Character Development

Why Mutually Exclusive Desires Make Great Conflicts

Your story should be jammed packed with conflicts.

You should have conflicts about the setting, like the tropical storm that’s been seen down south is heading north and could turn into a hurricane. Or, you could have conflicts about everyday life, like maybe the cat is missing and he has a history of getting caught in small spaces. Also, you could have conflicts involving sickness, like a character with Crohn’s disease can’t stop eating animal crackers. Or maybe a conflict regarding money: the bank may foreclose on the family homestead any minute now.

A great story has many kinds of conflicts all layered on each other, each eating away at the main objectives of the main character.

Mutually exclusive desires are when our character, let’s say, Steve, wants to do one thing, but he also wants to do something else.

He wants to provide his family with a good home and oboe lessons for his daughter but he also wants to play the ponies at the track. Another example could be that Steve wants more power and responsibility in his neighborhood gang, but he also wants not to whack his best friend for ratting out.

Good mutually exclusive goals can work side by side for a while, but then, somewhere about 2/3 of the way into the story, Steve has to choose.

He realizes that if he takes what he wants all along, then he’ll have to sacrifice something that he wants even more. This is the hinge on which the entire second act sits. It’s this moment that sets up the climactic ending. The reader understands that he can achieve only one of these goals. This is the type of stuff that your reader will eat with a spoon. This is the type of storytelling that keeps those pages turning. WHAT WILL HE DO?

But let’s back up a minute. How did you get to this point in your storytelling? How have you set Steve up so that he can get into this great climactic situation?

You start with Abraham Maslow.

Maslow was this scientist in the 1930s who came up with this hierarchy of needs for individuals in society. He was not a novelist. I’m not even sure he knew how to create a character. But what he did do was articulate how people get their needs met.

Most of this is going to make a lot of sense to you.

You’ve been in those places where you yourself had mutually exclusive needs and it caused conflict. Conflicts are not so much fun when they happen to us in real life — but they are great fun in stories. If your character, say, Steve, wanted to have this one thing in his life. But then it threatened another equally important desire. He would have to make a choice on what to do about it.

While you are plotting, consider all the needs that Steve has:

Are they at the bottom of the pyramid? He needs to maintain his immediate food, clothing and shelter needs. If your story is a wilderness adventure story, this will be obvious. Steve has to find a place away from the elements to sleep tonight. He’s not sure he has enough jerky for one more day. He also thinks he’s being followed by a bear.  If he stays here, he’ll certainly die from exposure. If he travels on, there is no guarantee of shelter. What will he do?

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Or are they on the next level up? If your story is a thriller, Steve wants to keep the Soviets from destroying the military installation in his hometown. Steve is worried not just about his family, but also his neighborhood and maybe if he’ll lose his job at the bank to the communists. If he confronts the Soviets, then they could kill him. But if he doesn’t they’ll destroy capitalism anyway and he won’t have a job, but he’ll be alive. What will he do?

Or do things get a bit complex with Steve’s relationships? If your story is a family saga, Steve’s issues may be harder to find. He may want to pursue his lifelong goal of touring with a traveling bassoon ensemble. But he’s worried what his father will say. He could lose this opportunity to play or he could lose the family fortune. His band adores him. They can’t function without him. But a cool ten million could buy him friends. What will he do?

Or Is it really all about Steve’s inner life? In the next level, Steve’s quest for significance could come from his life’s work: A book Amish Zombie Princesses. His manuscript has been stolen. The low life who stole it is really his loyal writing coach. These aren’t life and death stakes, but they are gripping nonetheless. He could fight for his book, after all, it took him a whole week to write! But then he loses a friend and a mentor. What will he do?

And as for the upper level? To be honest, few books are written with those kinds of needs– the need for self-actualization. Les Miserables is one of the few novels I can think of that touch on those needs. You may find that your readers identify more with the needs on the lower levels.

And that fine, the lower the level, the more likely you have hand-to-hand combat and that’s always fun to read.

All of this is well and good but unless you put your character in a position, about 2/3 of the way through the story, in which he has to choose between two needs.

He can also choose between two needs that are on two separate levels. Many of the great books you’ve read or films you’ve watched have this kind of choice. A great storyteller will bring his reader along for the ride. But then, a choice must be made, and to the reader it is excruciating.

What does Steve choose?

Steve makes a choice that is not necessarily predictable, but the one that makes the most sense. He can choose a third option that satisfies neither needs. He can come up with an option that satisfied both. The final choice he makes is the climactic moment. After that choice is made, the results should be final and permanent. Hopefully, the reader will say, “Of course! That’s the only real choice after all.”

In your story, make sure you have many layers of conflict, but for your main character, develop his needs intentionally.

He’s going to have to make a choice. It doesn’t have to be the right one, but it does have to be the best way to end a story.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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