Character Study | Identity from Conflict

I’ll be featuring a series of posts on characterization. This week’s post focuses on building identity through conflict.

conflict

I’m sure many of you will remember different types of conflict from your grade school days – but here’s a cute little chart I found online, just to jog your memory.

four kinds of conflictAside: Click on the pic to go to a wonderful unit on the graphic novel Maus.

I don’t know about many you, but when I create characters I’ve taken many different approaches. Last month, I talked about backwards design and questions to ask my characters. Another question that I didn’t include:

What do you value?

One of the most interesting exercises I did during my sorority tenure concerned risk management. Participants were given a list of values (similar to this, but a little more extensive) and asked to cross off all but twelve values. Then narrow it down to eight, five, and finally three. The point, our risk management facilitator told us, was to identify the three things we would protect above all else. When faced with decisions, our solutions and choices would align to these three values.

(Funny, but I can’t remember which ones I selected. I know diversity was one, which was both surprising and not at all surprising, and I believe the second was creativity. The third was probably something like fairness or equality. Maybe I should do this exercise again.)

The values exercise is something I’ve started doing with characters, and I think it works because it allows for more authenticity and agency. Conflict isn’t just about protagonists vs. antagonists; what about how other characters interact with each other? When you start viewing conflict outside of plot devices and “beats,” and more about characters’ relationships, your world feels more believable. Your characters have an opportunity to become real people and make decisions, rather than wander from obstacle to obstacle.

How will you apply this technique to your writing? What are the three values of your main character? What about his/her best friend? Enemy?

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