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Creating interesting characters is one critical aspect of fiction, but adding conflict is often one of the most common tools in the writer'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 ACKERMAN 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
Linda Maye Adams says
I’d add though to make sure there is a reason for it. Right now, it’s been trendy to have a very bitchy woman protagonist in urban fantasy. She’ll spend the entire book rubbing wrong against every single character — to the point where I, as the reader, am questioning how she can actually get anything done.
Angela Ackerman says
Totally agree with you there, Linda. I recently read a book where friction went too far and the character was antagonistic toward everyone, yet her backstory was not strong enough for me to buy into the character’s nature. The story was quite good, but the character spoiled it a bit, you know? It was a shame.
Thanks for chiming in, and thanks Joanna for having me here for a visit!
Karen Lange says
Friction is so important – thanks so much for this great info, Angela! 🙂
Angela Ackerman says
Thanks Karen! I hope the writing is going great! 🙂
Robyn LaRue says
Hmmm…characters in current WiP clash over one wanting to keep the peace and the other wanting everyone to state their position. I think I shall go see how many times this happens and rework with this post in mind. Thanks! 🙂
Angela Ackerman says
Sounds like you are on the right track! Good luck Robyn!
Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2) says
My tip: don’t shy away from the clash! I had loads of conflict in my short stories for a class, but I kept letting my protagonist sneak away without showing the actual confrontation. Got called on it every time, and the next story I’d think I upped the friction, and then got called on it again. In one story, I thought she was acting in character, but it didn’t resolve her problem and it didn’t make good drama.
I love the idea of positive vs. positive (a creative thinker and a meticulous planner will clash, as illustrated by my marriage!) or flaw vs. flaw, but I think the flaws clashing would make a better story. Thanks for a great reminder!
Angela Ackerman says
Pitting different attributes and flaws against one another can create a lot of delicious friction. If you are struggle with trying to decide how much friction you might need, here’s a tip. In the Negative Trait Thesaurus, we break friction into three levels: Sparks, Fireworks & Explosions. If you go to Amazon’s “search inside” feature, you can see this section in the sample, along with examples of how each level changes the dynamics of the scene. Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Negative-Trait-Thesaurus-Writers-Character-ebook/dp/B00FVZDZ6K/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=#reader_B00FVZDZ6K
(Just scroll down to the section “The Role of Flaws in Relationships: Creating Friction” and see if that helps!)