Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SiWC 2015 Workshop #4 Complex Conflicts

Complex Conflicts
Sam Sykes

Trying to find the difference between a story that people read and forget, and a story that sticks with someone.

Conflicts aren’t plot, they are a test of our investment in the character/story

What does  conflict have to accomplish?

Lighter conflicts are simply a goal of getting from A-B

A complex conflict goes over several points, A-B-C, etc, switchbacking, etc

With a complex conflict, it doesn’t resolve until the story is done and that’s why a reader ends the story still thinking about it, because of the level of investment.

Not wha happens when we lose, but what happens when we win what is going to change when everything’s said and done?

Nerdy analogy: LotR. One important thing was it didn’t end happily. Frodo couldn’t go back to the shire and resume his life. What he had been through reshaped him in such a way he couldn’t return to that safe, simple life.

In a complex conflict, on one really gets a happy ending. A satisfying ending, yes, but not happy because you can’t go back to the status quo. It would feel like cheating to the audience if nothing really changed.

You can’t be allergic to making your characters hurt, to making things messy.

There is a big difference between a happy ending and a satisfying ending.

The reader will forget a happy ending, they won’t forget a satisfying ending.

Plots need to be resolved, they don’t have to be neatly and perfectly wrapped up.

How do we build investment in characters?


Story must end with their arcs resolved.

We watch them grow/solve problems, and we prefer it to be painful. That builds investment.

ex. character Mark from ‘The Martian’. In the first few pages, he gets left behind on Mars. So, right from the beginning, he’s stuck in a crappy situation. The default human condition is to be unsatisfied. We always want more/new/etc. He dies because he gives up everything for his ambition, to feel alive again (he’s dying of cancer)

You can’t get too interested in the idea of a character simply reacting. We like them to suffer, but we prefer them to suffer from their own hand, those who makes mistakes trying to forge their own destiny. They can’t simply be reacting because that’s predictable. A character making their own choices can often get themselves into even more trouble.

Motivations change, but at the heart of every character is an unshakable moral core. There are aspects that do not change. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes to their own detriment. But this unchanging core is what keeps the story going/moving. If the character has two conflicting cores, they must eventually come into conflict and one of them must break. Like Walter, he valued honour, and his family. He chose the honour core and the family core breaks because he could have gone home to his family, not give up everything to figure out what was wrong and die.

Like, in the Simpsons, Homer loves Marge. No matter what, he wants her to be happy in the end.

There’s a sweet spot where you’re almost yelling at the book/tv, ‘don’t move, don’t do that, you’re fine.”

A coincidence that gets your character into trouble is fine, a coincidence that gets your character our of trouble is cheating. (One of Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling)

Start with an unfavourable situation, but the character should be taking proactive steps to solving it in the long term.

Have to relate to the protagonist emotionally, where with a villain, we need to relate to them emotionally OR intellectually. We can go along with a dumb hero, but not a dumb villain. We need to understand the protagonist through their love, hope, desire.

Also, the protagonist must pay a price to win. Something has to change.


Like characters playing off each other while also trying to get ahead of each other.

What happens if we win? The villain tells us what price is paid for the victory. People are killed/sacrificed for the hero to win.

A villain we sympathize with, or understand, makes for a deeper conflict because on some level , if we understand his motives and what he stands to lost if the hero win, we’re partially pulling for him as well.

Said earlier must relate to the villain either emotionally or intellectually:

(emotional) For example, a man blows up a hospital, but later we learn he blew it up out of vengeance because the hospital turned away his health coverage, and so his own son died. So, even though he did an evil thing, if he’s taken down, we are neglecting a grieving father gaining closure.


(intellectual) An evil tyrant who is dictator for life, completely brutal, and needs to be stopped. But, if the hero stops him, the warlords will rise up, maybe a civil war occurs, and even more people will die/etc.

Villains can’t be reactive. They are usually the instigator. Proactive.

By relating to the villain, our investment is deeper because we will be sad when he loses.

They also need to grow, their priorities need to shift, and that will also increase our investment. A lesson is learned, they adapt and change to the next challenge. That is being proactive.

Less Conventional Conflicts:

What happens with a protagonist where there isn’t an antagonist to exact the price? Then the protagonist myst tear it out of themselves. (Walter from ‘The Martian’ dying, giving up everything, to feel alive/etc)

A lot of great stories about about this kind of conflict, like, a parent who is beating their children, the children often don’t want to consider their parents villains because, ‘yknow, still their parents.

Real life story, a serial killer in the USA turned out to be a well adjusted family man, and how did his daughter feel about this? He did awful things, but was a great father to her.

Emotional reliability is even more important if there’s no actual antagonist so we feel there is no other way, we need to see their logic/etc perfectly, we need to understand them.

No more ‘shoulds’, these are ‘musts’ because there’s not an antagonist driving the story. The protagonist is having to pull double-duty.

This can be destructive, like Walter dying, or constructive, them overcoming their inner demons/etc.

Korean movie, remade into an American movie called ‘Old Boy’ about a man in Seol who is kidnapped off the street and locked in a cell that looks like a hotel room for 15 years. One day, the door opens and he gets a message that says, “I’m the guy who held you captive. I have a pacemaker attached to my heart, in 5 days I’ll be dead, so you have that long to find me.”

So, the man goes out looking for answers and discovered the jailor was a wealthy industrialist he knew from school. Unfortunately, the main falls in love with a woman, even though the jailor says, ‘you don’t want to do this’, the man doesn’t listen. It turns out the woman was the man’s own daughter, brainwashed by the villain because the man discovered the jailor (in school) having an incestuous relationship with his own sister, and told the principle on him/shamed his family, so this has been a long-game play for revenge.


  1. Huh. Very neat (all of them) though this one jumped out at me since the antagonist(s) of my stories tend to be the least fleshed out of the characters, functioning more as obstacles than as real people I find. Esp. in the magician series. Hmm.

  2. Yes, I found this workshop really useful since, y'know, I always joke about running out of plot... but always have complex characters.

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