Characters and Conflict: Nanoprep #4

It’s our fourth session of nanoprep in the next recap of the Bixby Library Thursday writing workshop. This week we talk character creation. Keep preparing for Nanowrimo with us!

Approaching Character

Many approaches to character exist, and you are likely to employ a variety even within one project. Characters bring alive the conflict and thereby the story. The most important characters are the protagonist (sometimes equivalent with “hero”), and the antagonist (his opposition). The pro- prefix relates to the character’s influence on events, driving them forward, and the anti- prefix has to do with resisting that motion. Your protagonist moves the plot forward actively by striving for their desires, while the antagonist is the main opposing force. This opposition is one source of conflict in your story.

Conflict Through Character

One approach to defining character comes from John Truby in The Anatomy of Story. He suggests that all the characters in a story are a version of the hero’s central moral problem (the story’s theme). Each brings their unique spin on the thematic problem. This central problem might also be described as the proposition concering the world that your story makes. Each of your characters will help to make an argument about how to deal with this aspect of the world. The hero must overcome some aspect of this problem, usually by learning something about himself and his world. Unifying your characters around this central theme effectively deepens and focuses the conflict that makes your story interesting.

Here are five steps to creating your cast of characters:

  1. Think of the characters as a web of interconnections. The universe really functions this way: everyone is in the place they need to be to become who they are meant to be (whew! Long sentence and I don’t even know what it means!). Characters are related but distinguished by their function within the story and perhaps filtered through archetype. If they don’t have a function, take them out of the story!
  2. Individualize the characters based on theme and opposition.
  3. Build the hero into a multilayered, complex person who the audience can care about.
  4. Create the opponent as the central piece to defining the hero.
  5. Work through building conflict using character techniques.

Character Web

The web strengthens characters. Humans are social creates and we define ourselves through our relations with others. We subconsciously follow cues, like being more prone to like someone because we see people who also like them. We want our hero-protagonist to be someone our audience likes, and the cast of characters help define the hero by showing what he is not. Here is a basic list of roles you might use to define characters: hero/protagonist, opponent/antogonist, fake-ally opponent, ally, fake-opponent ally, and subplot character. They all are either opposed or allied with the hero or a combination of the two. The turns of the story are largely a result of changes balances in those relationships.

One deeper note about the antagonist. That character should want the same thing as the protagonist, and this competition is what creates conflict. This shared desire may not seem to be the case. If the two don’t seem to want the same thing, look for a deeper conflict.

The ally is fairly self-explanatory, can serve as the sounding board for the protagonist, and may or may not have a goal of his own within the story separate from the protagonist’s. The fake-ally opponent adds power to the opposition and plot twists, and is one of the most complex of your characters, trying to oppose the protagonist while often actually helping him win. The fake-opponent ally is not as common as the fake-ally opponent and not as useful, because it contributes less to conflict and surprises. The subplot character tries to solve the same problem as the protagonists but in a different way and with a different result. This leads to a comparison that will highlight traits and dilemmas of the main character.

Technique: Create unique characters through opposition

Use this technique to flesh out what you know about your characters:

  1. Begin by writing down what you think is the central moral problem of your story.
  2. Compare your hero and all other characters on these parameters:
    • Weaknesses
    • Need-both psychological and moral
    • Desire
    • Values
    • Power, status, ability
    • How each faces the central moral problem of the story
  3. When making comparisons start with the most important relationship in the story–protag./antag.
  4. Progress through the comparisons by choosing the next most oppositional character until you have defined the differences between all of your characters and your main character.


Run through this process with the characters of your nanwrimo project. Design the characters as facets of the same moral argument, all with their own purpose in serving the story.

Next: Scene construction, and then NANOWRIMO!