External Forces Develop Amazing Characters
Why is conflict the best teacher for humans? Because external conflict or forces produce pain. And, pain is something that we want to avoid or get through quickly to find happiness and joy. That is the human experience.
When writing about conflict for your character, authors keep in mind that the is character arc crucial to your story. According to Wikipedia, a Character arc is a transformation or inner journey of a character throughout a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person. It gradually transforms into a different kind of person in response to changing developments in the story.
Now the question is, how does the character make that transformation into a new person? They must be faced with challenges and trials. Those create external conflict. There are four external character conflicts to share with you.
What are the four-character conflicts that can happen in a story?
Character versus Character
Character versus Society
Character versus Nature
Character versus Technology
Authors—your best characters are developed by bringing out their humanity to the reader through the external conflict that will greet them. There are four external conflicts. Check out three of the four examples from The Hunger Games.
# 1 Character versus Character
"Forget it, District Twelve. We're going to kill you. Just like we did your pathetic little ally..." (285).
Put 24 teenagers in a confined space, pitting them against each other with the rule that only one can survive, and what do you get? Character vs. character. In the Hunger Games, Katniss faced brutal fights between herself and 23 other children from the districts. At one point, Katniss is pinned by another contestant named Clove. Clove is ready to slit Katniss’ throat when suddenly, from district 11, Thresh saves her life!
Katniss is very motivated to survive. The Hunger Games encompasses great motivation being survival. For other stories, it can be fear, duty, or love. Authors! Here is the key to making it work. Readers should see your main characters, supporting characters, and antagonists develop equally, take action, and have similar goals. Authors make sure that the readers see and feel your character’s personal conflict.
Here are other examples of characters having similar goals:
The characters want the same thing: Peeta and Katniss both want to survive the Hunger Games.
The character has something that the other wants: Gollum wants his Ring back.
One character wants to destroy the other: Voldemort wants to destroy Harry.
# 2 Character versus Society
"Listen up. You're in trouble. Word is the Capitol's furious about you showing them up in the arena. The one thing they can't stand is being laughed at, and they're the joke of Panem" (356-357).
Haymitch. His character is rough, angry, and drunken more than sober through the book. Yet, he has a gift for observation and is very perceptive. Haymitch knows Katniss’s stunt of suicide at the end of the games stuck it to the Capital’s authority. She challenged the system in a way that no other contestant had in 74 years! All of Panem witnessed this rebellious act against the Capital—brilliant conflict!
Authors, readers see the character struggling against some elements of society (Katniss against the Capital): socialized mindsets, a corrupt government, a religious system, economic issues, inequality, or societal expectations. Take note—stories with Character vs. Society conflicts also have strong internal conflicts that are woven throughout the story.
Examples of stories that feature strong Character vs. Society conflicts include:
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Charolet’s Web E.B. White
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Holes Louis Sachar
The Adventrues of Huckleberry Fin by Mark Twain
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
# 3 Character versus Nature
"I think back to the years of watching tributes starve, freeze, bleed, and dehydrate to death. Unless there's a really good fight going on somewhere, I'm being featured" (169).
Let’s go back to school for a bit. (In fact, I teach this to my students every year). Maslow’s Hierarchy. Through his studies and research, he discovered that humans have to have their basic needs (food, shelter, water, clothing, sleep) met before they can really reach their full growth potential. The Hunger Games’ external challenges are with the basic elements combined with the fact that 23 contestants are trying to kill you, and you are fighting game makers. In the story, Katniss eventually finds water only to be chased by a raging fire.
The external conflict that features character versus nature storylines most often is motivated by the drive to survive, which is why it works so brilliantly in the Hunger Games.
Examples of my favorite stories that feature a Character vs. Nature conflict:
Hatchet by Gary Paulson
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
#4: CHARACTER VS. TECHNOLOGY
"Yes, victors are our strongest. They're the ones who survived the arena and slipped the noose of poverty that strangles the rest of us” (176).
Finally, the character must fight against some element of technology. In the second book of The Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire, Katniss faces the new and twisted arena. The arena is the physical and technical battleground for the 24 contestants. We see the power the game makers have as they use technology against the victors.
Another example of my favorite book is
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Thinking about creating life from the dead by sewing a body back together and trying to fill it with life is very creepy. Morally it gives me the shivers.
Alright, Authors, for us to craft these works of art, we need to ask ourselves great questions for our characters. This becomes our map. Look at the key questions to help you map out the elements for your story.
1. What does my main character desire?
2. What is their motivation to achieve this goal?
3. Who or what opposes my main character as they are trying their goal?
4. Why does the villain, antagonist, or oppressive force hate my main character?
5. What steps will both characters take to work toward achieving their goals?
6. How does the conflict end?
7. Who will win?
Sharpen your pencil, take out that paper, and start mapping out the answers to these questions. Remember that this is the external conflict you are answering; however, within answering these questions, you will find the internal conflict (that is saved for next week).
Great Authors weave external conflict into their stories.
To sum it all up, conflict is the key to any good story. That is why external and internal conflict (check out next week’s blog about that) drives the story. Great stories have both—after all, that is the human experience. Authors, how do we build and weave external conflict into a strong plot for our stories? That’s right: Character vs. character, society, nature, and technology—great learns! See you next week about internal conflict.