply this knowledge to our stories?

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Chihuahua Zero

This fits perfectly with my four NaNoWriMo characters! After reading this, I wrote out a chart with each character in a quadrant, where I wrote out what issue each character had with the three others. I now have more conflict ideas to drive the middle.

Hopefully, this will help me better understand the team dynamic, although their rigid positions might end up drifting as character development kicks in.

PS: Only one is considered THE protagonist with the longest character arc, but the other three hold viewpoints.


This is one awkward thing in what I write. Some readers very much love what I write, while others complain about some of the narrators being passive/reactionary. Which is sometimes true, and sometimes…not exactly true. Example: One of my narrators is a slave, bound by magic, and she is a MESS—emotionally, psychologically, mentally… She even knows she’s not right in the head. She’s still a teenager. She’s spent some years as property, the last year in hiding and expecting to get killed, and now suddenly has a new owner who wants her to live as a person. (First problem is that she never really was one—she was enslaved too young to have a good sense of self-identity.) But also, the way she’s bound to her owner means that her owner affects her. Her previous owner was cold, which was a benefit for her needing to disassociate herself from her situation. Her current owner is frustrated, confused, and guilty—he never wanted a slave, he’s pretty much anti-slavery, and freeing her or passing the responsibility to someone else would be a death sentence for her. So her current owner’s obsessing and fretting is causing her to do the same, and she doesn’t yet realize what’s going on. She’s stuck in slave mode unless something kicks her out of it. Ergo, “reactionary” protagonist, because externally, she’s more or less reacting to events—something promoted by other characters, because she’s downright suicidal. But internally, she’s fighting to figure out what’s wrong with her, because only…  — Read More »


Oops—didn’t finish what I was saying.

One of the interesting things between those two aforementioned narrators are how they react to certain types of conflict. In regular day-to-day life, they’re quite similar—surviving, avoiding notice (more or less).

But in the face of conflict, they’re quite different: the slave girl runs toward danger, while Evonalé runs away from it.

Evonalé can’t stand being a target. The slave girl can’t stand not being one.


Argh—didn’t finish again.

I think the core of it is that Evonalé’s naturally accommodating, while the slave girl’s naturally competitive. Thanks to life events, both are avoiders in day-to-day life and their natural inclinations manifest in some really weird ways.

Hmm. I like that chart, Jami. 🙂

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

Ah, Jami, another of your wonderfully insightful pieces.

Now, how does this apply in your mind and experience to the conflict that arises between authors and their characters and to what degree do the dialectical tensions in that conflict make for a stronger, more creative work, if at all?




I’m definitely a fox. Trouble is, sometimes nothing gets accomplished when you try to keep everyone happy. Sigh…


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