Characters with… character. part 2 of 3

Last time (click here if you missed it) we covered character loglines, the character’s problem, and his or her initial plan to solve it. But there’s much more to character building. Read on.

Next up is Conflict–the great provider. All that wonderful, malleable space between a character’s problem and solution is your natural, God-given playground. It’s yours to do with as you please. You can populate it with dragons, armies, space ships, or a seemingly endless stretch of nothing. It can harbor pitfalls, dead drops, mistakes, oversights, threats, attempts, triumphs, and disasters. It’s the land of the Try/Fail, the great and glorious Middle.

16456502 - two men break the rope hands competing. on a white background.You could find this section ridiculously easy to populate. Story stuff could spew out of you as the by-product of the Problem/Solution line up. In “Scorpion,” Walter can’t bring himself to ask Paige out on a date. But, when she’s threatened by something that happens as a result of a Scorpion project, Walter will always be the one to risk himself to save her.

Alas, that doesn’t always happen. What if the Problem/Solution combo fails to provide the sort of conflict needed for your epic? Then it’s time to add external conflict. In “Scorpion,” it comes as a result of the new challenge the team faces in each episode.

In the case of Gone With the Wind, the conflict appears in the guise of Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett adores. But he’s betrothed to Melanie, and this pushes a variety of Scarlett’s buttons, forcing her to make decisions and take actions that provide even more conflict.

24763825_ml-coverIn “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker dreams of becoming a great Jedi warrior, but his tutor is a little green guy with big ears and an annoying set of speech mannerisms. There wouldn’t have been much of a movie if all Luke had to do was buy a copy of Jedi for Dummies.

The great thing about external conflicts is that they provide endless opportunities to develop the character and his/her abilities and/or shortcomings. Walter uses his stratospheric IQ to turn household objects into defensive weaponry. His mind is his principle asset, and the external conflict allows us to see it in action.

We all have LIMITS? Of course! A limitation is generally internal, something within the character as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their plans to solve the problem, also known as the “mission.”

In the case of Walter O’Brien, he doesn’t know how to deal with emotion, either his own or someone else’s. This constantly results in clumsy efforts at interaction with the woman he loves. Not only that, it constricts his ability to deal with others as anything but the alpha nerd. This limitation is a constant source of tension-generators and new plot twists.

Not all limitations are flaws or frailties. Instead, they could be positive traits that generate edges and angles, be it in plot or character.

  • 45840872_ml-txtScarlett O’Hara, while outwardly flighty and superficial, actually has a steely resolve. Her unyielding determination, whether focused on romance, appearance, or survival, forces her into situations other characters would never face.
  • Han Solo is an honorable guy when it comes to his friends, if not his business partners. His tough guy persona dissolves when someone he cares about is in trouble.
  • Imagine a character based on Joan of Arc. She can’t lie or be deceitful, even if those who depend on her need her to take the low road from time to time. She just can’t do it.

It’s complicated.  Complications tend to be external. They are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be either character-based or plot-based depending on the aspect of the story you’re developing. In Gone With The Wind, for example, a major complication for Scarlett (to say nothing of the rest of the country) is the Civil War. Scarlett’s story isn’t about the war, it’s about how she copes, and the war provides a significant, and recurring, set of problems. Coming full circle, it turns out Scarlett’s unyielding determination proves to be the one thing which allows her to succeed, or at least persevere.

As in Scarlett’s case, the best outcomes — from a plot standpoint — occur when a player’s limitations and complications turn out to be the very issues which help them achieve their goals, even as they generate new and unusual difficulties.

Now, track down your notes from part one, and add to them some potential complications for your character to face. Then figure out at least one serious complication. Can you see where this is headed? There’s only one phase to go.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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