Be Mean to Your Characters: 3 Ways to Create Conflict

villainby John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Most writers like to think they’re nice people. But is it possible you might be too nice? Have you ever tried to see how mean you can be to your characters?

Engaging storytellers quickly learn that becoming diabolical toward their protagonist can be an effective tool for keeping their stories enchanting. The ability to increase conflict in a script can be the difference between an audience biting their nails or checking their phones.

Most writers have received feedback at some point or another encouraging them to raise the stakes in their story. But, how do you do that? Are there techniques for increasing conflict organically? Here are three ways writers have been good at being mean.

Compressing Time

The least impactful stories seem to drag on forever. There is little in the setup to bring them to conclusion an hour or so later. Some films will literally have a character announce that “it’s time to wrap things up and finish this” at the end of the second act.

Audiences appreciate when there is a natural element to the story that increases conflict by compressing time. Some have referred to this as the “ticking time bomb” in the story. It’s ideal when our protagonist is racing against the clock to accomplish their goal.

In Get Hard, James King has thirty days before he must report to prison where he will certainly face physical disaster unless Darnell Lewis can help him become street wise before he goes in. As the training continuously goes wrong, we are reminded time and again that the days are slipping by and James will be headed to prison soon whether the duo succeed at their task or not.

In Disney’s Cinderella, it’s the Prince who’s racing against the clock. He must find true love before he’s forced to marry a woman for purely political reasons. Of course, Cinderella is also up against a ticking clock when she arrives at the royal ball. At midnight, everything that has allowed her to be in the palace undetected will disappear, even if she hasn’t captured the heart of the prince. When the pace begins to feel slow in your own story, try raising the stakes by giving the protagonist a hard deadline to accomplish their goal.

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Compressing Space

The world is a big place. One of the most important jobs a writer has is to keep our protagonist and the antagonistic forces in the story around the same relative area – the closer the better. If the two never have to interact, the stakes of the story will be low. Horror and suspense films are often masterful at keeping characters in the same space. The Boy Next Door wouldn’t be very interesting if Claire and Noah lived in different towns. It’s the fact that he lives next door that keeps the suspense alive.

Often the protagonist cannot accomplish their goal if they leave the space they’re in. Other times, a protagonist and antagonist are competing for the same physical area. In Jaws, Brody and the shark both compete for control of the beach. This technique works across genres. In the upcoming Jurassic World, the writers continue to rely on keeping the characters in the same geographic space (the park) with the dinosaurs [read the scripts for Jurassic Park I, II, & III].

Forcing the protagonist into the same competitive arena as the antagonist, or better yet, into the lair of the antagonist, builds tension in the audience without much additional effort. Forcing them into a cage where only one can leave is a timeless trope of good storytelling.

Inviting Unplanned Guests Along

Without question, nothing complicates situations like people. We all know we need a main character with a clear goal to create an effective story. We might have even mastered the use of an antagonist or antagonistic force to make things more difficult for our hero. But when we can add additional characters in a natural way, we create the opportunity to complicate things even further.

feat-img-1In Unfinished Business, Dan Trunkman must travel to Europe to close a deal that will save him and his family. The goal is clear. But, when Dan is saddled with the additional baggage of an old curmudgeon and a quirky, untested rookie, things get much more complicated and interesting.

In The Wedding Ringer, Doug Harris must secure a best man before his wedding day. Again, we have a clear goal. But the stakes get even higher when Doug must also have convincing groomsmen for the ceremony [read our interview with Wedding Ringer writer Jeremy Garelick]. Adding these additional characters gives us more opportunity for conflict and humor. As long as the character serves a purpose and is either part of helping the protagonist reach their goal or acting as part of the opposition, they will be a welcome addition to your script – even if they are unplanned guests on your protagonist’s journey.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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