In the past, I’ve written rants about how I like stories where the plot forms naturally from the clash of characters’ personalities, as opposed to characters compelled against their wills by an outside force (destiny, a prophecy, the gods, unspeakably evil and inhuman villains, etc.) But how, exactly, do you achieve a character clash story? Especially when it’s so much easier to steal a set of tropes and plot devices from a famous or archetypal story and just use them instead?
1) Give the characters a shared center which is not a person.
For example, they can all be part of the same group—a large dynastic family, a village or a town, a group of priestesses in a temple (oooh!) Or they can all have the same goal—ruling the country (this is what makes A Song of Ice and Fire work in its introductory pages), raising a group of children, preventing the alchemist that lives down the streets from buying any goods in any of the shops until he takes a shower and stops smelling like a slaughterhouse. Or they can all live in the same place—village, town, large floating island rotating around a sun and hovering above an abyss—even if they’re not part of the same group.
- They have a natural reason to be together, and this prevents you from relying on an external force (honestly, at this point I cannot take the group of mismatched adventurers that come together to protect the hero because prophecy says they should seriously) or a series of improbable coincidences.
- They have multitudes of personal relationships that you can give weight and depth, but they’re still rotating around one center that connects them.
- It keeps the plot centralized as well, and prevents you from flying off to obscure corners of the fantasy world to lovingly detail apparently unimportant and unconnected plotlines, one of the more pressing sins of epic fantasy.
- Know why they’re together, and you’ve got some of the details of your worldbuilding already decided.
Now, why do I think you should prevent these characters from rotating around a person, like an heir to the throne or a savior of the world? Because, too often, that turns the characters who rotate into literal satellites of the hero, existing only to answer his whims or be one-dimensional bullies and jealous siblings. Also, I have a philosophical objection to stories where a person is the center of the universe. I think it makes for bad writing and wish-fulfillment. Most of your characters should be the center of their own universes, and if they’re not, there should be a reason why not. Exiling the Divine Child from your worldview and giving a multitude of people apartial hold on the story leads to more, and more fully developed, personalities
2) Know what they want.
This is good characterization advice for protagonists, and it’s to them that it most often gets applied. Think about it, and you can probably answer the question of what the central characters of most stories you’ve read want. (Unless the author is simply muddled or is writing one of those stories where false modesty prevents the hero/ine from seizing the power or acclaim or wondrous life that any sane person would take in a heartbeat. Have I mentioned I really hate reluctant hero stories?)
But with a personality clash story, you need to know what everybody wants. I would say, “At least all your viewpoint characters,” but it’s best if you know what the important secondary characters want, too, so their dialogue and their actions relative to the narrators make sense. And those motivations need to make sense. The characters should not be convenient plot devices which exist solely for the sake of giving the heroes an important epiphany or acting as a reward for said heroes. (I also hate Designated Love Interests).
Really, each character should have an inner subjectivity, or the illusion of an inner subjectivity. Even if you did come up with a character in the first place just because the plot needed him/her, make them more than that. Flesh them out; give them depth and richness. Because that’s the kind of story a character clash plot demands.
3) Keep in mind that people can change, and by reason of their experience.
So a major protagonist may start the story believing that the best way to train a child in sword-fighting is simply making them do the same things over and over until they get it right, and then change her mind because she ruins a talented protégée of hers doing that. That’s a fairly simple example, but it illustrates another principle of the character-clash story in miniature: people have minds, and those minds, acting on each other, change themselves and each other.
This is what I like most about a character clash story. A large portion of its plot is mental (see point 4), but the mental action causes physical action. The characters speak out or treat people differently or go back and do their best to repair a mistake. Or they harden their attitudes or don’t act because of shame or fear or indifference, and that causes a tragedy. There aren’t external forces declaring that, say, Xavier has to die just to teach Princess Carnimissima about the value of life.
Of course, people shouldn’t change their minds for no reason, either. This is another point in favor of tracking characters’ motivations. If you want an important secondary character who started out as the protagonist’s rival to become her friend, you need something more than the most-used tactic (the rival deciding that the protagonist was really better at their shared skill or shared goal all along). I mean, why? The rival has no reason to admit that even if she’s suspected it—and if she knew it all along and was willing to admit it all along, it would make the rivalry look pretty damned stupid. She does have every reason to continue working at her own skill, to goad or irritate the protagonist so she falters, or to sabotage the protagonist. It doesn’t make the rivalry evolving into friendship impossible; it just means that you have to think harder about the transition. Maybe the protagonist admits the rival’s better.
Letting the plot follow naturally from the changes of mind eliminates the necessity for inventing flimsy justifications.
4) Make the mental plot dynamic and interesting.
Yes, the words are so easy to type, aren’t they? But it can be done. And it can be done without tumbling into the trap of internal monologue, too.
What’s the problem with most internal monologues in fantasy? That’s right, they go nowhere and they are full of mindless repetition. If the heir to the throne was worrying about her ability to take and hold the throne on page 20, she’s still worrying about the same damn thing on page 300, without taking any action to make it happen. Or, at least, the actions taken appear to have no connection to her angst.
So that’s what you want to do: connect the mental dynamics and the physical ones. Show the protagonists deciding on a course of action and then using it. Maybe the course of action is wrong, so they analyze why it didn’t work, come up with another one that suits the changed circumstances, and use that one instead.
Or show a character who’s not naturally introspective given a stunning blow. Maybe a person whose opinion she’s always valued expresses open contempt for her. She has to decide what she’s going to do about that. The solution is not to freeze her psychology and just have her angst endlessly, taking no step forwards or back. She can begin the long and painful process of withdrawing her admiration from this person. She can begin the equally long and painful process of reevaluating herself, if she thinks the derision has some merit. She can decide to go ask someone else, a neutral judge.
And then she goes and does it.
A character clash plot needs this intersection of mental steps and physical ones. If someone angsts in silence, no one else can respond to her problem in any way, and there is no further development of anyone’s personality or agenda relative to that character. And then your plot stalls, too.
5) Build in redundancies.
By this, I don’t mean duplicates of the same character. Nonexistent gods, how boring. I do mean characters with similar motivations, or speaking styles, or worldviews, or experiences, or backgrounds.
Do this, and you have natural rivals, natural friends, natural tentative allies, natural enemies. You have natural second chances for other characters who may have made spectacular mistakes trying to talk to or court or befriend the first person, but can hopefully learn from those mistakes and do better when they meet the second. You have people who represent different, nuanced takes on one general principle (such as vengeance, justice, faith, love). You can have people who, even though they do have similar experiences, have extraordinarily different personalities, widening both the plot possibilities and your own range of writing. You can include multiplegenders, sexualities, races, classes, degrees of able-bodiedness, so that your writing is less likely to depend on tokenism and more likely (though not guaranteed) to offer a more balanced view of the groups in question.
You can also more easily create that illusion of inner subjectivity that’s going to be so important for a plot like this. A character who doesn’t get as many chances for fleshing out can seem deeper than she is because she resembles a fully fledged secondary character or protagonist; she borrows reality from them.
So those are all really good reasons.