Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Why and How of Creating Conflict in the Stories We Write

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Have you ever fallen in love with one of your characters and don’t want them to suffer? So you create a story where everything goes right, over and over and over. The boy gets the girl and they live happily ever after. Or the guy catches the fish and everyone has a good dinner. Or the knight (or knight-ess) kills the dragon and everyone goes home. 

How is that working for you? 

The problem is, that’s not what STORY is all about. 

STORY (and I’m capitalizing it to make sure you know it’s important!) is about conflict. STORY is about obstacles and heartache and determination and persistence and lessons and new understandings. Yes, eventually, it’s about cooking the fish or killing that dragon. But it also has to be a journey of discovery by a character. 

It has to be about conflict!

Would you change anything in your own life if you were perfectly happy? Probably not, right? Then why would you expect a character to make a major change if they weren’t forced into it? It wouldn’t happen. And that’s boring.

“But I don’t want to be mean to my characters! I love them!” I’ve heard that many times, mostly as a writer is backing away from me. Well, I love my characters too! But if we don’t force them to grow and change, they will never be happy. If it’s too easy for them, they will just keep on with what they are doing.

Is that really what we want for our characters? They almost become real people in our minds, don’t they? In fact, one of my favorite authors, Roberta Gellis, wrote an amazing Medieval series years ago, where she had the same characters throughout. She told me once that she had to stop that series and start with something else because her main characters were getting too old to be believable and she would NOT kill them off. In fact, she said that they were so real to her that she could believe that they were living in Ohio somewhere (she was from New York), having a happy life, as long as she didn’t write about their deaths. I completely understand! I loved her characters too!

But we have to push them into becoming better people. They wouldn’t be unique and wonderful if they never went through the growth process, better known as a character arc. 

So, how do we do that?

First, we have to make sure they want something they can’t have at first. They have to want it badly enough to make a life change. Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets wants to be left alone in his misery. But he has to interact with people, whether he wants it or not. So, he finds someone (Helen Hunt playing Carol the waitress) who is willing, although reluctant, to work with him. But she has family problems that she can’t solve. So, Jack has to change his ways and start doing things he doesn’t want to—in so many words, to suffer!— to be able to get what he wants. But he learns, slowly, that he needs her, so he finally takes the steps he needs to so he can “be a better man” and make her happy. He doesn’t want to change—actually sees no reason to do so—but, once he realizes she is willing to try, he is too. Conflict! Being mean to him! Change! Growth! Happy!

And the reader is happy too.

Do you have trouble being “mean” to your characters? Why?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors.You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

Featured Image: Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash


  1. More nuggets from you, as always. Thoroughly enjoyed this one and the examples.