Writing Fiction: Creating Friction With Clashing Personalities

Creating interesting characters is one critical aspect of fiction, but adding conflict is often one of the most common tools in the making sparks flywriter’s box. Making sparks fly can transform your work.

In this article, Angela Ackerman discusses personality traits that will help make your story richer.

One debate that swings back and forth is whether or not opposites attract.

Do unsuited people find themselves drawn together in a way that defies logic? Do they make the best love matches? Opinions abound, but no one knows for sure. However if there is one certainty as far as fiction goes, it is that opposites can create explosive conflict!

As writers, we thrive on friction, infusing it into every word we can. Friction powers up a scene, and the resulting tension that builds between characters is a delicious pull that keeps readers focused on the page. Like so many aspects of life-to-fiction, relationships are important in the real world, and so must  have equal weight within a story. Even a loner hero type who thinks he doesn’t need anyone must rely on others to help further the plot. These relationships, whether rooted in helping or harming, supply fertile ground for friction.

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, allowing writers to maximize moments when characters come together. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” the story gets boring quickly.  With a bit of character planning, matching up clashing personality traits offers a quick road to friction.

The Character Foil

One way to use the power of opposites is through a foil: a character who acts as the opposite of the hero on many levels or in one defining way. If the protagonist is focused, organized and humble, the foil might be a scatterbrained, disorganized loudmouth. The hero may be decisive while the foil is  contemplative, or when the hero demands action, the foil advocates caution and so forth. Using opposites like this supplies tension to scenes where the two are present, and a foil’s negative traits can do a good job of highlighting the hero’s strong qualities through contrast.

Foils can be great for friction, but sometimes the author needs to be a bit more subtle. Maybe the goal isn’t to have someone clash frequently with the protagonist or play his exact opposite, but more to create a very specific tug-of-war.

Choosing Specific Traits to Play Off One Another

Digging into each character’s personality might unearth some great areas for clashes. The obvious choice is to pit one character’s attribute against another’s flaw (responsible vs. irresponsible, or easygoing vs. controlling, etc.) but readers might expect this. Why not try something more unique? After all, not all positive attributes get along, and neither do flaws.

Take Alan, a hard working auto technician who just became the co-owner of a small detailing shop. He’s a friendly, intelligent guy, but can be quick to anger because of a rocky relationship with a disapproving father-in-law, who isn’t shy about letting Alan know he thinks his daughter could have done better.

Now imagine a client who pulls his Mercedes into the shop after hours, demanding to have his minor paint scuff taken care of RIGHT NOW. Alan explains the shop is closed and his staff has gone home for the night, but the customer starts throwing his importance around, hinting that Alan and his tin can shop should be grateful for the business. Alan snaps, and begins swearing and insulting the man until he leaves…with a heated promise to destroy the shop’s reputation.

Here, we have self-centered and pompousness facing off against defensiveness and reactive hostility. The two slam together with a bang, and create conflict: flaw vs. flaw.

Attributes can work exactly the same way. A proper individual is going to clash with an uninhibited one. Extroverts can be at odds with Introverts. Generous characters may not see eye to eye with frugal ones.

Friction Isn’t All Bad

Friction between two people can also be a good thing. Attraction, desire, love and lust supply the heartbeat to many a novel. Anticipation can be nerve wracking in a good way, and competition can spur characters on to do their very best. So whether friction is a healthy manifestation of desire and need or filled with unhealthy disagreements, power struggles, and the quest to dominate, readers are pulled in.

Take some extra time when it comes to character creation, and really think carefully about ways you can utilize incompatible or competitive personality traits. The resulting friction quickens the pulse of your story, allowing you to build tension until those traits finally clash, in good ways and bad.

Do you have any comments or suggestions about using friction in your story? Please do leave them below.

Angela AckermanANGELA Thesaurus PairACKERMAN is the author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus, and most recently, The Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books.

Centering on the light and dark side of a character’s personality, these new resource books help writers create layered, compelling characters that readers relate to and care for.

Visit Angela’s website, Writers Helping Writers for friendly support, description help, free writing tools and more!

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Airman Magazine

Desecration. My New Mystery-Crime-Thriller Out Now.

I’m excited to announce that Desecration is now available as an ebook, with print coming in the next few weeks!

desecrationDeath isn’t always the end.

LONDON. When the body of a young heiress is found within the Royal College of Surgeons, Detective Sergeant Jamie Brooke is assigned to the case. An antique ivory figurine found beside the body is the only lead and she enlists Blake Daniel, a reluctant clairvoyant, to help her discover the message it holds.

When personal tragedy strikes, Jamie finds her own life entwining with the morbid fascinations of the anatomists, and she must race against time to stop them claiming another victim.

As Jamie and Blake delve into a macabre world of grave robbery, body modification, and the genetic engineering of monsters, they must fight to keep their sanity, and their lives.


“One of the most original mystery/thrillers that I’ve read in a long while. Its topic of life and death, soul and body is harrowing and poignant, shocking and profound.” David Morrell, New York Times bestselling author of Murder as a Fine Art and author of over 40 novels

“A riveting exploration of the dark side of the human heart” 
New York Times Bestselling Author CJ Lyons

“In a book which takes the reader on a journey to hell and back, J.F. Penn demonstrates her huge talent for conveying the depths of human depravity.” 
Amazon UK #1 Bestseller, Rachel Abbott

You can buy Desecration now for launch pricing

Only 2.99 until 16 November, 2013.

Desecration on Amazon.com

Desecration on Amazon.co.uk

Desecration on Kobo

Coming soon in print

Making the Switch from Nonfiction to Fiction Writing

I started out writing non-fiction with no thought of even trying fiction, mainly because I thought I had to write like Umberto Eco in order to be considered a literary success.

penBut, I decided to give it a try for NaNoWriMo 2009, and I haven’t looked back! In this article Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker, talks about how to make the switch.

You’re already confident with writing nonfiction, so making the transition to fiction should be no big deal, right? Not. There’s actually a significant learning curve to recognizing and mastering the essential elements of writing fiction that captivates readers, sells well, and garners glowing reviews.

As an independent editor specializing in popular, fast-paced fiction, I often receive manuscripts from professionals and others who write a lot of nonfiction and are attaching a draft of a novel or short story. They often assume that since they’re used to writing, the transition to fiction will be easy.

Not so.

Nonfiction writers and first-time novelists often don’t realize the importance of issues they’re simply not aware of, so they ask me for “just a light copyedit.” When I start reading their manuscript, I often notice right away the story seems to lack sparkle. It doesn’t engage me and make me want to keep reading.

The writers, although accomplished in their field, have little or no concept of the critical aspects of point of view and showing instead of telling.

Other issues I see are writing that is just too “correct” and distant for storytelling, with stilted dialogue, too-frequent author intrusions, and bland, neutral narration. Finally, the writing often meanders along at too leisurely a pace, lacking sufficient conflict, tension, intrigue, and general zing.

The following tips, for anyone wanting to master the art of storytelling, will help you bring your characters and story world to life by loosening up your language, getting up close and personal with your characters, letting them tell the story, and showing their emotions and reactions. Of course, you’ll need to start with a charismatic protagonist, a critical problem, plenty of conflict, and an intriguing plot.

1. Get into your character’s head – and stay there.

Start right out in the point of view of your protagonist and show the events through his eyes, with his internal reactions. Forget omniscient point of view – it’s no longer in favor, and for very good reason. Readers want to get “up close and personal” with the main character, so they can become emotionally engaged and sucked into the story.

Show your character’s thoughts, perceptions, and inner reactions to what’s going on right away, so readers can identify with her and bond with her. Don’t head-hop to other characters’ thoughts within a scene. To get into the head of others, like the antagonist or love interest, give them their own viewpoint scenes.

2. Stay out of the story as the author.

Let the characters tell the story, in a natural way that is authentic to the story world you’re creating. This will keep the readers immersed in the fictive dream. Don’t interrupt the story by stepping in as the author to explain things to the readers. In other words, avoid info dumps and other author intrusions.

3. Make sure your story has plenty of conflict and tension.

Conflict is what drives fiction. No conflict = no story. Not enough conflict and tension = boring. Every scene should have some conflict and a change. Every page should have some tension, even if it’s just an undercurrent of unease, disagreement, or resentment.

4. Loosen up your language.

Again, “let the characters tell the story.” Forget perfect English, complete sentences, convoluted phrasing, or fancy-schmancy vocabulary. Use direct language and strong imagery, in the character’s thoughts, colored by their personality, education, background and attitudes. In other words, stay in your character’s mood and voice, using words and phrasing they would use, which also fit the overall tone of the story, rather than a more correct, neutral language.

5. Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t step in as the author to tell your readers about your characters or their background or to relate something that happened. And don’t have one character tell another about a critical event that occurred offstage. Show important scenes in real time, with action and dialogue.

Also, to bring your characters alive, be sure to show their emotions, internal and external reactions, and physical sensations.

Evoke all or most of the senses. Don’t just show what the character is seeing. What is she hearing, smelling, feeling? Even tasting?

6. Use snappy dialogue.

Dialogue needs lots of tension and attitude. Be sure your dialogue doesn’t all sound the same – like it’s the author speaking. Each character’s words and speech patterns need to match their personality and background.

Avoid complete sentences and perfect English in dialogue. Use frequent partial sentences, one- or two-word questions and answers, evasive replies, abrupt changes of topic, and silences. Read your dialogue out loud, perhaps role-playing with someone else, to make sure it sounds natural and authentic.

Also, skip the “Hi, how are you?” and other blah-blah lead-up and filler. Cut to the chase in your dialogue.

7. Even your narration should not be neutral.

Avoid bland, authorial narration.

Any backstory should be the character’s thoughts, colored by their feelings about it, and keep it to a minimum, preferably with flashbacks in real time. Even your description, exposition, and narration should not be neutral – these are really the POV character’s observations, and should reveal their personality, goals, attitude and mood.

Do you have any more tips to share for nonfiction writers or anyone else just getting into writing fiction? Please do leave a comment below.

Jodie RennerJodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, both available in e-book and trade paperback.

For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons pen by Gregory Wake

One Day In Budapest. A Thriller. Available Now.

My latest book is available now! ‘One Day In Budapest’ is a political/conspiracy thriller novella, so the perfect opportunity to try out my fiction if you fancy giving it a go. I really appreciate your support. At the bottom of the post, I have also included a video about my research trip in case you’d like to see some pictures.

one day in budapestOne Day In Budapest – by J.F.Penn

A relic, stolen from the heart of an ancient city.
An echo of nationalist violence not seen since the dark days of the Second World War.

Budapest, Hungary. When a priest is murdered at the Basilica of St Stephen and the Holy Right relic is stolen, the ultra-nationalist Eröszak party calls for retribution and anti-Semitic violence erupts in the city.

Dr Morgan Sierra, psychologist and ARKANE agent, finds herself trapped inside the synagogue with Zoltan Fischer, a Hungarian Jewish security advisor. As the terrorism escalates, Morgan and Zoltan must race against time to find the Holy Right and expose the conspiracy, before blood is spilled again on the streets of Budapest.

One Day In Budapest is a chilling view of a possible future as Eastern Europe embraces right-wing nationalism. A conspiracy thriller for fans of Daniel Silva, where religion and politics intersect.

One Day In Budapest is an ebook original novella available at these online stores for $2.99

Amazon.com and all other Amazon stores



Barnes & Noble Nook

Apple iBookstore (coming soon)

The novella features Dr Morgan Sierra from the ARKANE thrillers, but is stand-alone and can be read separately from the ARKANE series.

The research behind the book

In the video below, I explain the inspiration for the story – both from the political angle as well as the historical. You can also view the video here on YouTube.

Please do let me know your thoughts and comments below. Do you like the cover? The back blurb? Any feedback is very welcome.

Mining Your Central Plot Nugget: A Lesson In Writing From John Grisham

Writing for any reason is fantastic but if you want to write a story that people actually want to buy and read, then you have to consider issues around story structure, plot, character and the other tools of fiction.

writing rToday, author Tony Vanderwarker talks about being mentored by John Grisham and how that impacted his writing.

I had 7 unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices, when John Grisham — a friend and neighbor — took me under his wing and taught me his writing secrets. Along the way I gained immense appreciation for the craft and expertise required to construct and realize powerful plots engaging millions of readers.

I also learned a number of painful lessons. One was how easy it is to get on the wrong track so your novel spins away from the central idea.

To avoid veering off track, it’s critical for a writer to keep peeling back layers of your story to find the key idea–an idea that can be expressed in a single sentence.

John’s admonition: if you can’t sum it up in one sentence it’s too complicated, or you’re off base. Don’t waste time on it, trash it and move on.

Look at the following two plot summaries:

  1. Young lawyer just out of law school is trying to decide between taking a job at a prestigious Wall Street firm or going to work in the boonies with a firm that offers all kinds of perks and bennies. But it doesn’t turn out as advertised.
  2. Recent law school grad finds a dream first job but it turns out to be a nightmare.

You get the point. The first, while factually correct, would lead a writer off on a wild goose chase about job hunting when the story is all about the ideal job that turns out to be a disaster.

Starting off on our novel-writing adventure, John asked me if I had any story ideas I was working on.  I quickly sketched one out.

“Nope, not compelling enough, too weak, will never work,” was his answer.  “Any more?”

I launched into the second, beads of sweat welling up on my forehead.

“Nah,” John said before I was even halfway through, as if sorting through plot ideas was like shopping for ties. “Too complicated.”

The third story I pitched was based on the eleven hydrogen bombs that are still scattered around the country as a result of mid-air collisions and mishaps during the Cold War, when we had B-52s in the air 24/7 so we’d be prepared to strike back in case of a Russian launch. “We lost a bunch,” I told John.

“You’re kidding me?” Like I’d hooked a fish, for the first time Grisham was engaged.

Dead serious.” I explained that there are ten or twelve, in places like Alaska, North Carolina and off the coast of Georgia. The Pentagon claims the radioactive stuff is gone, and they’re harmless.

“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke?” John asked, smiling. “What if a bad guy got his hands on of one of these nukes? Somehow recovered it.”

“There you go,” I say, making headway for the first time.

John nodded.  “Okay, I like that. Now there’s a real idea. Good place to start.”

Stating the idea’s just the first step.

Next, John told me to craft an outline. I spent two weeks writing one. He sent it back, saying, “Junk it and do another.”  So I wrote another. And another and another.

Months went by, eventually turning into a year-long outlining process.  Throughout John was coaching me, “Add this, take out that, don’t go there, watch out for this, don’t waste time with that, slow down…” Most importantly, he shaped the plot, chucking out story elements that didn’t directly relate to its essence: the bomb and the pilot who knew its location.

The process reminded me of a famous pro football player, a defensive end with the wonderful name of Too Tall Jones who, when asked how he managed to always find the ball carrier when a million offensive players were swarming toward him, answered, “I tackle them all and toss them away one by one until I find the guy with the ball.”

Grisham works the same way.

The first Grisham Law of Novel Writing. Find the locus of your plot.

The answer to the question, “what is this book really about?”

The most salient element, the pivot upon which the entire plot revolves. Toss everything away until you get to the core. In the case of my thriller, it wasn’t about lost nukes or the other strands I threw in like a bunch of Pentagon generals or a former Pentagon staffer who’s WMD obsessed. It was about a pilot who had a terrible secret. And locating the focal point is like peeling the layers of an onion, stripping off one and then another, until the nub of the plot is revealed.

Unless you mine that central plot nugget and bore down on it, your novel will wander all over the place, your reader will never quite figure out what your novel is about and eventually give up. And that’s if you get to the reader. Agents say the major reason for rejecting submissions is weak or wandering plots.

John taught me dozens of other priceless lessons during that first year.  And when he finally thought I was there with an outline, he launched me into the even more grueling and exacting process of writing the novel.

In the end John bought into the resulting thriller, Sleeping Dogs, I submitted it into a market glutted with similar books — a plot twist I hadn’t envisioned. And in another unexpected turn of events, I wound up landing a publishing deal for the memoir I later wrote about the experience, Writing With a Bestseller.

Even though I no longer had John looking over my shoulder, I know the reason my memoir was picked up was that I followed his precepts closely, tossing four openings before I finally panned the story nugget that gave me a straight shot through to the end.

Learning like this doesn’t come easily or without discomfort, but in the end writers are much better for it. Especially when you have someone like John Grisham pointing the way.


Do you have any questions about finding the locus of your story? Please do leave questions and comments below.

vanderwalkerAbout Tony:

Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With a Bestseller (Skyhorse, January 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Rocketship