One thing that Angela and I discovered time and again as we put the Rural and Urban Setting Thesaurus books together is just how influential the setting is on a story. Setting has its collective fingers in a lot of pies: building the mood, characterizing the story’s cast, steering the plot, evoking mood, providing conflict…and that’s just a few things it can do. In our books, we try to cover as much of this detail as possible so you can write richer stories. Each entry has not only the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures a character might experience, but other elements too.
Here’s one area that keeps drawing my attention:
(I pulled this tidbit from One Stop For Writers, where all the settings for both books can also be found. Subscribers can access the entries in their entirety while registered users can see a sampling.)
As a writer, I’m constantly looking for sources of conflict for my stories. This is one of the reasons we included this field, because people are our greatest resource when it comes to conflict. So looking at the kinds of people typically found in a given setting can give you an idea for who might cause trouble for your hero.
But as I was brainstorming for this field, one thought kept coming back to me: But what about the friends?
I’m not talking about the friends that your character thinks are friends but end up stabbing her in the back. I’m talking about real friends who cause real trouble, often unintentionally.
As we know, friends, family, and allies can cause conflict, too. And because of their close connection with the main character, trouble from a friend inherently equates to elevated emotions for the hero. Plus, friends are so accessible; you won’t typically have to orchestrate a meeting in order to make the sparks fly because the friends are already there.
So it makes sense to use those closest to the hero to add conflict. But what kind of trouble can a true friend cause? Here are a few possibilities:
Opposing Goals: Throughout your story, your hero should have something he’s trying to achieve. But at the scene level, he should also have goals—smaller micro-goals that move him toward getting what he wants overall. Conflict comes in the form of people, forces, things, etc. that block the character from getting what he wants. Oftentimes this comes in the form of the antagonist, who is actively working against the character. But what if the character with the opposing goal is his friend? Fireworks, that’s what happens, between the hero and the person he thought was on his side.
Shared Goals: Another form of conflict comes when two characters want the same thing. Again, the typical scenario is the character and the antagonist or a rival going after the same objective—getting the boy/girl, winning the game/court case/contest, getting a spot on the team, etc. But it gets a lot more complicated when the person competing with the character is a trusted ally.
Clashing Traits: Every person is different, and though our friends are often somewhat similar to us, they’re not carbon copies. The same is true with characters and their cronies. Each member of the cast has traits, both positive and negative, that don’t go well together. Imagine a responsible and rule-following hero combined with a reckless friend. A controlling hero and a rebellious friend. Hard-working vs. lazy. Sensitive vs. tactless. Friends with opposing traits are going to get on each others nerves. Remember this in the planning stages of your story and you’ll end up with built-in conflict that’s easy to access.
Moral Arguments: Though friends aren’t going to agree on everything, every person has certain moral lines they’re not willing to cross. And though they know that other people don’t necessarily share their values, they don’t like them to cross those lines, either. While friends are willing to compromise on certain things, it’s much harder for them to give ground when it comes to questions of right and wrong. Knowing what values your character holds dear can help you use those values against him when conflict is necessary.
Envy: No matter how gifted, successful, good-looking, or popular a person is, there’s always someone who’s MORE gifted, BETTER looking, etc. Envy is an ugly emotion, beginning with negative thoughts that often turn to negative behaviors. When envy manifests between friends, it becomes much more complex, with higher stakes.
Insecurities: Every character has insecurities that make them doubt themselves and skew their view of the world and others. These insecurities can lead to poor decisions that impact the people around them. For instance, someone who’s insecure about his popularity may crack jokes at a friend’s expense if it will get him a few laughs. A girl who is insecure about her looks might latch on to anyone who pays her attention—even if that person is her best friend’s ex. If you’re looking for conflict between friends, figure out what insecurities exist and see what you can do to manipulate them.
Weak Moments: Let’s face it: no one is perfect. No matter how strong a friendship is, every person has selfish moments where they just want to do what they want to do no matter how it might affect others. What might that look like? Canceling plans with a friend when a better opportunity comes along. Not standing up for someone. Kissing a friend’s sister. Poor decisions are easy to justify, and our characters might convince themselves that these choices are no big deal. But weak moments often lead to huge fallout, making for great conflict.
Growing apart: It’s an unfortunate truth of friendship, but sometimes people just grow apart. Interests change, new groups are joined, people move on from a relationship that is holding them back in other areas or is unhealthy in some way. This is natural, but it doesn’t happen all at once. Before people have fully moved on, there’s often a long process full of awkward moments and uncomfortable emotions like confusion, self-doubt, anger, hurt, and bitterness. This leads to lots of potential conflict as friends try to figure out what’s happening and come to grips with the new dynamic.
The list of conflict between friends could probably go on and on, but these are a few of the ways that true friends can cause problems for your main character. Do you have any to add? Please share them in the comments!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.