Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 4, 2018

5 Conflict-making Choices Characters Can Make

If you’ve been reading Writers in the Storm for any length of time, you know that I’m a proponent of using what you do—what happens to you, what you think and believe—in your writing. A year ago, I wrote about using your summer memories in your writing. Today I'm sharing one of my first summer experiences with you.

Last month I attended my first Book Club meeting. No, not that Book Club! I’d been invited for, literally, years, but after another invitation from my friend, I decided it was time. There was no time for me to read the book, since the meeting was the next day.

They discussed The Five Thieves of Happiness by John Izzo. Comments and questions zinged around the table. Even though I hadn’t read the book, I was invited to share my views on their takeaways on the message. Someone loaned me their book so I could read it.

About halfway through the book I thought These are great ideas to bring more conflict to my WIP. I went back to take some notes and finished the book, pad of paper beside me. Like many writers, I now intend to use an experience—the Book Club and the reading of the book—as a tool in my writing.

Today, and Friday, because there is such a wealth of information to be mined, I’m sharing five ways that your characters can allow their happiness to be stolen.

How can I “fix” the large and the small things in my life that make me unhappy? This is the grist of conflict. Why doesn’t my life go the way I want it to? How did I end up like this? What can I do to change? Here’s my book report, slanted for writers, along with ways to resolve your character’s arc.

  1. The need for control

When a character believes s/he can control life, they do not accept that “things happen” that are out of our control. This craving for control can lead people—real or characters in your WIP—to do things that make them unhappy. Maybe they become overbearing because they know their way is the only right way to accomplish a task. Maybe they grab onto something and hang on for dear life, even though that something is unnecessary or bad for them.

We can control our actions and even our responses to external stimuli, but we cannot control the results of our actions. Someone takes what a character said the wrong way, another character is attached to the outcome of some action. How often have you been attached to an outcome, only to suffer because you can’t control it?

What if you allow your character to believe s/he is in control? Their plans and actions appear to be working toward some end. But when we believe we’re in control, we are probably looking at the future. Or the past. Let’s say your hero is trying to impress someone he’s picked as his future mate. He repeats the successful “moves” he made when he courted the love of his life, who was killed by a drunk driver before they got married. Instead of being in the present and enjoying the process of falling in love, he’s using his controlling intention for a specific outcome, not recognizing that his method isn’t going to work because his new love interest is a different person.

He may think that his feelings of regret, once he realizes—or is told—that his attention is unwanted, are the source of his unhappiness. In reality, he was trying to control his past as well as his future.


  • Release the desire to control others. An apology can be an attempt to control someone’s reaction. If I want your forgiveness and you withhold it, I’m unhappy because I can’t control your reaction to my apology. Instead, your character should focus on making a sincere apology. Period.
  • When in a relationship, your character can release the notion of controlling when and how the love interest acts. In other words, s/he gives up the need to make them be something they aren’t.
  • Surrender to what cannot be controlled. We may grouse about it, but we all know we can’t control the weather. Surrender does not mean inaction, though I must admit that when I first was introduced to the idea of surrender years ago, it felt more like give up to me. Surrender means releasing the desire to control the future. This is not about building a wall to keep future pain out. It is about actively living life without the need to control a situation based on a desired outcome. It isn’t easy. Great news for you, the author! Your character can struggle with this one for the entire book.
  • Nonjudgment and mindfulness. Though a little control is useful in some circumstances, but if the desire for control rules us, we are miserable. Judgmental thinking brings more misery. My characters must learn to be nonjudgmental not only about others, but with themselves. Beating up yourself is never helpful. Non-judgmental self-talk or advice from a friend, on the other hand, can go far to releasing the need for close-fisted control.
  • Izzo suggests three steps: notice, stop, replace. Simple to remember, but I can see the zillionaire heir character in my WIP taking the first third of the book to notice what he’s doing, the second third to stop doing it, and finally, in the final third of the book replacing his old ways with healthier, more “user friendly” ways of interacting with others. As a writer, I’ll know what I’m doing, but my readers won’t. They’ll just start seeing him as a better, more likeable person, one who fulfills his character arc to bring about a satisfying ending.

Here are the next “thieves”:

  1. Conceit
  2. Coveting
  3. Consumption
  4. Comfort

On Friday, July 6, I’ll continue this post. In the meantime, if you’d like to grab a copy of The Five Thieves of Happiness by John Izzo, here’s the link. It’s a quick read at only one hundred twenty-three pages.

How can you use a character’s desire for control to create conflict in your WIP? How will you use the “stop-notice-replace” strategy to show the change in your character’s motivational arc?

 *     *     *     *     *


Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard, putting the finishing touches on P.R.I.S.M. Book Two.

P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, lies, and love.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen

35 comments on “5 Conflict-making Choices Characters Can Make”

  1. Great post, Fae. I love the way you used your experience of this book to deepen the conflict in your own writing.
    In my first novel, The Silk Romance, my hero had a problem with control. I found it an excellent source of conflict between the heroine and him, and he had to go through the steps you illustrate so well in order for that conflict to be resolved. My one problem was making this hero still appear to be a sympathetic character and a man worth loving. I had to give him a strong motive for his behaviour, which I did, and this motive is only revealed towards the end of the book.
    I'm looking forward to your next posts in this series. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the validation within your own work, Helena. I'm looking up your book!

  2. Fae, you've got me thinking...and so early in the morning! Thanks.

    1. You can get more conflict than you need when you consider conceit, coveting, consumption and comfort, Karla! Have fun with that WIP today.

  3. Very interesting, particularly because a short story I'm writing involves a girl whose character arc is letting go of control and trusting others to be there for you. Thanks for the brain food, Fae! I'll be digesting it this week.

    1. Thanks, Julie. I didn't want to mention it in the post, because it can be an ear worm, but all those little girls singing "Let It Go" during the heyday of FROZEN internalized a great lesson.

    1. Thanks, Tiffany! As a teacher (of sorts) you know how great it feels to synthesize a lesson from another medium to your own. Now, if I can just pull off using the information!

    1. Thanks, Barb! I think these five ideas for conflict will fit right in with your book that we talked about.

  4. Ha! *But you handle it so well.* Someone should have told me before I got married that two control "freaks" would have a rocky start! As in bag-packed-by-front-door-for-two-years rocky start.

  5. Thanks for a great post, Fae! I'm linking to this and tomorrow's post on my blog for my week in review and writing links: harmonykent.co.uk. Looking forward to your next post 🙂

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