Characters in Conflict is not Enough

With permission, I’d like to share an article from one of Randy Ingermanson’s e-zines today. There is not much to say about this, as the article speaks for itself, and I could not put it any better than Randy. Read this, think about it, share your thoughts. I had an ‘ah, yes’ moment – did you?

Creating: Nothing is More Important Than…

Long ago when I began learning to write, I picked up this handy definition of fiction:

Fiction is “characters in conflict.”

That’s a good rule of thumb, and yet it isn’t the whole truth, nor is it always strictly true. Let me give you a couple of counterexamples:

Imagine a novel about two thugs, each trying to kill the other. These thugs are mindless brutes. Neither one much cares about anything. Neither one even cares whether he himself lives or dies.

Therefore, neither does the author. Therefore, neither does the reader. The entire story is nothing but pointless violence.

Are there “characters in conflict” in this story? Yes.

Is this fiction? No.

This is not the sort of story anyone would want to read. Having “characters in conflict” is not enough.

Imagine a second novel about a lone character, the last survivor of an ill-fated run to the South Pole in 1901.

Our hero’s goal is to make it home alive, bringing important scientific data gathered along the way. But lugging those rocks slows him down and makes it far more difficult to survive.

There’s only one character in this story, so we don’t exactly have “characters (plural) in conflict.”

But is this fiction? Yes, and it could make a gripping tale. (It would be similar in spirit to the real-life Scott expedition of 1911, which had no survivors.)

Clearly, “characters in conflict” is not even necessary.

So the old definition of fiction as “characters in conflict” seems to need a little revision.

What is fiction, really?

I’ve been thinking about this lately and my conclusion is that a better definition of fiction is “values in conflict.”

I define a “value” as a “core truth” for a character which can be phrased in this form:

“Nothing is more important than ________.”

A “value” is any word or phrase your character would use to fill in the blank. Most characters will have several values. Good characters will have several conflicting values.

In the first counterexample I gave above, neither of the thugs have any values that your reader can identify with. Most characters in most novels could at least say, “Nothing is more important than survival.”

But the two thugs in question lack even that basic value.

No values. No story. It’s that simple.

In the second counterexample, our hero is all alone in his world, but he has two powerful values:

* “Nothing is nore important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than scientific discovery.”

These values are at odds with each other. The character can dump his load of rocks and improve his chances of getting home alive. Or he can risk his life for the sake of science. When the going gets rough, which will he choose?

Fiction is about making hard choices between conflicting values.

We should note that one particular value, “Nothing is more important than survival,” is practically universal. Virtually all characters in fiction have this value. Virtually all readers have it too.

Deep fiction comes when a character has one or more values that rival the survival instinct.

At a recent conference, I analyzed THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, to see what made it work. I found that the strength of conflict between the values of the main characters drove the novel.

Here’s a quick summary of the story:

A 16-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take her sister’s place in an arena where 24 teens will battle each other to the death. One of the other competitors, Peeta Mellark, has been secretly in love with Katniss since they were five years old.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a deep and powerful story. The reason is very simple. Each of the two main characters has three values that are in conflict.

Let’s look at Katniss’s central values:

* “Nothing is more important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than my sister.”

* “Nothing is more important than avoiding love, because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.”

Each of these values is in conflict with the other two.

Katniss decides early in the story that she values her sister more than her own survival.

The ongoing conflict in the story comes as she feels a growing attraction to Peeta. Can she dare to return his love, when she knows with certainty that they can’t both survive the arena?

Likewise, Peeta has three central values:

* “Nothing is more important than survival.”

* “Nothing is more important than protecting Katniss.”

* “Nothing is more important than being true to who you are.”

For Peeta, these values are in massive conflict.

Like Katniss, he decides early in the story that his survival is the least important of his three main values. He goes into the arena planning to sacrifice himself to keep Katniss alive.

The problem for Peeta is that he’s a genuinely good, decent, and caring person. In the arena, it won’t be enough for him to fight merely to protect Katniss.

Defense alone won’t save her. If Katniss is to live, the other 22 must die.

To save the girl he loves, Peeta is going to have to kill. He must steel himself to be ruthless. To be somebody he is not. To violate his identity and therefore to trample one of his primary values. Can he do that?

There’s a reason THE HUNGER GAMES works so well with readers. The novel is packed full of value-conflicts.

Hard choices. Moral dilemmas.

If you’ve read THE HUNGER GAMES, think about some of the other principal characters:

Katniss and Peeta have a coach, a drunkard named Haymitch. What are Haymitch’s values and how are they in conflict?

Katniss is lucky to get an amazing stylist who deeply cares about her, Cinna. What are Cinna’s conflicting values?

There’s a massive brute named Cato in the Games who is obviously the guy to beat. Does Cato have values? Can you guess what they must be?

How do they create conflict for him — and for Katniss and Peeta?

Values are critical to great fiction because values determine what your characters do. Values make your characters’ actions believable.

Conflicting values make your characters’ actions unpredictable.

So how about that novel you’re working on? Is it ripping your heart out because each one of the central characters has to make an impossible choice between two values?

If so, what are those values?

If not, then it might be time to change your game plan.

Look into your characters. Push them against the wall and make them fill in the sentence, “Nothing is more important than _________.”

Take what they tell you and run with it.

For the novelist, nothing is more important than values in conflict.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 28,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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