The Conflicting Character: Writing, Understanding and Accepting Them Without Having to Like Them

Pearls of Time200This is a guest post by Whitney Rines, author of “Pearls of Time: Between Gods and Mortals“.

My name is Whitney Rines, I’m a writer and illustrator for both work and fun. I’m married to a wonderful guy, have a pet python and live in Alaska. I enjoy telling a good story and aim to give as much enjoyment out of it as possible. Writing is my passion as is reading, so I have shelves and shelves of books both for reference/research and enjoyment. As something I enjoy doing as a hobby, I never thought I’d be doing it as my main source of work but, I’m having fun with it.

Whitney Rines

Author

In most stories that we read, we see characters that may have their squabbles and disagreements, but they generally get along and have the same or similar points of view. This article is not about those characters. This article is about that character that actively stands in conflict with that point of view and goes against it, often changing the path of the story and frustrating the writer to no end. The character whose behaviors are so oppositional that you don’t know what they are going to do next and for what reason they do it. They aren’t always the most likable characters but, they still serve an important purpose. You may not like them, but if they ended up in your story, you might need them.

What is a conflicting character in a story?

I’ll start by saying that in any story, you’re going to and should have characters that think at least a little different than the others. If you have 12 clones major character clones, that doesn’t leave much room for creativity. So, we make our characters different and give them dimensions and a background, bringing them to life and allowing people to be able to relate. What happens though when there is too much dimension in a character, that it not only challenges the story but the author themselves? That’s character conflict. Of course, it can affect everything from the way the story plays out, to clashing with the author’s personal point of view and that sounds like a bad thing. It may grate your nerves, that this character you wrote single-handedly completely shifts the paradigm of your story and actually it should. How and why may not be what you think.

Why does it bother me so much?

When you write a story, you usually already have a pretty set idea of how things should play out, how characters should act, and the stages the story will go through. When you write a character that doesn’t fit into the carefully molded story or the ideas and beliefs that are pinning it together, it can get frustrating. It’s a thought to scrap the character but, here’s why you shouldn’t. Each character in the story helps make and progress it, and it’s no different when you have that character that just won’t behave themselves and follow the rules. You write this character obviously but, when they take on the personality you give them, sometimes it doesn’t turn into something you agree with. If you don’t know the ins and outs of what the beliefs and personality type that this character has taken on in its fictional, it can cause upset. Going into the unknown is usually a good thing when we dive into a new book, but it’s scary when it refers to a character that you’ve made. Where did this person come from? The question you might ask when thinking about how to best get rid of them without messing up your story…especially if they are a cornerstone character. The answer might be as simple as they came from you.

You don’t agree with every you read so, why should your own writing be any different. It’s all about figuring out where that character belongs, and why they’re necessary to the story.

Where does it belong and Why?

When you have a character you just can’t agree with, you may be tempted to scrap them and recreate them in your own image, but that adds nothing to the story. Having characters is important to not having a story about the scenery as well. When your characters are all the same, it may as well be about just that. A character with a conflicting personality and belief structure is not a bad thing unless you look at them as such. They aren’t in need of scrapping, just in need of a place to belong in the story. They may not be the hero of the story or the villain even, but they still hold something equally important if not more so to the story. They can hold a depth that you might not reach when all your characters see their world in one way.

This character sees the catastrophe that left a city in ruins by giant robots or monsters who lost maybe tens of their population compared to the hundreds or thousands of the city. However, they might see an opportunity to a solution that the ones wanting to flee won’t.

It might be that character that challenges the superhero for destroying their home or car while fighting the villain, viewing them as more of the villain than who they were fighting.

In either case, these differences in world views give the writer another path to potentially follow and even a chance to change the story along the way. This character doesn’t have to be a villain or hero, they don’t have to be anything special, just part of the crew. Their presence and challenging views alone make a difference in the story, and writing around this can take some effort and learning.

How to write it into a story?

Writing this character is undoubtedly going to take some doing. Thinking about them and how they don’t fit in doesn’t solve anything nothing. Instead, starting with what you wrote about the personality before it somehow warped into the monster that refuses to obey your pen is more effective. You know the basic personality of that character and now you know the full scope and world view of them as well. If this worldview is something you completely disagree with, find out why. If it’s because you don’t know about or understand it, then get educated on that world view. I’m not saying go get a degree in it or convert to it, just get informed so you understand it at least. If the character just flat out annoys you, that’s also good, because the same question is the answer there. Why? What is it about that character that you can’t stand, and why can’t you stand it?

Once you’ve finished hating on the character, compile those thoughts and that research and try to understand them. Even if that character is the opposite of you, you made them so a part of them is still in your image. Find it and connect it with what you’ve found out and gained an understanding of. You still don’t have to like the character but, at least now you should be able to see the benefit of the opposition they present. When you look at that opposition of that character, look for the opportunity that comes with their point of view. Write down each opportunity for the direction your story could take from those the character’s existence and involvement at the time if there is one. The argument that can lead the story in a different direction that can subsequently be better and more enticing. The depth of a story doesn’t have to come from a world shattering event, it can also come from one character that refuses to go with the flow of the other characters. These types of characters are very versatile and unpredictable by nature. They’re disagreeable, and so what you as the writer think they might do in a certain situation, may not be what they end up doing.

You may have a cave 300ft into the earth that has some amazing undiscovered thing, that’s completely pitch dark despite the sunny day. Maybe out of the five speculating, this character is the only one afraid of heights and they’ve traveled to a high point of a mountain. This character could be the first to ride the attached rope down, purely because down is better than up.

It sounds strange but, this character moves the plot forward on their own just by having a fear that conflicts with the situation. It’s not that they’re brave, they just don’t like heights and they solve the problem by volunteering to progress the plot when the other characters can’t decide on what to do.

What if I still disagree? How does this help anything?

That’s perfectly fine. No one ever agrees one hundred percent with another person’s thoughts and ideas. Why should your writing and characters be any different? Writing a character that doesn’t follow your beliefs is daunting, even with research but it also brings a new take on the world they live in. A story where everyone agrees with the author’s notions and beliefs can get formulaic, even if it’s a good story, so it’s nice to have that one character that is the embodiment of Devil’s Advocate. Besides, the best part of having such a frustrating character is what they bring to the story.

You now have the chance to expand outside your comfort bubble and research the quirk this character somehow acquired, and it gives the story itself dimension and depth when the conflict can be seen from different sides.

A story with a hero and a villain is a good way to see this, but only if you can understand just as much about why the villain is so fixated on their goal as the hero is of theirs. It’s two sides but, it’s still one coin and nothing matches the depth that comes from seeing the opposing or completely independent side of the story…even if you don’t agree with it.

You may not like them but, a character or even an event that presents an opportunity for definition and depth of the story is never bad. More opportunities to grow the story and get more than what you were originally planning is a good trade-off for keeping and learning about the disagreeable character. They can and sometimes are that one character that is more human than fiction. That’s the frustrating part about them, they are as unpredictable and impossible to categorize and control as we are.