One of the best things about conflict is that it pushes your characters to act. In every scene, your characters are making choices—big ones and small ones, and thereby steering their fate. Some decisions will be obvious and require little to no thought, but others will be muddier, with no clear “better” option, generating inner conflict. These choices, provided the characters feel personally invested in the decision, act as a test, revealing who they are.
Finding ways to naturally characterize our characters is gold in storytelling, so making the most of a character’s decisions is a wise move. But when we make choices a bit more complex, they go beyond black-and-white options, which creates tension and potentially painful consequences.
9 Types of Decisions
Your Characters May Have to Make
Let’s look at the types of quandaries that can make decision-making easier… or much more difficult.
These choices will be relatively simple, and the consequences won’t have much impact. Examples include decisions about what to order off a menu, which outfit to wear to the office, or whether to make an appointment now or later.
This is the one every character wants but rarely gets, because … writers are evil, and all that. A win-win means both options are good. Either way, the character comes out ahead and anyone impacted by the choice will be happy with the outcome. Win-wins are conflict killers, so if you use one, make sure it comes with some unforeseen price tag attached to it.
These choices appear obvious; one is a good option, the other is not. It means someone will be happy and someone won’t, and this might be okay depending on who is on which end of the stick. For example, if the choice means your protagonist gets what he wants and his rival doesn’t, well, that’s the perfect happily-ever-after. But this scenario can be a hard one if the character has a close relationship with the person who loses. Consider your character’s anguish if he and his friend have both been poisoned, and there’s only one dose of the antidote. If he takes it, it means his friend will die. That’s a hard choice to make.
When neither choice is ideal, you have a dilemma. Decision-making can require a lot of weighing and measuring, because no matter what choice is made, there will be blood. These choices often come down to what the character is willing to sacrifice and for how long. Preferences will also factor into the choice. Would the protagonist rather lose time or money? Should she admit the truth and suffer ridicule for a short time, or drag it out with denials that everyone will see through anyway?
5. Hobson’s Choice
Have you ever been offered something you don’t really want, but maybe it’s slightly better than nothing? That’s a Hobson’s choice. An example would be applying for a promotion and instead being given the choice of a deep pay cut or being laid off.
6. Sophie’s Choice
This scenario is one in which the character must choose between two equally horrible options. Named for the book (and movie) Sophie’s Choice, in which the character must decide which of her two children will be killed, this is known as the impossible, tragic choice. However, it can also simply be a time-and-place decision in which the character can only be in one place at that time. And the ramifications don’t have to be catastrophic. They can be minor—as in the case of the character being able to attend his own college graduation or his grandmother’s 100th birthday party. Regardless of the decision, guilt will accompany the character’s choice in this kind of scenario.
7. Morton’s Fork
This choice is agonizing because both options lead to the same end. It’s Max (Mad Max) handcuffing Johnny the Boy to a gas tanker that has a time-delay fuse and handing him a hacksaw. Dying from the explosion or the loss of blood from cutting off his own ankle … it’s a deceptive choice because there is only one outcome.
8. Moral Choices
Moral choices (Sophie’s Choice is one kind) are those requiring the character to decide between two competing beliefs or to choose whether or not to follow a moral conviction. Does she tell the truth because honesty matters—even when it will deeply hurt someone? Protect a loved one or turn him over to the police? Use an advantage to get ahead, knowing it would be wrong to do so? Moral choices require the character to rationalize the decision so she can feel okay about making it.
9. Do Something or Nothing
In some cases, the character can choose whether to intervene or not get involved. He may not be personally impacted by the outcome either way, or there might be a cost: a risk to his reputation (if not acting paints him as a coward), the moral repercussions of deciding to do nothing (after, say, letting someone die), or even a safety cost (if he chooses to save someone who turns out to be a threat).
Whatever choices you weave into the story, find ways to create inner conflict. One method is to pair options that are equal in some way, such as choices that represent two fears, two needs, or two types of risks or sacrifices. You can also focus on elements that are in direct opposition to each other, such as pitting a fear against a need, duty against freedom, or a want against a moral belief. Conflicting emotions, especially the big ones, can also be used to give readers a front-row seat to a meaningful inner struggle.
Once the decision is made, the psychological turmoil can continue in the form of doubt and second guesses. Were the character’s motives pure? Should someone else have made the decision? A choice’s fallout, especially when the consequences negatively impact others, will add still more weight to the character’s burden of guilt and regret. And the closer she is to those impacted by the choice, the worse the fallout will be.
Brainstorming Conflict &
Using It Effectively
If you’d like an arsenal of conflict ideas at your fingertips, consider picking up The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles Volume 1 & 2. This book pair will provide you with endless ideas for story friction, and guide you to all the ways you can use conflict to power your story’s plot and character arcs.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.