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What Tolkien teaches us about conflict

Reader Emily Casey, @EmilyCaseysMuse, asked for some tips on how to sustain conflict when two characters are working toward the same goal. Great question, because conflict usually derives from opposing goals. So how can you have conflict when goals are in alignment? Fortunately, that’s not the only source of conflict, and there are a bunch of ways to introduce conflict between cooperative characters and groups. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series provides some wonderful examples.

Shared goal, contrary strategies

One of the best methods is to give your allies contrary strategies for achieving the goal. This works for a whole lot of reasons. First, if the goal in question is something difficult to achieve (which it should be), something for which there isn’t necessarily a single, obvious strategy to attain it (which there shouldn’t be), then it is perfectly natural that two different people might have different ideas as to how to go about it.

What, you guys can’t walk on snow? Losers.

Think about the Fellowship, in Fellowship of the Ring, when they’re crossing the mountains through the horrible snow, debating whether to press on or get out of the snow and brave the dangers of the deep paths by going through the Mines of Moria. Crossing the mountains, in a Middle Earth bereft of helicopters, is a difficult yet necessary goal for the fellowship to achieve. It may be done in multiple ways (over or under), both of which carry risks and challenges. They thought to go over, but that turned out to be harder than they thought, leading naturally to conflict as everybody argues over whether to change strategies.

It’s not a shallow conflict, either. Not if you play it right. Because eventually, one side or the other has to win. They can’t split the party and go both ways, because the whole point of the Fellowship is to get Frodo ‘ringbearer’ Baggins safely to Mordor. However it turns out, half the group is going to be left with resentment and bruised egos over having lost the argument. This is then fodder for later conflicts.

Shared goal, incompatible personalities

I’m watchin’ you, Boromir...

Another way is to simply pair up characters who can’t stand each other. Just to pick an entirely random example, take Aragorn and Boromir. Man, those guys were at each other all the time. They just seemed to rub each other the wrong way at every turn. For them, this animosity usually expressed itself in service of the first method, contrary strategies: Although they both agreed about defeating Sauron , Aragorn favored destroying the ring, while Boromir preferred to use its power.

Back, or I’ll shiv you, elf-boy!

Of lesser import—and played more for comic effect than outright drama—you have the early interactions between elf Legolas and dwarf Gimli. Elves and dwarves being ancestral semi-enemies in Tolkien’s world, they didn’t get on well either. For them, though, it was more about chest-beating and sniping at one another at every opportunity.

Whether played seriously or for comic relief, ad hominem conflicts like these still serve to keep the essential feeling of tension in your scenes.

Strange bedfellows

No, this isn’t the least bit creepy. Why?

A third method is in situations where characters with entirely unrelated goals can achieve them by temporarily cooperating. Take the case of Aragorn and the Army of the Dead. Aragorn’s goal is to save Minas Tirith from being overrun by Sauron’s forces. The dead—the restless souls of an army that, in the backstory, had been faithless to Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur—just want to rest, which they can’t do because they broke their oaths way back when. Aragorn offers them an out: “Fight for me, and I will hold your oaths fulfilled.”

Tolkien chose to play it straight; Aragorn is an honorable fellow, he keeps his part in the bargain, and all’s well in the end. But notice that there’s a lot of tension along the way. Aragorn isn’t sure that the ghosts are really on-board with his offer. The ghosts aren’t entirely sure that Aragorn will keep his word. Neither side has much trust in the other, leading to a lot of great dramatic tension.

It’s not quite conflict, per se, but I put in this list because it achieves the same result for the reader—uncertainty about the outcome—and because in your novels it quite easily could turn into true conflict. You don’t have to play it straight. You could exploit the fact that it’s so easy for these marriages of convenience to fall apart, for one side or the other to break the deal, leading to outright conflict.

Allies, for now

Betcha didn’t think I had this much whup-ass in me, did ya?

These are situations where characters come in and out of alliance, as the needs of the moment dictate. Fundamentally, the dynamic here is two characters who have divergent long term goals, but whose short term goals sometimes agree. And when that happens, they’re at least grudgingly willing to help one another out. In many ways this is a darker turn on the strange bedfellows motif, but with more direct conflict, and the pairing of Frodo and Gollum makes a wonderful example.

At times, Frodo and Gollum share explicit, immediate goals. For instance, evading the Orcs at Cirith Ungol. So, sometimes they cooperate. But simultaneously they both know full well that they are diametrically opposed in their long term goals. Gollum knows Frodo’s aim is to destroy the ring, and Frodo knows Gollum’s aim is to reclaim it for his own. Frodo is under no illusion whatsoever that Gollum won’t strangle him in his sleep at the first opportunity, while Gollum harbors no misconceptions that he might, just possibly, be able to talk Frodo into giving him the ring.

This kind of layered alignment-plus-opposition leads to an enormous amount of wonderful tension and a deliciously shifting dynamic between these two characters. It’s also why Gollum chooses to lead Frodo through Shelob’s lair, on the pretense that it’s a safe way to sneak past the Orcs. Treachery!


So, there you go. Four broad methods for creating, sustaining, and developing conflicts in situations where characters or groups are otherwise aligned. You know the old saying “Keep conflict in every scene?” Conflict requires forces in opposition; a protagonist and an antagonist. For some scenes this is obvious. The battle scenes in Lord of the Ring have antagonists out in the open, in the form of Orcs or Nazgul, to fight with. Open conflict is easy. But when those kind of antagonists aren’t present, this is how you do it: by using these four methods to turn allies—at least temporarily—into antagonists.

Got a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave it in the comments!

June 23, 2011 18:26 UTC

Tags: character, conflict, allies, antagonists, goals, strategies, personalities

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Villains are heroes too

In the last part of my character revision series I made the case for why all your significant characters should have some kind of arc. That includes your villains.

Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?

She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:

Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.

A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.

Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.

Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?

If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.

Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.

In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.

Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.

Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.

Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.

Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:

As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”

December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, antagonists, villain, believability, drama, depth, message, hope, redemption

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How to revise your characters attitudes

This is part 5 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. So far in this series we’ve covered most of the superficial and mid-level aspects of your character, their dialogue, their mannerisms, and their bodies.

Today, we’re moving deeper to talk about attitudes: the opinions and beliefs your characters hold that shape the choices they make and the way they interact with other people.

There are three important goals you should strive for when revising attitudes: One, creating complexity. Do your characters hold complex views about life, just like real people? This is the time to take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out into believable human beings. Two, ensuring consistency. Real people’s attitudes tend to cluster into well established groups according to social, cultural, economic, political, and religious lines. This is the time to make sure that your characters’ beliefs fit together into a unified whole. Three, differentiating characters from one another both to create drama and believability in the whole work. After all, no two people hold the same attitudes about everything, and those differences are the source of much excellent drama.

Consider the individual

The first two goals, complexity and consistency, are ones you can tackle by considering your characters one at a time.

If you’re the sort of writer who does extensive character development before writing the book, you likely already have copious notes about what everyone in your book believes. Review these notes and make sure that your characters don’t sound like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Especially if you have used shortcuts like “slick used car salesman” to create a quick mental picture of a character, now is the time to dig deeper. Sure, maybe your used car salesman will do or say anything to close the deal, but ask yourself, is that really true? Would he really sell a lemon to a single mother who he knows won’t be able to afford the car’s inevitable repair bills? Does he consider all customers equally, or is he biased against low-income or minority buyers who walk onto his lot? It’s all up to you, but ask yourself whether particular answers to questions like that will give you opportunities to align or clash with other characters.

If you didn’t do any particular character development , that’s ok too. This is a great occasion to discover your characters’ beliefs by interviewing them. Browse around online to find one of those “lists of 100 questions to answer about your characters” that pop up on so many writing websites. Find one you like, and write a scene at a cafe or something where you, the author, literally have a conversation with the character. Now that you’ve finished the novel, you probably have a gut feel for the character’s attitudes even if you can’t name them specifically. Conducting an interview is a great way to discover the specifics behind that gut feel. Again, look at the results and ask whether they are complex enough, and whether there are opportunities for change that will create drama later.

Whichever method you used, consider whether any of a character’s attitudes clash with the rest of what that person feels and believes. Are any particular beliefs against-type for the character’s social, ethnic, or economic background? If not, that’s fine. If so you can either change it to enhance that character’s portrayal as a representative of their background, or leave the clash but work to find a justification for it.

For example, if you have a teenager who is a devout fundamentalist Christian but who also believes that pre-marital sex is ok, you’ve got a clash. You can make the character fall in line with his peers, or else come up with a reason for it. Maybe he was himself the product of a pre-marital affair. He knows he wouldn’t exist without pre-marital sex. On a certain level, he owes his life to it. And since he can also feel God’s love personally in how own life regardless of his parents’ marital status, he has trouble getting too worked up about that particular issue.

Consistency in attitudes should also apply across the whole book, except to the degree that the character grows or changes over the course of the book. The overall character arc (which I’ll cover at the end of this series) may well be structured around changing one or more of a character’s attitudes through the events of the plot. That’s a good thing, but that’s something I’ll cover more in the next installment.

Consider the cast

Before you go jumping into your manuscript to adjust all your individual characters, spend some time considering the attitudes of your cast as a whole. In this, you are looking for ways to heighten the drama, create opportunities for conflict and obstacles, and create the sort of moral ambiguity that so often occurs in real life.

Allies. Look at who in your book is allied with who else, and find ways to differentiate their attitudes from one another. This is a great way to create internal tension within the group. If you can do this for one or more beliefs which guide the group’s decision at key points in the book, you also immediately elevate the drama surrounding those decisions. Will the group go one person’s way, or another’s, or will the group split up? You can have some great arguments and confrontations around what the best thing to do is, when allied characters differ in their core beliefs.

Adversaries. The other way to do is to look at pairs of characters who are adversaries, and find ways to give them similar attitudes to each other. You can leave your protagonists with some terribly difficult decisions to make if they discover that they are not so very different from their antagonists. It can also work tremendously well to give adversaries the same core belief, but have them interpret it in radically different ways.

You might, for example, have adversaries who were once allies in the environmental movement, except one of them decided that the best way to fight climate change is to promote renewable energy while the other decided that the best way was mass murder. One is attacking the supply-side of the energy economy, while the other is attacking the demand side. Literally. If the FBI calls your hero to help stop the eco-terrorist before he wipes Los Angeles off the map, your hero may have some tricky moral questions to resolve: yes, murder is wrong, but climate change itself stands to kill a lot more people so maybe the villain’s brutally expedient strategy isn’t so wrong in the big picture. At any rate, the hero can certainly empathize with the villain’s point of view, which can give you some great drama.

You can mix-and-match those strategies, of course, but even when applied exactly as I’ve described they both work just fine.


Attitudes and beliefs start to get into who your characters are on a deep, personal level. I don’t encourage you to change their attitudes willy-nilly. Be thoughtful about it. But undeniably, conflicts and unexpected alignments in attitudes are both opportunities for strengthening your characters and your plot at the same time. So many novels suffer from flat characterization and the dreaded “sagging middle.” Making strategic choices about your characters attitudes and beliefs offers you the opportunity to fix both at the same time.

< Back to part 4: physical attributes | Next: part 6, character arcs >

December 09, 2009 00:03 UTC

Tags: character, revision, attitude, beliefs, protagonists, antagonists, multi-dimensional

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