Trouble and Conflict

When I teach character, I emphasize that trouble is not conflict. You want your reader worried about the protagonist on the first page, and while trouble–broke, sick, lost, depressed, etc.–is worrisome, it’s not a pressing worry because it’s ongoing and static. She’s going to be just as broke tomorrow as she is today and was yesterday, so there’s nothing immediate about it, the way conflict is immediate, the struggle between two people going on right now, the end of the struggle imminent. Conflict is escalating action, and that’s what drives a story. Movement draws fire interest, movement striving against an opponent draws even more interest. Your protagonist has to solve both trouble and conflict, but she has to solve conflict right now by dealing with somebody who’s opposing her. So you want your protagonist arguing with the landlord about the rent, not staring out the window and thinking about how poor she is.


But I have been watching TV in the evenings lately–it’s my drug of choice that keeps me from screaming–and I have noticed something. Trouble is also good, possibly even necessary, because it establishes reader/viewer sympathy. This is something I have not considered before, but I’m pretty much sold on it now: You need both trouble and conflict to start a story.

Take my current obsession-on-film, Life on Mars (UK version). Sam’s an honest, hardworking detective in 2006 who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973 and cannot figure out what the hell is going on. As he says in the opening every week, he doesn’t know if he’s dead, in a coma, or time traveling, he just wants to get home. He’s thrown into an unsympathetic squadroom under the charge of a Neanderthal cop who has no problem smacking suspects around and who routinely makes fun of him. And yet Sam does his damnedest to solve the 1973 cases that come his way, all the while trying to get back to the twenty-first century. Solving the cases causes the conflict in his stories, but trying to get home is his undeserved trouble, and it not only adds another layer to his plot, it adds layers to his character.

Or try Buffy the Vampire Slayer; her conflict is fighting vampires and monsters and that’s what powers her plots, but her trouble is trying to be a normal teenage girl and not the Slayer 24/7. Or Charlie on Life, who has conflict with killers every week but whose trouble is that he was brutalized in prison for twelve years and now has to find a way to live again, free on the streets and back at his old job where nobody wants him. Even Ichabod on Sleepy Hollow has trouble in addition to his conflict with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: he’s a man out of time with a witch-wife who keeps showing up in visions from purgatory. Conflict makes story, but trouble makes sympathy for the character.

I came to this realization because another obsession lately is trying to figure out why S.H.I.E.L.D. is so damn bad. I bailed seventeen minutes into the third episode because it was so awful, but I’d give the fourth episode a solid B. The reason hit me at the end when Coulson sends the antagonist, Akela, away, and I thought, No! Keep her! Akela was interesting, Akela was smart, Akela was strong, but mostly Akela was in trouble which nobody on S.H.I.E.L.D. ever is. They’re safe on their big plane with Coulson watching over them, they all know who they are and what they want from life, none of them have any doubts, any worries, any trouble. (Okay, Chip and Dale had that virus problem in the last episode, but I couldn’t get too worked up about it because they weren’t going to kill Dale and also if they’d both fallen out of the plane so Akela could come back, I’d have been happy.) I can live with static happiness in a supporting character (say Felicity on Arrow), but not in main characters, not in the people who are carrying the story.

So my main point still stands: If all you have in your first scene is trouble, if the protagonist is the same person at the end of the scene that she was at the beginning because nothing has happened to push her to change, you need a rewrite for conflict: get that antagonist in there. But if you want your reader to care about your protagonist while she’s watching her struggle, make her (or him) vulnerable through trouble.

Which means I’m changing, “She’s in trouble, but what she needs is conflict,” to “She needs conflict, but some trouble is a good idea, too.” (Yes, it only took me twenty years to figure that out, but the important thing is, I got here.) So what do you think?

46 thoughts on “Trouble and Conflict

  1. I think what always throws me is the word “antagonist.” My brain substitutes villain. But it’s not really a villain or should I say the villain, it’s just someone with a different POV that’s conflicting with the protagonist, right?

    I’m confused by the labels. Must cogitate.

    1. I have the same problem. I have to pin into my brain the concept that antagonist is simply someone (something?) that actively opposes the protagonist. Not necessarily in an evil way.

    2. It’s the reason I avoid the terms “hero” and “villain.” It gives a moral dimension to the players that simplifies things too much. Even if one is bad and one is good, you want some good in the bad and some bad in the good so they’re not cartoons.
      The protagonist is the character who owns the story; it’s her or his pursuit of her goal that defines what the story is about.
      The antagonist is the character who shapes the story by pursuing his or her goal which brings her into conflict with the protagonist, it’s her pursuit that forces the protagonist to take different paths.

  2. Episode 5 is better, and I think it’s because… they added trouble.


    Apparently Sky joined the team because she is searching for her parents, and the only thing she knows is that S.H.I.E.L.D. redacted all records of them. There’s a moment when they let her be desperate and vulnerable. You realize she’s been carrying this need to know for a really long time, all by herself, and that’s a big thing that’s screwing with her ability to trust people and make long term plans. It’s not enough trouble to carry the whole series, but it might be a good sign of things to come. I hope.

    1. They did some nice set-up for Coulson’s trouble at the end of this week, too (SPOILERS: he can’t access his own recovery file, was he really in Tahiti or did something more drastic and sinister happen? Not knowing something that important about himself, and the possibility that the system he’s put so much trust in might be keeping it from him, definitely adds some vulnerability).

      One of my problems with SHIELD is that I’m more interested in Coulson than Skye as a protagonist, and I’m not sure if it’s because I attached to him first through the movies, or if it’s because Skye is not well-written. Also, I don’t think the writers have really settled on a primary POV character yet (which is annoying all by itself). But they seem to be leaning more toward Coulson lately, so I’m going to stick with it. Besides, it’s on my night off, and I rarely have something else to do…

      1. It helps that Clark Gregg is a good actor with screen presence and Chloe Bennet isn’t. But I think you’re right: Coulson just has more interesting trouble. His is right now and ongoing, and hers is wrapped up in trying to find out about her past just because she wants to.

  3. Agreed. You need both. And vulnerability is key–not only creates sympathy but makes character relatable.

    Also, I give brownie points when the trouble is more than just losing a job, getting dumped, or finding a mate cheating.

    Or when the vulnerabilities are given to an overall strong character–like say Samantha Stevens in Bewitched. Yes, that show had many flaws and repetitive plots, but let’s face it, that woman had power but also vulnerability (bit like Buffy maybe, trying to be a typical human albeit superhuman sides to their lives). And with Samantha struggling with her very nature adding another layer since she was always in conflict about wanting to be a housewife and doing what comes naturally. Thought it was interesting that they often made her sick because of that–not using her powers enough–great to show what happens to all of us who deny a part of who we are. With all the silliness of that show, it had some deeper layers if you looked for them.

    So yes, trouble & conflict. And not just for the opening scene. Love when characters are peeled like an onion throughout the story and more layers are revealed. I want to see sense and sensibility;)

  4. *Processing new information* This is good. I can use this. I’ve had so many problems with the concept of conflict over the years, and especially with this current WIP. It makes a lot of sense. I’m watching SHIELD because it’s kind of like eating candy and I want it to be good. But now I know why it isn’t compelling on its own. And why Project Runway IS compelling! 🙂

    1. The reference to Project Runway brings up an interesting point — I rarely find reality TV compelling because it seems like all (manufactured) conflict but no real trouble. In fact I think the people making it deliberately try to avoid real trouble, like when the couple was taken off “Temptation Island” because the producers found out they had a kid together. It’s like disrupting a relationship is conflict and that’s great, but disrupting a *family* would create real trouble and that’s unacceptable.

  5. It may have taken 20 years to realize that consciously, but you’ve always combined both trouble and conflict in your books. I think that’s partly why your characters are so engaging. We’re not just riveted by their gripping conflict, we’re also compelled by their trouble. How will the Goodnights pay the mortgage? Will Min ever be able to tell her mother she’s not fat? We’re drawn into their lives by their trouble, and we gain a bit of hope for ourselves when their troubles are resolved.

  6. I usually read my happy e-mails from you, learn lots, and keep my mouth shut. But I think this explanation just solved a big puzzle for me I was having – by defining the two, conflict & trouble, and pulling them apart so we can see them each shine and make their own reflections. I can go back to my revision and look at it a little differently now – I think reexamining these two things will help me solve my revision stuckedness. Thanks for sharing.

    Agents of SHIELD has issues, but I keep watching, trying to figure out why I like it. Same with a new one I’ve recently been working through on AmazonPrime – Downton Abbey… it’s addicting and it’s certainly not for the excitement. As near as I can figure when I try to see why I keep going for the next episode – it’s layers of character and depth of story. Even if you totally think some of the characters are snakes and you want someone to just roast them already – you feel you have to watch and hate them, while hoping and looking to see how things are going to pan out. Downton Abbey is not causally written. I’ve been enjoying your reflections on Doctor Who too. Maybe next you’d care to do Sherlock- LOVE IT! Can’t wait for season 3.

    1. Oh, I think Downton Abbey is full of both trouble and conflict. From the get-go, it’s that Lady Mary has lost her fiance, the previous heir, to the Titanic, and now what’s going to happen with the entail? They’re living in very interesting, troublesome times, particularly for their nation and classes — Britain was losing its empire and status as the greatest power, and both the aristocratic and working classes were undergoing tremendous disruption economically and otherwise.

  7. This is good. Thank you. It’s why I was constantly being told in my romantic suspense stories that my heroine was not likeable. I hadn’t made her vulnerable enough. It’s still something that I have to work on in rewrites. Barbara is 100% correct, you do have trouble and conflict in your stories. : )

  8. You definitely have something here, Crusie. The audience needs to sympathize a bit. If it’s just conflict, then the protagonist will probably prevail in the end. But at some point there’s a danger that the audience will roll their eyes and think, “oh wait, she’s in trouble again; but never fear, she’ll defeat evil … again.” Because, of course, you do want her (or him) to win in the end, that’s why you are watching. But who roots for someone who is perfect and never fails?

    But it gets tricky. I can think of several shows off the top of my head that started out great and then became all about the hero’s personal angst. And as soon as I see that, I know the show is doomed. I have my own angst, thankyouverymuch. I watch tv or read a book to forget about that for a while, not to take on someone else’s. That’s NOT entertainment. So there has to be some struggle there, yes; but don’t spread it on too thickly.

    1. I think those shows are the ones where the trouble takes over from the conflict. Conflict is primary because conflict keeps moving; trouble tends to make people stay in one place and talk.

      1. Conflict is primary because conflict keeps moving; trouble tends to make people stay in one place and talk.

        Not to suck up or anything but that’s kinda brilliant. Definitely one of those light bulb statements.

  9. Thanks. I needed to hear this today. It made me think a little deeper about the opening of my current WIP. And now I’m smiling because I know that I’ve figured out something that was missing.

  10. I think this is a good point that the SHIELD characters aren’t in all that much trouble, but mostly I just think they don’t have much in the way of personality. There’s not too many funny lines going on since the pilot, there’s not that much snark–mostly there’s about 1-2 good-ish lines per show. And as Lani put it, there’s Cardboard Kevin–though him making fun of himself in last week’s episode definitely helped there. I don’t know what happened there with the casting and the character creation compared to everything else Team Whedon has ever done (maybe there were Marvel or network requirements I don’t know about?), but you could probably just kill off everyone but Coulson and pick new people and improve the show by a lot as is.

    I mean, when the guest characters–Mike, Akela, and even “Scorch” are more interesting….okay, I think you’re right, that goes back to the lack of trouble thing. Though again, last week’s episode did add a bit more trouble in there, so that helped.

  11. Great food for thought. I’m working on the opening of book 3 in my series. I wanted to start with the female warrior protagonist fighting her way through the survival race (last man alive wins), but would anyone really care about her or the conflict yet? Now I’m wondering if it’s better to start with her in trouble first (have to brainstorm that) in order to garner sympathy before the conflict begins (fight to the death). I was originally thinking of going with a save the cat moment to make her likeable before she kicks butt. Maybe I should do both. Lots to think about. Thanks for this post, Jenny!

    Oh, and where can I watch the UK version of Life on Mars? I loved the American version.

    1. You’ll have to buy the DVDs. They’re so worth it, but they’re not cheap. One of the best, if not the best, TV series I’ve ever seen. Sixteen episodes total.

      1. Big big love for Life on Mars and John Simm. Ashes to Ashes (80s-set sequel with Gene, Ray and the other one, but no Sam) was enjoyable, but not nearly as gripping.

        1. I can’t get Ashes to Ashes; all the DVDs are your region, not mine. I read everything I could about it so I know the big reveal at the end, but that was mostly to finish off my questions about what happened to Sam and Annie.
          I’m so crazy about Life on Mars, I made Krissie watch it when she came to dogsit while I was in Princeton. She watched the first three episodes with me, then I left. When I got back a day later, she’d gone through four more and was as hooked as I am. I think I’ve watched the whole series four times and it just gets better.

  12. What a great distinction. If I think about it, I suspect that it is conflict that keeps my forward momentum in a story and trouble that makes me care for the character, that makes my heart ache. Maybe Spike is so sympathetic and interesting a character in part because he’s always got so much trouble. Does the character need to fight the trouble? I’m thinking Spike — human or vampire, he always pushes against his limitations. Perhaps, too, because love is his biggest trouble? “I may be love’s bitch but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

    I’m running through so many stories in my head right now thinking about trouble and pathos. Or comedy. Pride and Prejudice: the trouble is both the family financial situation and the shabby dynamics created by Mr. And Mrs. Bennet. The conflict is provided by Darcy and Wickham, Mr. Collins, etc. Or, to put it another way, the trouble for Elizabeth is that she is too smart and too cultured for her situation and the solution to the conflict provides the solution to her trouble. In a series, do you only solve the conflict and leave the trouble ongoing? (Is that why some series become annoying in time? Because the writers/producers aren’t willing to solve the trouble long past the time it has the ability to move the audience?)

    1. I think Spike was wonderful because of the way he handled conflict, not trouble. He didn’t sit around brooding about how awful the women in his life treated him, he went out and kidnapped them and chained them in his basement to yell at them, and they yelled back. One of my favorite Spike scenes is the one where he goes to kill Buffy, sees her crying, and sits down beside her instead, trying to make her laugh. Amazing conflict in that scene as she tries to resist him; it becomes a fight scene after all, just not the one he intended. I still remember her telling him her friends were making her crazy and him offering to “thin the herd” for her. I think that’s when she laughed. Beautiful scene.

      As far as series becoming annoying, yeah, I think it’s the timing. The Mentalist is a good example of that. I love the cast, love the premise, love most of the stories, but at this point I really don’t care if he finds Red John or not. It’s been six years, I’m over that. Contrast that to the UK Life on Mars that lasted two seasons, eight episodes each. It was a huge, huge hit, the BBC would have done another year, but the creators said no because they’d stretched the premise out as far as it could go without breaking. I think Buffy is a good example of having it both ways: She always solved her trouble and her conflict at the end of each season. Person of Interest does it with turning point finales; the end of the first season ended with the PoI team firmly in place and working together and then Root kidnapped Finch and blew up all that security they’d established. Reese gets Finch back at the beginning of Season Two, but then Root comes back because of her passion for the Machine and the Machine sets itself free, blowing up everything the team knows about the way it works. Season Three opens and everything’s changed again: Root’s a wild card, Shaw’s now part of the team, Carter’s demoted to the streets and becomes the biggest female badass on TV (ohmygod I love Carter), the Machine’s talking to three different sets of people . . . I am so impressed with the way PoI is building its world, the way it’s escalating every season to something bigger and badder and better.

      1. Carter was especially amazing this week, and she’s always been great. It looks like they’re tying up the HR story line with their sweeps episodes this month, and I’m already impressed with the first part of it. Long-term story lines that don’t finish when they should are one of the worst things about network TV (i.e., Red John, and also Beckett”s mother on Castle), so I’m really happy they seem to be wrapping this one up. Can’t wait to see what they do with the creepy vigilante privacy group.

      2. The Spike and Buffy scene you’re talking about – it’s the one where he shows up with the shotgun, right? I love that scene. His stalker-ish stuff that season was mostly pretty disturbing for me (the mannequin, the Buffybot), but that’s one of the moments that lets me get past it. Definitely my favorite character in that whole series, his development is beautiful to watch.

  13. It’s a really good point that conflict is primary, because it keeps things moving, but I think that the conflict needs to be fueled by the trouble (or at least informed by it) to make the story really compelling. I’m having difficulty putting this into words, but I think that it looks something like this:

    Character -> Trouble/ Stakes -> Motivation/ Motion -> Obstacle/ Conflict -> Escalation -> Solution

    Each link in the chain causes the next. So, a character’s trouble is due in some part to who she is, her life choices and situation (including what she stands to lose if the trouble isn’t solved), and her response to this (whether she’s conscious of her motives or not) causes conflict. Eventually, the conflict escalates to the point that winning solves both her immediate conflict and her original trouble, like the making of many Slayers at the end of Buffy.

    I think that makes sense…? Must ponder this further. Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

    1. I’m not sure character always leads to trouble or trouble leads to conflict. I’m sure that character defines how that person deals with trouble and conflict, but I think sometimes people just get blindsided and then have to pick up the pieces.

      1. I guess I’m actually wondering whether, in the process of storybuilding, this is the way it *should* work? As in, should you (general you) be attempting to tie it all together so that the character gets herself into trouble and conflict and then gets herself out again through agency and growth? And would that then mean that the way she got into the trouble has to be unique to the character, and the way out, ditto? Is random universal trouble too deus ex machina, or would it actually make the character more relatable? Gah, sometimes I hate being in my brain…

        I’m very new to the technical side of storytelling (most of what I think I know I learned here or at terribleminds, so THANK YOU!), so I’m still trying to get my head around how you turn a character into a story. All advice is greatly appreciated. 🙂

        1. I think you can have great stories either with externally-caused trouble or internally-generated. I like both “Gone with the Wind” and “Anna Karenina.” The first is a war novel so the trouble is mostly caused by forces outside the main characters. Their conflicts do grow out of their personalities. In contrast, with “Anna Karenina” she doesn’t really have any trouble that she didn’t make herself. She’s kind of a bored housewife at the beginning, but I’m not sure there’s any sense in which that’s someone else’s fault.

        2. Honey, there aren’t any shoulds. Anything I post here is an “if this helps, use it, if not, ignore it.” Tools, not rules, that’s my motto. Well, actually, my motto is “Nothing but good times ahead,” but that’s not really applicable here.

  14. I love the trouble that writer Charlotte MacLeod gave to her protagonist Sarah Kelling. I didn’t read the books for the conflict, it was all about Sarah’s trouble and how she handled it and the fun characters it introduced.

    In a lot of books the trouble is often more interesting than the conflict.

  15. Correct me if I’m wrong:

    Firefly: Mal has trouble – a couple of fugitives, Jayne who is dumb as a rock and is self interested, but doesn’t know when he’s acting against his self interest. His right hand woman is married to his pilot. I’m not sure how Kaylee causes him trouble. Oh and Inara is big, big trouble. The Alliance on his back.

    The conflict: Each episode has a job that Mal must do that the protagonist wants to foul up. It’s a different progtag every week, except that the alliance shows up more than once, but the trouble is ongoing and never really changes or is resolved.

    1. Mal’s big problem is that he has no goal. His antagonists all have a goal, to get River, but Mal just wanders around. It’s the thing that kneecaps Firefly and, even more, Serenity.

        1. That’s a negative goal–don’t lose my independence, hang on to what I’ve got–instead of a positive goal–I’m going after THAT. Negative goals mean the character is always saying “No” (insert your favorite “Nope” gif here) and trying to stay in the same place he’s already in; positive goals mean movement (which draws fire, but that’s another topic).

  16. I think one of my big problems is that I always think conflict has to be BIG! Bashing each other with salmons — I think that would be ideal conflict, but it’s very hard to sustain more than three seconds. I need more subtle conflict.

    I like what Georgia said earlier — I think in a good book, the trouble ties into the conflict. In a truly efficient book, every action accomplishes at least three writerly goals — characterization/empathy/conflict/showing not telling/etc etc.

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