Creating Character Led Conflict In Your Novel

Posted at 15:09pm on 8th February 2010

Last month I began what turned out to be a series about Transactional Analysis. It was what I call a combi-article: one designed to help real people with real needs, but also to inform the creative writing of authors of fiction. Titled Conflict Resolution: Relationship Psychology – And Creating Fictional Characters, my intention was to show that there are a number of ways to heighten the suspense in your novel. I began by posing the question:

  • How do you think of conflict when you’re writing fiction: as a clash of personalities; a disagreement about how something should be done; difficult circumstances; or an argument as a result of jealousy?

The point is that at the heart of a good story there is conflict. However, fiction should be character led. This means that the protagonist has a goal and, in attempting to achieve that goal, he meets with a series of obstacles. The overcoming of each obstacle throws up another – and so on.

That is what drives the narrative forward. It is also what makes a novel a compelling read. So let’s take the first two points from my question above, to see how character led conflict may be created to further your plot:


  1. Clash of Personality: Sophie is single, quiet, and a little shy. Her goal is to keep her head down, work diligently, and mind her own business. Her colleague, Brian, is quite the opposite. A larger than life character, he always seems to be busy organising other people’s lives – including her own – and, frankly, Sophie finds his interference very trying. Time and again she’s on the point of telling him to get lost – in the nicest possible way, of course – until she discovers that Brian has a progressive illness and has no one in the world to care for him . . .
  2. Disagreement: Pierre’s goal in life is to see his only son take over the family business: a Veterinary Clinic. He loves his wife, Vanessa, but her laissez-faire attitude is wrong; quite wrong! And he’s not averse to telling her so. Terrified that the boy is going to follow in his mother’s footsteps, he comes down hard on him. Unable to stand by and watch, Vanessa leaves, taking the boy with her. If she has her way, her son will be whatever he chooses to be. Even she has to admit, however, that he shows a natural bent for working with animals . . .

Each of these two plot examples – and there are, of course, a million more that could have been included under these headings – appears to be fairly simplistic on the surface. They may, in fact, be described as two-dimensional. What is needed to give depth to each one is to round out the characters. And for this you need some understanding of relationship psychology and the games that people play. Let’s see how this would work out in practice.


Clash of Personality: Sophie appears to be a nice ordinary girl with little ambition in life other than to maintain the status quo. She is what, in Transactional Analysis, might be considered to be on the Parent / Adult / Child triangle, which is the norm for most personal relationships.

However, if we give Brian a ‘Rescuer’ personality based on the Drama Triangle, you’ll see just how this dysfunctional model of relationships adds to the conflict of your novel. Let’s suppose that Brian’s mother spent most of his childhood – until her suicide in his teens - as a depressive. Consequently, Brian grew up with the impression that his only worth in life is as a Rescuer – and even then, because he failed, he feels he has to prove himself.

As a Rescuer Brian is going to be looking for and, crucially, creating ‘Victims’ who need rescuing because it’s only as a Rescuer that he feels any self-worth. He thinks he sees a Victim in Sophie. She needs to get out more, in his opinion. He’s a sociable bloke, so what better than that he ‘rescues’ her from her solitary life? Insist on her joining the Quiz team at the pub? Bully her a little, if necessary. All for her own good, of course.

Sophie, however, is not playing this game. She’s quite happy and well balanced as she is, thank you very much. Life, as far as she is concerned, is just dandy. That is until Brian, the Rescuer, falls ill. Is she - because she’s a nice, ordinary girl – going to step out of her comfort zone and change her lifetime goal? And is Brian ever going to be able to cope with admitting to being truly vulnerable, rather than the Victim or Rescuer roles that were imposed upon him in his dysfunctional childhood?

Disagreement: When creating fictional characters for this scenario, we might make Pierre a Persecutor on the Drama Triangle. Let’s say that his father was a hard taskmaster and that, as far as Pierre is concerned, this model of raising a child makes for good parenting.

Throughout Pierre’s childhood, Dad impressed upon him the futility of becoming an artist – which Pierre has to agree was no more than a silly pipe-dream – and, thank the Lord, Dad made him see the importance, the privilege, of carrying on the family firm.

Pierre has been in the family business since he left school at sixteen and, mon dieu, if he has anything to do with it, his son will, too. Vanessa, to his great disappointment, has turned out to be a stupid, indulgent mother who is ruining their son – and he’s not averse to telling her so. Frequently! And with all the passion of his Bretagne upbringing!

When she leaves him, however, he comes across a wood-carving of a horse, executed by himself when he was ten, wrapped in a shirt which had once belonged to his father and hidden in the loft of the Clinic. Alongside it, are several rolled canvases – oil paintings of the surrounding countryside, signed by . . . Can it be? Were they really executed by his dad?

All Pierre’s passion rushes to the fore. Realising that he has been made a Victim by his upbringing and that quite possibly his father was too, he sees that he has adopted his Dad’s method of survival by becoming a Persecutor, blaming everyone for his own faults. Could it be that Vanessa is right? Should their son be free to choose his future for himself? And if so, what will that future be?


Can you see how this understanding of relationship psychology has rounded out the fictional characters whilst, at the same time, heightening the tension and conflict resolution, as well as strengthening the plot?

As the author, of course, you don’t want to be heavy-handed and awkward in your application of the theory of transactional analysis. Like salt, a light sprinkling adds zest. Too much and the end result will be inedible.

© Mel Menzies 2010 - All Rights Reserved

Although many of the articles on this website may be used freely where expressly stated, this one forms part of a series, and may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.


We’ll look at the next two examples and see how a different method of personality profiling might help to strengthen plot development.

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