Yes, you’ve heard it a thousand times: conflict, conflict, conflict! What’s a romance without a little, “I’d rather kiss a frog!” at the beginning? Conflict is compelling because it inflates our sense of achievement, after struggling for our just rewards. And the more arduous and gut-wrenching the journey, the greater the reward. But how to build nail-biting, cover-your-face-and-squeal-into-the-pillow hook at the end of every chapter? Create a conflicted character.
The greater the internal conflicts of your protagonist, the easier (and the better) your plot will unfold, slapping your reader across the face at the end of each chapter, and smirking as she turns to the next page, at 3 o’clock in the morning. But how to develop a broody badasses with secrets untold and multiple layers to unfold? Character map the bejesus out of ’em first .
Here are seven elements to help you devise credible character conflict and make your book an early-morning page-turner.
1. Determine the character’s “mask” or False Persona. What face does your character reveal to the world, and how is this different from who he/she is inside? How has this mask helped your character? What problems does this mask create for your character? If your character took the mask off, what is he/she afraid would happen?
For example, imagine Prince Charming, a knight in shining armor, sitting tall and virile upon his equally majestic stead. Now, imagine him getting off the horse and dumping all the hardware. Who do you think he might be?
2. Determine the character’s greatest fear and emotional need. How does your character feel he/she might become unlovable? What is her deepest anxiety or worry preventing a leap of faith? Make it visceral and universal.
Prince Charming has a fear of not being worthy and intense desire to be rescued from his own feelings of insignificance, so he has an emotional need to constantly prove his worth and define himself as a good and noble character. So what happens when he falls in love with a Princess who refuses to be rescued?
3. Determine the character’s admired traits. This is an expression of the character’s most authentic self. Embracing these traits will allow your character to take a leap of faith. What traits does the character admire the most, but not possess?
Ironically, Prince Charming loves the spunky Princess because she doesn’t need to be rescued. She doesn’t have to prove herself to anyone, and is confident in her own worth. Prince Charming wishes he could be more like her, large and in charge with no need of a sword or big strong horse.
4. Determine the character’s greatest strength and weakness. A character’s greatest strength should also be his greatest weakness. These traits are his crutch to taking a leap of faith, and the traits he will have to surrender. What traits does the character rely on to get him through tough times? What traits does the character believe are his salvation? How do these traits impede him from fulfilling his emotional need?
Prince Charming’s repeated rescue attempts only end up annoying his love object, leaving him feeling frustrated and even less worthy. If only he’d shed that armor, maybe his soft interior would be more appealing to his ladylove.
5. Determine your character’s trouble traits. These are the traits your villain or antagonist will want to exploit. They are the traits that make your character create emotionally destructive situations. What traits get your character into hot water with his/her loved ones?
Prince Charming is stubborn and believes his way is the only way. He also believes he is solely responsible for saving the Princess (next up, the world). How easy would it be for a villain to create an impossible situation in which Prince Charming would desperately need help and be totally unable to ask for it?
6. Determine your character’s dark side. What does your character dislike the most in others? How can he/she sink to his/her lowest level? These traits are the end result of clinging to the greatest strength, and failing to take a leap of faith. Note: your character’s dark side is often the mask of the villain or your antagonist.
After the Princess repeatedly rejects him, Prince charming could go one of two ways: he could give up on what he’s been doing (his perceived greatest strength) and try something new, or he could force the issue. And in forcing the issue, he may give into his weakness and embrace his greatest fear; “I’m nothing. I’m not worthy. What has being good ever gotten me besides rejected by the woman I love? So I’m going to take what I want because it doesn’t matter anyway.” Suddenly, Prince Charming isn’t so charming anymore, he’s in fact the villain; “If I can’t have you, no one will.” You get the idea.
7. Determine your character’s leap of faith. What three things have to happen for the character to find inner peace, and/or union with their counterpart? These will be events that test the character’s internal needs and wants, and challenge his/her fears. These will be turning points that must be manifested both internally and externally, and move plot forward.
Prince charming must achieve three things in order to take a leap of faith and find peace within himself and with the Princess. 1) He must shed his beliefs about nobility and worthiness and realize there is more than one way to go about proving those things. 2) He must shed his stubborn independence, and ask for help. 3) He must allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable, allowing the Princess to protect and rescue him for once, because he is worthy of it.
So there you have it; seven steps to creating credible conflict through character mapping. When in doubt, just revisit your character’s internal struggles, and the rewards will be more than just. (For resources on character mapping and development, check out http://www.etbscreenwriting.com/character-map/).