Does a character have to fail for a story or novel to have enough conflict?
Published: December 15, 2011
Interesting question! And it’s a sticky one, too, as the idea of
“failure” isn’t always clear-cut. If your character sets out to win his
beloved’s hand, but ends up realizing something else is more important,
has he succeeded or failed? Additionally, a character who always
succeeds may, in fact, find his conflict in that success when his wife
becomes envious and angry.
While a character may or may not fail,
he should be human and, as a result, flawed. Like humans, characters
succumb to their weaknesses, get in their own way, and misunderstand.
They want something they cannot have, flash anger when they should
embrace, carry guilt when they should forgive themselves. This quality
creates authenticity and conflict.
Consider Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.
He throws lavish parties. People admire him and find his mystery
exciting. His library is well stocked and his closet is filled with
expensive clothing. But Gatsby isn’t all that he seems. He throws these
parties only to cross paths with his long-lost love, Daisy. Many of the
books in his library are unread, the pages still uncut. When his car
strikes and kills a woman while Daisy is at the wheel, he takes the
blame for it. These complexities heighten the conflict. Who is Gatsby?
Will the façades he’s created remain intact? What will happen if they
Or consider Shukumar in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “A
Temporary Matter.” His relationship with his wife, Shoba has been
strained since the loss of their baby. Shukumar is saddened by the
distance between them, yet he contributes to it. He sets up his office
in the room that was to be the baby’s nursery. He stays there to work
during dinner, avoiding Shoba. When the power company turns off the
lights and they are forced dine together several evenings in a row, they
begin to reveal secrets they’ve kept from one another over the years.
Shukumar is both excited by this time together and put off by it,
frustrated that he cannot retreat to his home office. The inner push and
pull that Shukumar experiences gives these truth-telling sessions
A character’s failure can certainly be an important
part of a fiction’s conflict. But compelling conflict is often found in
the nuances of characterization, which aren’t always so straightforward
and easy to label.
• • •
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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