Characters need problems

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You have a character…now what?

Ran across this on twitter and gave the author a response.

Then I decided 256 characters wasn’t going to cut it. So here’s a fuller explanation.

I pointed out previously that characters should have short- and long-term goals. What this suggests, but perhaps doesn’t say clearly enough, is characters need to have problems they want or need to resolve.

External problems – a lot of writers see these problems easily. The character needs a better job, for whatever reasons (poor work environment, more money for rent, etc). As the author, you can put the opportunities for achieving this goal before the character. Then through supporting characters, friend or foe, put them on the path to make the most of the opportunity.

But the character might not want to go, or they have excuses. These responses reveal the character’s internal problems. These are things you can work behind the scenes, as the god of the machine, to orchestrate opportunities for them to overcome and triumph. So the character can get their internal problems resolved, or come to a place of peace with them.

The problem can come out of any aspect of character that you’ve built. Think about the challenges people have at that age, at that place, at that job, or at that income level. When you start with a small problem – such as needing a better job for income reasons, you may evolve the story into a bigger one simply because of the butterfly effect, one action always leads to multiple reactions.

For more about conflict, visit this resource page.


You’ve done a character sketch. And this is your character:

Chandra Collins, 22, makes deliveries by bicycle for a package company in Atlanta. She’s fit, African American, with brown curly hair and sepia eyes. Her work leaves her too tired most nights to socialize. She rents a bedroom from a divorced, single mom. For credit toward the rent, she will monitor the house and babysit the woman’s 2-year-old daughter on nights when the mom works.

Thinking about the suggestions above, what possible external problems can you see cropping up in Chandra’s life that she’s got to deal with? Break-in at the house? Bicycle stolen or broken in an accident? An illness with the baby and she whisks them to the hospital? Something else?

Congratulations, you’ve just created the start of your plot. The steps she takes to start dealing with the external problem will show you what her internal issues are and become the scenes in your plot. From there, you will also build a subplot that leads to her finding the life, liberty, and happiness she ultimately dreams about having.

Examples: Break-in at the house, she meets the cop who responds. Bicycle stolen, she has to consider public transit, buying another bike, and finding another job, or having her boss take the “rental” of a company bike out of her paycheck every week. Hospital visit, she’s met by the shift nurse. At all these points, she has to meet people, share something of her struggle, try to avoid or have a difficult interaction, and forge forward successfully or falter.

Every scene has a goal and a conflict as the character tries to deal with the external problem, complicated by internal issues. Scenes in sequence become a story.