Shirley Valentine, from the Willy Russell play, is at heart adventurous and yearning for excitement in her life. This is shown best by putting her with an unadventurous husband, and it leads to conflict in their relationship because of their opposing qualities, which eventually results in Shirley going on holiday to Greece with a friend where she has a rollercoaster of a romance.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says that: “Conflict, tension and drama in dialogue are heightened when characters are constantly, in one form or another, saying no to each other.” This can be achieved by the writer building opposing qualities into their main characters from the start.
Building opposing qualities into your main characters is at the heart of producing realistic conflict in fictional work. The difference is often between one Character’s Highest Quality (CHQ) and another’s Character Flaw (CF). This is used to great effect in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is the story of a man and his son travelling the road in a post-apocalyptic world, in search of other good people with whom they may establish a safe community, but there are gangs who have turned to brutality out to stop them. The man’s CF is his distrust and fear of all other people they see on the road, while his son’s CHQ opposes this, because he is very willing to trust. The conflict never has them shouting at each other to create tension, but there is always a tension there, because we know the boy is questioning his belief in his father—is he a good man, like the people he claims to be seeking out? The boy questions this when they encounter others who are in a worse position than they are, but his father’s instinct is to distrust and get away from them instead of helping. This leads to a telling scene where the boy tells his father that he does not believe they are the good people, and another where the boy has to decide whether to use his instincts and trust, or to adopt his father’s distrustful stance.
In my upcoming contemporary thriller, Carnival of Hope, set in Brazil and due for release in November 2011, the two main protagonists, Tomas and Thereza, have opposing qualities that lead them into conflict with each other. Tomas’ idealism causes him to wait for the perfect solution, the right time to act; while Thereza, who is strong willed and determined, believes in hopes and dreams, and is willing to take the incremental imperfect changes to her life that comes from acting on these. This puts at risk their relationship, and ultimately their lives, as they get caught up in a people trafficking scam which threatens to wrench them apart.
Dramatic incidents must occur that demonstrate the characters personal traits. But it is not enough that they are in conflict because of these incidents, they must also be in conflict with other people, and the best way to achieve this is to set up the characters with opposing character qualities. Don’t rule out the main character being in conflict with themselves because of their character flaw.
A series of posts on some of the research that led to the writing of Carnival of Hope, each ending with a scene from the novel which illustrates how the research was used, will begin soon.
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