Character + Conflict = Plot

It’s a simple, but powerful equation.  It’s a powerful equation because of its simplicity.

Let’s say you want to tell a story about a wonderful (or terrible) world in which magic is real.  This is the common concept that unites most fantasy fiction.  But it’s not a story.  The word story implies the equation: Character + Conflict = Plot.

Without that, you’ve got nothing to tell.  If you don’t have at least one main character who is in conflict with something or someone else, then you don’t have a plot and you don’t have a story.

If all you have is a magical world, then all you have is a milieu.  It may be a wonderful, interesting milieu, but it’s not a story.  Think of The Lord of the Rings without the one ring.  It’s a fascinating world, but unless there’s that conflict, there’s nothing to drag the hobbits out of their safe haven into that fascinatingly dangerous world.

If all you have is a character, then all you have is a vignette.  You may depict a fascinating character, but unless you explore whatever conflict that character is facing, it’s not a story.  Think of Sherlock Holmes without a case to solve.  He’s a fascinating character, but without the cases to pull him out of his study, we’d never learn how fascinating he could truly be.

I suspect there is some point in every newbie writer’s life where they have to learn this lesson.  They write a “story,” create either a fascinating world or a fascinating character, but they fail to provide the conflict necessary to drive the plot, and thus they fail to draw us into whatever fascinated them.

But, then we write, we learn, and we outgrow our newbie tendencies.  Does that mean we’ve mastered this equation?  Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t.  Having a character with a conflict, and thus having a plot, isn’t enough to rise to the level of master or even journeyman.  We need a character we care about—whether we want him to win or lose, we have to want it badly enough to keep reading.  We need a conflict that motivates us—it’s got to challenge our character and it’s got to interest our readers.  We need a plot that makes sense, but still surprises us—if the outcome is guaranteed (good triumphs over evil, the hero gets the girl, ect.), then the ride has to surprise us without making us scratch our heads.

I love reading mysteries.  I don’t have much interest in writing them, though I’ve considered it, but I love reading them.  If the writer is any good at all, then the pieces are always there.  The reader might not note their significance until the unveiling, but they’re never left wondering (after the last page) how the pieces fit together.  In a mystery, the balance between those pieces and the surprise are obvious.  But this need for the pieces, for things to fit together, for the clues to be present is true for all genres and all stories.  If you drop the solution out of nowhere, you’ve cheated the reader.

On the surface, this seems to be all about plot, but it’s not.  Character + Conflict = Plot.  Your plot needs to fit the pieces represented by your characters.  Your plot needs to fit the pieces represented by the conflict that motivates your characters to act.  The setting and setup needs to bring those pieces together in a way that makes sense.  In other words, it all goes together.

This isn’t easy stuff.  If it was, anyone could do it.  As it is, it takes work, skill, and the building thereof to really pull it off.  As you gain these qualities, the equation doesn’t really get more complex, but it does get deeper, the significance becomes more meaningful.  We understand it on a level our brains can’t even fully process—call it intuition, heart, muse, or whatnot, but there’s more than just thought to this!  What we learned as newbies got us this far, but it takes the skill of the craftsman to really delve deeply enough to master the art.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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4 Responses to Character + Conflict = Plot

  1. acflory says:

    Spot on Stephanie! My stories always start with a character who I, at least, find compelling but that is just the beginning. That character has to fit within a world and that world is always going to have constraints – laws, politics, religion, culture etc. And that world is also going to contain other characters, some of whom are friendlies and some who aren’t. Weaving all those elements together is hard but after a while the very constraints I build into the world help further the plot because some things are possible and some things are not – for both my MCs and my villains. If I can carry my readers along and make them feel those constraints yet still manage to surprise them then I know I’ve done my job. 🙂 Of course that ‘if’ continues to hang over my head until a reader reads my story and gives me the thumbs up!

    • Constraints are important, but especially important when the story we write “breaks” the rules we live with day in and day out. Speculative fiction, primarily, but not exclusively.

      I’ve never thought of it as making the reader “feel those constraints,” but I like that. I really do! I think of all those stories with “bigger than life” characters, especially thrillers, where the writer creates this kicks-ass, takes-names sort of person, who is going to win, who is always going to win, because the constraints just don’t apply. And I compare it to those thrillers that really pull me in. The first one that comes to mind is “Le Femme Nikita” with Peta Wilson. On the one hand, Nikita kicks ass; but the constraints that trap her in the premise (and in each episode) are so powerful that it fuels the whole story.

      Definitely something to think about! 🙂

      • acflory says:

        Is ‘La Femme Nikita’ a tv series or movies or something? I have heard of it but that’s about all.

        Constraints have always been a big part of my writing as I truly loathe those stories where the character is placed in an impossible situation and then bang, they explode into a new level of superhero type talent that sweeps everything aside like confetti. To be honest that’s my biggest beef with fantasy. Too often the story hinges on supernatural powers or entities boxing it out and, of course, Good triumphs over Evil at the end.

        Speculative fiction is founded on the premise that tech or whatever have to be /possible/. Not necessarily plausible but possible. So no matter what genre I write in that rule and the constraints it leads to are always at the forefront of my mind.

  2. “Le Femme Nikita” is an older television show involving “criminals” whose deaths are faked in prison and who are then forced to work for a covert government agency. Spying, espionage, assassination, that sort of thing. There is a remake (with a very different take on the material) by the CW network called “Nikita,” which I also enjoy. But there’s something about the classic…

    Good triumphing over evil is a big part of high fantasy. Other genres don’t adhere to that belief nearly as strongly. But, I agree that constraints are an important part of good fantasy. I like the “supernatural powers” part, but only if the villain or opposing force is just as strong if not stronger. It works, though, if the story is about the hero’s journey of coming into his or her powers, and shows what a struggle it is to become strong enough.

    “Speculative fiction” is actually an umbrella category that includes science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horro (and other cross-over genres). Hard science fiction assumes the possibility of the tech being possible, given certain assumptions, but it really depends on how well it is done and whether the writer knows enough science to do it well.

    Constraints are part of any good story, I think. In any given milieu, there will be things that are possible, impossible, probable, and improbable. While those rules are going to vary depending on the milieu, as long as the writer lets the reader know what the rules are and sticks to them, then the constraints will matter.

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