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09:14 pm: Writing character clash stories
In the past, I’ve written rants about how I like stories where the plot forms naturally from the clash of characters’ personalities, as opposed to characters compelled against their wills by an outside force (destiny, a prophecy, the gods, unspeakably evil and inhuman villains, etc.) But how, exactly, do you achieve a character clash story? Especially when it’s so much easier to steal a set of tropes and plot devices from a famous or archetypal story and just use them instead?

1) Give the characters a shared center which is not a person. For example, they can all be part of the same group—a large dynastic family, a village or a town, a group of priestesses in a temple (oooh!) Or they can all have the same goal—ruling the country (this is what makes A Song of Ice and Fire work in its introductory pages), raising a group of children, preventing the alchemist that lives down the streets from buying any goods in any of the shops until he takes a shower and stops smelling like a slaughterhouse. Or they can all live in the same place—village, town, large floating island rotating around a sun and hovering above an abyss—even if they’re not part of the same group.


-They have a natural reason to be together, and this prevents you from relying on an external force (honestly, at this point I cannot take the group of mismatched adventurers that come together to protect the hero because prophecy says they should seriously) or a series of improbable coincidences.
-They have multitudes of personal relationships that you can give weight and depth, but they’re still rotating around one center that connects them.
-It keeps the plot centralized as well, and prevents you from flying off to obscure corners of the fantasy world to lovingly detail apparently unimportant and unconnected plotlines, one of the more pressing sins of epic fantasy.
-Know why they’re together, and you’ve got some of the details of your worldbuilding already decided.

Now, why do I think you should prevent these characters from rotating around a person, like an heir to the throne or a savior of the world? Because, too often, that turns the characters who rotate into literal satellites of the hero, existing only to answer his whims or be one-dimensional bullies and jealous siblings. Also, I have a philosophical objection to stories where a person is the center of the universe. I think it makes for bad writing and wish-fulfillment. Most of your characters should be the center of their own universes, and if they’re not, there should be a reason why not. Exiling the Divine Child from your worldview and giving a multitude of people a partial hold on the story leads to more, and more fully developed, personalities

2) Know what they want. This is good characterization advice for protagonists, and it’s to them that it most often gets applied. Think about it, and you can probably answer the question of what the central characters of most stories you’ve read want. (Unless the author is simply muddled or is writing one of those stories where false modesty prevents the hero/ine from seizing the power or acclaim or wondrous life that any sane person would take in a heartbeat. Have I mentioned I really hate reluctant hero stories?)

But with a personality clash story, you need to know what everybody wants. I would say, “At least all your viewpoint characters,” but it’s best if you know what the important secondary characters want, too, so their dialogue and their actions relative to the narrators make sense. And those motivations need to make sense. The characters should not be convenient plot devices which exist solely for the sake of giving the heroes an important epiphany or acting as a reward for said heroes. (I also hate Designated Love Interests).

Really, each character should have an inner subjectivity, or the illusion of an inner subjectivity. Even if you did come up with a character in the first place just because the plot needed him/her, make them more than that. Flesh them out; give them depth and richness. Because that’s the kind of story a character clash plot demands.

3) Keep in mind that people can change, and by reason of their experience. So a major protagonist may start the story believing that the best way to train a child in sword-fighting is simply making them do the same things over and over until they get it right, and then change her mind because she ruins a talented protégée of hers doing that. That’s a fairly simple example, but it illustrates another principle of the character-clash story in miniature: people have minds, and those minds, acting on each other, change themselves and each other.

This is what I like most about a character clash story. A large portion of its plot is mental (see point 4), but the mental action causes physical action. The characters speak out or treat people differently or go back and do their best to repair a mistake. Or they harden their attitudes or don’t act because of shame or fear or indifference, and that causes a tragedy. There aren’t external forces declaring that, say, Xavier has to die just to teach Princess Carnimissima about the value of life.

Of course, people shouldn’t change their minds for no reason, either. This is another point in favor of tracking characters’ motivations. If you want an important secondary character who started out as the protagonist’s rival to become her friend, you need something more than the most-used tactic (the rival deciding that the protagonist was really better at their shared skill or shared goal all along). I mean, why? The rival has no reason to admit that even if she’s suspected it—and if she knew it all along and was willing to admit it all along, it would make the rivalry look pretty damned stupid. She does have every reason to continue working at her own skill, to goad or irritate the protagonist so she falters, or to sabotage the protagonist. It doesn’t make the rivalry evolving into friendship impossible; it just means that you have to think harder about the transition. Maybe the protagonist admits the rival’s better.

Letting the plot follow naturally from the changes of mind eliminates the necessity for inventing flimsy justifications.

4) Make the mental plot dynamic and interesting. Yes, the words are so easy to type, aren’t they? But it can be done. And it can be done without tumbling into the trap of internal monologue, too.

What’s the problem with most internal monologues in fantasy? That’s right, they go nowhere and they are full of mindless repetition. If the heir to the throne was worrying about her ability to take and hold the throne on page 20, she’s still worrying about the same damn thing on page 300, without taking any action to make it happen. Or, at least, the actions taken appear to have no connection to her angst.

So that’s what you want to do: connect the mental dynamics and the physical ones. Show the protagonists deciding on a course of action and then using it. Maybe the course of action is wrong, so they analyze why it didn’t work, come up with another one that suits the changed circumstances, and use that one instead.

Or show a character who’s not naturally introspective given a stunning blow. Maybe a person whose opinion she’s always valued expresses open contempt for her. She has to decide what she’s going to do about that. The solution is not to freeze her psychology and just have her angst endlessly, taking no step forwards or back. She can begin the long and painful process of withdrawing her admiration from this person. She can begin the equally long and painful process of reevaluating herself, if she thinks the derision has some merit. She can decide to go ask someone else, a neutral judge.

And then she goes and does it.

A character clash plot needs this intersection of mental steps and physical ones. If someone angsts in silence, no one else can respond to her problem in any way, and there is no further development of anyone’s personality or agenda relative to that character. And then your plot stalls, too.

5) Build in redundancies. By this, I don’t mean duplicates of the same character. Nonexistent gods, how boring. I do mean characters with similar motivations, or speaking styles, or worldviews, or experiences, or backgrounds.


Do this, and you have natural rivals, natural friends, natural tentative allies, natural enemies. You have natural second chances for other characters who may have made spectacular mistakes trying to talk to or court or befriend the first person, but can hopefully learn from those mistakes and do better when they meet the second. You have people who represent different, nuanced takes on one general principle (such as vengeance, justice, faith, love). You can have people who, even though they do have similar experiences, have extraordinarily different personalities, widening both the plot possibilities and your own range of writing. You can include multiple genders, sexualities, races, classes, degrees of able-bodiedness, so that your writing is less likely to depend on tokenism and more likely (though not guaranteed) to offer a more balanced view of the groups in question.

You can also more easily create that illusion of inner subjectivity that’s going to be so important for a plot like this. A character who doesn’t get as many chances for fleshing out can seem deeper than she is because she resembles a fully fledged secondary character or protagonist; she borrows reality from them.

So those are all really good reasons.


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Date:March 3rd, 2008 02:30 am (UTC)
It's funny. I discovered last November (when writing fanfiction for NaNoWriMo) that that is a way* I can get a novel out -- create a group of characters in a world with conflicting goals, and see what happens. I can write from plot for shorter pieces, but most of my longer stuff is character driven. It's a fun way to write, actually.

* Maybe the only way.
Date:March 3rd, 2008 03:13 am (UTC)
This reminds me of an awesome quote that kaigou on LJ said recently:

Stop being sincere about your story, and start being sincere about your characters...the only thing that needs to be pushed - the only party in the contact whose buttons need to be pushed - are those of the characters.

I still think about what kind of plot I'd like for any theoretical story of mine, but ultimately, it's up to the characters to guide what kind of story my novel or whatever becomes.

Basically, what I mean to say is that I approve this rant. :D (Not to imply that you need my approval or anyone else's, but.)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Date:March 3rd, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
Wonderfully inspiring post. I'm good at creating characters with conflicting motivations, etc., etc., but where I fail is connecting mental plot with physical action.

Also, I have a hard time doing both - if I write a story that relies a lot on external things (the big epic war plot I've been sort of poking at, for example), the characters' inner lives sort of get lost in the roar of external plottiness. However, if I have a story where the characters are well developed and caught up in their mental conflicts, I tend to have a lack of external plot.

This post will certainly help me in beginning to sort these things out. :) Thanks.
Date:March 3rd, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)

Central Character - Radiating Characters

This was one of those good mornings, because I woke up understanding what was going on in the current mess, so it was easy to get up and go to work even as the tea was still to be steeped -- instead of the usual wrastle to open Word first thing, rather than the internet.

This is where we are now:

Ye central figure wants to belong somewhere and to someone; his family wants to keep power; the Dutch merchants want wealth (principle location West Africa, Oil Rivers Delta region and interior, 17th C). All of these desires converge, with more or less conflict, depending on individual character and choice.

Love, C.
Date:March 3rd, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
Ah, I thought you'd gone away! Nice rant, as always.

I'm in the planning stages of a character clash-ish story involving a recently ennobled (well, thirteen years ago) man who fought on the right side of a revolt, living on lands that were granted to him after someone who fought on the wrong side was exiled from them. Actually, it centers more on his wife and his daughter, who he leaves behind when called to sit on the council of his lord. Unfortunately, the man who would have been heir to the land, had his father not been on Ye Olde Wrong Side, comes back to claim it and brings a rather large group of mercenaries with him. Fortunately, he's kind of a little crazy, but in a way that leads him to let Signy (the lady) live and apply some sort of justice to her people.

Lya, the daughter, ends up for somewhat complicated reasons hiding as a kennel girl and, later, escaping to bring word to her father. She gets a mole's eye view of what's happening, as opposed to Signy, who only sees what her people bring to her.

The fun part is, the guy who comes back to claim his land isn't anywhere close to BAD. He wants what should have been his and, once he has it, he tries to be just to the people who live there. The large number of soldiers he has on hand makes that a little difficult, but he does try.

Course, that doesn't stop Signy from gutting him in the end, but eh.
Date:March 5th, 2008 01:42 am (UTC)
Character driven plots are even more delicious when there are loads and loads of characters, because it can get so complex without it being forced. That's one of the reasons I like A Song of Ice and Fire so much, because it's just so fun.

I'd think point two is the most violated, at least in stuff I've read. Most of the time, I just say "Why do you care, you altruistic nitwit!" Maybe I'm just selfish, but most fantasy protagonists are too nice to be real.

Quick question: I'm having a block around showing a particularly mental-oriented character's thought processes without internal monologuing. Do you have any tips?

-Last Servant
Date:March 6th, 2008 02:52 am (UTC)

I may be insane, but atleast I don't center around the hero...

I have a group of international children in my fantasy story that are pushed together NOT because they are the Chosen Ones, but mainly because someone could easily mistake them for Chosen Ones and try to kill them. The most apathetic Empiress you could ever meet governs them. She didn’t even have the decency to match them in the right countries and cultures when she arranged their foster homes. I am glad to say I am following some of your ambrosial advice already. They all share a common desire to identify with their homelands, as well as *Supa Powas* accidentally passed down to them. Here is where they start at…
A short Rollcall by importance in the story… >_>
Amahara: 9, Ethiopian raised in Greece. Has visited 13 countries, but never her own. Feels ashamed of her red skin, her “boyish” foster name and her neglectful foster father. The “Darn, I’m Awesome… But I don’t brag” Hero.

Britannia: 9, Anglo-Saxon princess wanna-be who is sad that her blue-collar Greek neighbors know more European high society than she does. “I really, really, really wanna be a Hero” Hero.

Aumanil: 12, Inuit Canadian who is ashamed to know European high society. Was taken to a “finishing school” for Natives at 8. “……… Reluctant” Hero.

Danaan: 14, Irish globe trotting social butterfly, old enough to remember real parents and feels responsible for all the kids.

Ikariko: 11, Japanese and proud of it. Too bad he is stuck in Greece and everyone expects him to be some Chosen Child… Or worse, Japan’s next Emperor.

Yasmine: 7, Sephardi Jew who has been in many foster homes until she was adopted by an Ashkenazi teenager. Timid, she doesn’t know where to start to know who she is, so she stays by Amahara.

Ishmael: 10, Egyptian/Greek, not that he’d ever, EVER admit the latter. Sees nothing of value outside of Cairo. Nothing. Maybe girls. But dark-skinned girls…

Chibiris: 6, young Incan girl raised in Puerto Rico until she came to Greece. Has no idea where she is from, and for now is just the cuteness factor. When older, she’ll string along behind others until fed-up with being ignored and discover Peru.

There are about 30 different stories in this for them growing up, between Aumanil and Ishmael’s constant partnerships to escape Greece, to Danaan taking Chibi-chan to the New World for the first time since she left, to Britannia bribing Aumanil into giving her aristocracy lessons, to Amahara’s little gang of their cities’ most prominent Afro-Grecian debutantes…

Then there’s the dragon-training, the space-traveling, aliens, deities, magic, high-tech, and weird as hell aspects that also get thrown in. >_<

I read your rants every night. ~Proserpina
Please, keep me in your, umm, "prayers"... (And by that I mean help me!)
Date:March 6th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)

The person who led me to this journal also mentioned that you have written some novels - after reading your rants and book reviews I really do wonder how your stories are - are there any available on the net? I'd really love to read one. (Actually, if you happened to be published I'd possibly also purchase a book...)
Date:March 6th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
I'm definitely using this rant to help me format my books. I especially like the idea of everybody having a common centre that's not a person.
Date:March 8th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)


Limyaael... this might be awkward (especially considering that I'm a girl)
but I love you.
haha okay this rant is one of my favourites! I found your rants about a year ago and have, since then, obsessively read them/stalked you from the shadows. So I'm coming out of the shadows. Hi.

I'm currently trying to write a story that, upon much attempted plotting, has become very character clash-y. So, I'm going to read this rant about a million times. number 1 and number 4 are going to be the most challenging to me. and I suppose that I should be careful for number 5, because I have 4 protagonists from different cultures.
-Elena is a refugee from an island that was destroyed. She is a minority, and is discriminated against. She doesn't let this get to her, she's very determined. She's also the only white character in the book. (why can't fantasy have more diversity? This is coming from a white girl, but whatever.) She is close to Stahrra.
-Aidan comes from a meritocratic society that values intelligence above all else. There is no racism and the sexes are equal, but they are cruel to anyone unintelligent. They actually control who can reproduce. He is very smart and supports the system because it benefits him and he is quickly gaining prominence in politics. He's disdainful of un-education.
-Stahhra is from a smaller city of farmers. She is uneducated, as women there are. She is stubborn and emotional. She wants nothing more than for her mother to arrange her marriage, but in her superstitious world, a woman, such as herself, who has had 2 suitors die before they were married... is a bit unlucky. She is very good friends with Elena, who lives in her city.
-Morgan comes from an unknown island (or something like that) where they practice a sort of human sacrifice. Morgan volunteers, and for 5 years, he is the most exaulted person in society. He has great political and social power. But he gets scared. Before he is sacrificed, he runs away. He is later ashamed and reclusive. He pretends to be from another city, but he is terrified that someone will discover him.

when they all come together with a common goal (it's sort of a typical bad fantasy goal, I'll admit) they don't get along. I've become far more interested in their group dynamic than in their actual goal. hmmm...

Sorry for the long comment/post/thingy! I'll probably go back to stalking you from the shadows again! Bye!

-The Littlest Chocobo
Date:March 8th, 2008 06:29 pm (UTC)
I don't think I completely understand #5. Are you saying that giving similarities to characters gives them a natural way to disagree or agree? Or at least a plausible reason for connection?

I would say that it's hard to believe that kind of thing, except that today I played the exact same solo as a guy I know--same piece, same accompanist, even same reeds and barrel and type of mouthpiece. So I guess coincidences can happen.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Date:March 19th, 2008 11:37 am (UTC)

OT: Friending?

(I hope I'm logged in -- I'm new to IJ)

Mind if I friend you, so I get news of your writings?
Date:March 27th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
Awesome rant, and some very interesting stuff in the comments as well.

The fanfic I'm writing at the moment seems to be behaving organically, interestingly enough. It's actually turning into a weird meta-fest, because it's about a canon character writing a fanfic about himself (because there are no Sues trying to sex him up, so he writes his own). Unfortunately, he can't bring himself to write himself OOC, so the story-within-the-story turns into an angst-fest instead of him getting the girl as planned, and he needs help from another character to get him back on track.

Date:April 3rd, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
BTW, if anyone starts bugging you to write a rant about mercenaries, you probably can concentrate just on the literary aspects since I've handled the historical stuff here ( if anyone comes with a question like "what sword should my character have" you can direct them this way (
Date:May 5th, 2008 02:13 am (UTC)

This is very useful

The big story I've been working on for...oh, it would have to be about two years now (almost to 200,000 words) very much centered on a single character. This is intentional; the story is almost completely removed from an overall plot, little more than an excuse to explore the character's behavior in situations.

However, in a segment I'm currently writing, she has to cooperate with several people, all of whom are very different from her, to escape from a prison... this had some really good timing.
Date:August 8th, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)

Publish Your Rants?

Hi, Arin!

Just discovered your old LJ account through some research for an article I've been writing. Your rants, however, captured my attention - so much so that I've spent several hours this last week catching up on them.

Any chance you'd be collecting your rants into a self-published hardcopy periodical (perhaps through, or convincing some publisher that they ought to take a chance on such a book? Because I also teach storytelling at the Art Institute of Seattle, and if I could assign a book of your rants as a classroom text, I'd do so in a second.

Thanks for posting, and keep me informed about your rants. (BTW, I notice you haven't posted any in quite a while. Everything okay?)


- Phil "Satyrblade" Brucato
Date:March 9th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)

Are you there?

I dunno if you are still active dear (if you are I hope this finds you well).
I've hit a snag in something that I am writing and this post helped a little but I'm still kind of unsure.
The protagonists are both enslaved together. One is a recent slave, the other nearly lifelong. Recent wants to escape. Lifelong has tried escaping before and lost someone he was close to in the process before being captured. Additionally, in the outside world, these two are on completely different sides.
My awesome logic says that they should work together but Lifelong is just not convinced.
I'm not sure how to convince him that Recent's crazy schemes will work with a little honing.
Date:May 1st, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
I'm writing for a comic. It doesn't follow a character-clash story, but there are some mental plots. Where I'm having trouble is where one of the protagonists die, and the other protagonist has to finish where the deceased left off. I just wish I could write how she can go through grieving, but still be able to proceed with her quest. She went through a lot, saw his death, warned him to be careful around the person who killed him. She was best friends with the character, only person who ever talked to him despite the fact the main protagonist was a total loser and was constantly made fun of. She's grieving over her lost and how she never got to tell him how she felt about him. But she has to finish her quest, the main plot, which I wish to move along a bit more quickly.
Date:January 3rd, 2011 11:47 pm (UTC)
This is truly brilliant advice, particularly because I'm sick of seeing stories on Fiction Press about prophesies, gods, and plots revolving around one person. I've yet to see one written well. I especially agree with point 2. I like characters who know what they want and will do everything in their power to get it. Especially the selfish ones. About point 4... I really wish I could beat this into the brains of some of the amateur writers I've read because the amount of angst I see that is supposedly "dynamic" internal dialogue is ridiculous.

Your rants always give me the help I need, so thank you for writing them.
Date:October 3rd, 2011 08:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing! It's always quite nice to see a nice blog like this one from time to time. Keep up the good work!
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