Characters and instant conflict. Let’s talk.

At times, my life is full of conflict. I struggle to be the best mom possible when two of my kids are exactly like me, that is, a bit strong willed and determined.

My life would be so much easier if I was one of those moms who had patience and love bubbling over like a fountain in some romantic foreign city when their son spills the grape juice from his Flavor Ice onto the newish couch when he knows he’s not supposed to eat in there and it’s now a permanent stain.

Or when that same son yells out early in the morning on a Saturday that he broke the faucet, and everyone is sleeping in or trying to on the one day of the week they can.

Let me tell you, instant conflict.

Does your character offer the most conflict for the situation? That question comes up in SAVE THE CAT. In other words, the main character should be the worst person for the job, because for obvious reasons, there is instant conflict. And a lot of times, adds humor.

Here are some examples from books and movies:

Romancing the Stone: Novelist with no real adventure experience goes off on a crazy adventure with the man of her dreams.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns: Extremely overweight princess with a major carb addiction is born with the Godstone, which means she is meant for greatness.

Harry Potter: Boy with absolutely no wizarding power or experience needs to take down the most evil wizard ever.

Anna and the French Kiss: Anna is sent to a boarding in school in Paris but would much rather be at home in her safe world.

I’d Tell You I love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You: Cammie Morgan falls in love with a boy in town, except she’s been trained to be a spy and knowing 40 languages doesn’t prepare her for her first major crush.

Just think how different these stories would be if the character had been “perfect” for the story.

This is just one method of introducing conflict to a story and starting the emotional arc. I’ve looked and there are plenty of high concept and low concept books that don’t use this method and they are still extremely successful.

Have you ever thought about crafting your character to be the worst possible one for the role? And is there anyway to lift a grape juice stain from a couch? Just askin’.

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39 Responses to Characters and instant conflict. Let’s talk.

  1. Amie Kaufman October 26, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Re. the grape juice stain, letting it age will make it worse — your best chances are probably lemon juice or vinegar, but test on a different (non obvious) part of the couch first, just in case they fade something. The underside of a cushion is usually an option. (Oh, and I just googled to check I remembered that right, and here — )

    Now, back to the writing! In the WIP I just finished I definitely have a guy who’s the worst possible guy for the job, and that’s where most of my action comes from — and, as in some of the examples above, a lot of the resolution of the story comes out of the fact that he becomes the right guy for the job as he grows through the story.

  2. Heather Kelly October 26, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    This is a great post–and love the references. Why do I love Romancing the Stone so? 🙂 Thanks for the awesome writing tips–I always get so much food for thought when I stop by!

    • Laura October 26, 2011 at 10:40 am #

      Thanks Amie! And watching those characters become the right person for the job is part of the fun too!

      Thanks Heather. I love that movie too.

  3. Miranda Hardy October 26, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    All great protagonists. Introducing conflict in an uncomfortable situation does bring out great characters.

  4. Natalie Aguirre October 26, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    You’ve got great examples here. My main character is the worst person for the job. Thank God because I hadn’t read Save the Cat when I wrote the manuscript. I’ll have to be more conscious of it.

  5. christine danek October 26, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I think I have and now I just have to make sure she’s progressing through the story and growing.
    Sorry about the stain. Have you try anything with some sort of oxygen remover(?) Oxyclean? I think they have some upholstery cleaners out.
    My kids are just like that strong willed and determined. Yeah, like me and my husband.

    • Laura October 26, 2011 at 11:45 am #

      Miranda – Often times it’s hilarious too. But sometimes there is the perfect character but they just have flaws, like Superman or 007. I love that there are so many different ways to develop character.

      Natalie – Don’t you love when you do something a right way w/out planning?

      Christine – ah, yes, I guess the character does have to keep growing. 😉

  6. anne gallagher October 26, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    A lot to think about this day. I guess I’ll have to reread what I’ve written. I think the men in my books are the worst possible people for the job. They just don’t get women.

    I’d go with Oxyclean, or the Tide Stain Stick, but be careful with Tide, it does tend to fade if you don’t wash/wipe it down with cold water after using.

  7. Marisa October 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    “I struggle to be the best mom possible when two of my kids are exactly like me, that is, a bit strong willed and determined.”

    Ha, here’s my #1 struggle, perfectly put. OH THE CONFLICT!! I find myself often thinking “I hope you have a kid just like you!!” Because a.) my kids are pretty great so they’d be lucky b.) and I have kids just. like. me, and it’s certainly eye-opening! 🙂

  8. Jessica Nelson October 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Oh my goodness! I love this idea and hadn’t thought of it before. Thank you, thank you!
    Also, no tips on grape stains and if my son broke my faucet…steam would come out of my ears. Big time. But I’d try to control my mouth. lol

  9. Stina Lindenblatt October 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    These are great examples, Laura. I’d forgotten that point in STC (note to self: reread book before planning new project).

    LOL on Anne’s comment about men. 😀

  10. Ava Jae October 26, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    What a great tip! I hadn’t really thought of it that way when brainstorming WIP ideas, so I’ll have to keep this one in mind.

    Also, I hope you get that grape juice stain out.

    • Laura October 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

      Ava Jae – Yeah, I think too much time has passed. I will never buy furniture I care about while my kids are young.

      Stina – There are def. craft books I like to reread before and after the first draft.

      Jessica – The worst part was, the faucet wasn’t actually broken. Grr.

      Marisa – Our kids are so much like us, they can’t help it. They get the good and the bad!

      Anne – You cracked me up. It’s true about male roles in romances, they often need to be the wrong fit.

  11. Kelly Polark October 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Good point (and great examples)!!!
    And good luck with that grape juice stain!!!

  12. Lydia K October 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Conflict is so important, except when you’re trying to sleep on Saturdays.

  13. Matthew MacNish October 26, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    What a great point! Excellent examples as well.

    I actually do (kind of) have this in my novel, but I’m lucky it worked out that way, because I certainly didn’t think it through ahead of time.

  14. Patti October 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think you just helped me with my new novel.


  15. Loree Huebner October 26, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    This is a great post. Conflict always seems to be right in front of us…we just need to capture it in our writing.

    With my son, it was (and still is) milk.

    How many times have I told you not to drink milk while sitting on the couch?!?!?

    Son puts his glass of milk down on the coffee table. Pickles the greyhound enters the room with a case of happy tail. Tail hits glass of milk. Milk goes flying everywhere. It’s all over the couch AND rug.

    I love my Little Green Machine.

  16. Angela Ackerman October 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Great post. I agree, making sure the character is the worst fit is critical for conflict, and character arc. 🙂

    Grape stains…I don’t know if this will help or not, but once my niece spilled red wine (a terrible home brew–more koolaid than wine) all over a beautiful hand made crochet table cloth. I looked online, and it said to pour white wine on the red wine and wash. I had my doubts…but it worked!

    Kids…gotta love em! 🙂


  17. Karen Lange October 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    I love this idea! And I am going to borrow it if you don’t mind! 🙂

  18. Karen Strong October 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Great examples of instant conflict. I’ve heard so many good things about THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS — guess I need to add it my TBR list.

    • Laura October 26, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

      Thanks everyone. This concept has really helped me out to when plotting new stories. Even if I don’t use this concept, it’s nice to be aware of my choices.

  19. Sarah Pearson October 26, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    You’ve just given me an idea for my NaNo story. Thank you 🙂

  20. Melissa Pearl October 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Another very cool post. I love reading this blog 🙂

    You’ve given me lots to think about. I’m just in the planning stages of my next project and I could go two different ways with my secondary MC. I’m trying to decide whether to make him timid and shy or cocky and slightly annoying. Both would work, but which one would be better.

    Instant conflict.
    I’ll keep that in mind 🙂

  21. Lynda R Young October 26, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Best way to remove grape stains on couches… with a cushion 😉

  22. Jennifer Rumberger October 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Great post, I loved your examples. Unfortunately I wish I knew how to get grape stains completely out of a couch or carpet!

  23. Julie Musil October 27, 2011 at 2:03 am #

    I’m paying more attention to this on my next manuscript. Before, I hadn’t really given it much thought.

  24. Julie Musil October 27, 2011 at 2:04 am #

    And great examples, by the way

  25. Jennifer Lane October 27, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    What a great plot device. Now that you bring it up, I guess I already kind of did that. One of my characters is a gentle soul but unfortunately he’s born into a Mafia family and has to pony up to protect those he loves from criminals. Yay for conflict!

  26. Leslie Rose October 27, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    I think my shoulder locked up when I cringed over the grape juice. Perfect pre-NaNo timing for the conflict scenario. Thanks.

  27. Creepy Query Girl October 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    This is a great point- plots where the character isn’t perfect for the job definitely heighten intrigue. And if the character ‘is’ perfect for the job- than the stakes and surrounding conflict had better be up to par.

  28. Stacy October 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    I’ve never thought of it that way, Laura, but what a fun way to create a character! And I’m happy to hear I’m not the only mom who wishes she was calm and sweet and perfect. We have lots of instant conflicts here, lol!

  29. Marcia October 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Good luck with the stain. What did we ever do without the internet? I figure the answer, if there is one, has to be there.

    Yes, I’ve been considering exactly that — how my MC is the worst possible person for the job. Or the other way around, given this character, what’s the worst possible thing she could have to deal with?

  30. Beth October 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    This is great advice. It seems so obvious, but I’ve never really thought of it that way before. Thanks for sharing!

  31. Ghenet Myrthil October 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Great examples. This makes a lot of sense.

  32. Traci Kenworth October 27, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    What an interesting idea. Enter the worst character for that job. A lot of times, I try and put the “fish out of water” into the storyline. It does seem to bring the most humor and extenuating circumstances. But I will have to watch for more areas I can insert such a character into the plotline. Maybe I’ll strike gold in doing so.

  33. Lisa Green October 27, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Why yes, I think about it all the time. 😀 I’d google a solution to the stain though, wish I could help you there. My answer would be to flip the cushion!

  34. Gail Shepherd October 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    This is really, really great, that “the main character should be the worst person for the job.” I read Save the Cat, but I didn’t remember that. It’s hilarious and helpful at once. I’m going to plug that in to my current WIP and see what happens. Ha!

  35. Peggy Eddleman October 28, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    I LOVE the worst-person-for-the-job theory! I always TRY to do it. Sometimes, though, those perfect-for-the-job qualities sneak in when I’m not looking, and I have to work to squash them.

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