Character developement · character development · Harriet Hale · writing advice

Characters, conflict, and gravy

My writing ideas usually begin with the characters instead of the situation. When I talk about them, I can see people responding, and my beta-readers act as if they’re real people. But as I’m journeying toward publication, I’m hearing the same constructive criticism — “the romantic conflict isn’t quite strong enough.”

Huh? I have an exciting plot, characters that make people pay attention, and a situation that puts them at odds with each other. What else is necessary for romantic conflict?

The explanation I hear the most: “if they can solve the problem with a conversation, it’s not conflict.” I don’t mean to be flip, but that rule could be applied to anything, including peace in the Middle East. People don’t have that conversation, and I’ve read several novels recently where that’s the only conflict.

But digging deeper only got the more vague “whatever keeps the characters apart.” That answer is like my grandmother’s gravy recipe: “bacon grease, a little flour, a little milk, stir, don’t scorch it, and . . . gravy.” No matter how hard I try, mine turns out like spackle – even the dog won’t eat it.

To avoid a spackled together conflict, I looked other places and read other stories to determine what else keeps the characters apart. As much as the external plot, it’s their internal influences: their thoughts, emotions, backstories, desires, and goals. My characters have all that, don’t they?

The next step in my investigation was the Writers’ Guide to Character Traits by Lisa Edelstein, Ph.D. I like this book because it’s basically lists of character traits based on personality type, profession, stage in life, etc. As an example:

Heroine: Personable (good with people), corporate (fits in), corporate wife (in the public eye), artist (sensitive), jealous, has a fear of abandonment, values generosity and reliability.

Hero: problem solver (disciplined), bachelor (isolated), PTSD (detached), accountant (reserved), law enforcement (used to giving orders), values accomplishment and ambition.

You can use the same tactic to find why they’d be attracted to each other and the values they share.

I listed all the traits side by side on an Excel spreadsheet. That, in turn, gave me a great jumping off point for some directed free-writing in each character’s point of view. Eventually, it came down to this:

My romantic conflict revolves around two people who hate disappointing others. He’s agreed to leave, she expects him to go, but everyone else is hoping for their happily ever after. He hates to be treated like he’s broken, and she’s a compulsive caretaker. Both of them are used to operating independently, and now they’re stuck in a situation neither of them can control. They’re talking to each other – just not from the view of staying together.

That wasn’t on the page at all. Just like rearranging my external plot helped with the tension, investigating my characters let me see where to increase the romantic conflict.

Are you having trouble with romantic conflict? Arrange your plot to escalate the external tension, then research your characters’ traits to see where they’ll butt heads or where they’ll resist change. Tighten each layer as you move toward the climax. And . . . gravy.

Or maybe it’s still spackle. My next round of feedback will tell the tale.

I’m off on a trip this weekend to meet Jim Butcher, my favorite author. If you’ve not read his Harry Dresden series, you’re missing something amazing. Have a great month!


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