Storytelling

Devising Conflict Between Protagonists

In Star Trek: Enterprise, Tucker thinks T'Pol's personal choices are an invitation to argue.

Conflicts within Team Good allow us to develop characters while adding excitement to scenes. However, most good guys have every reason to stay on good terms. Without a villain, it can be tricky to get them fighting. As a result, many protagonist conflicts rely on good guys that act out of character or manifest glaring new flaws. Luckily, we have other options.

To help your efforts, I’ll give you a tour of what makes for strong or weak conflicts between heroes. As we go, I’ll use examples from Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, which have numerous protagonist arguments – many of them poorly done.

Creating Conflicts Without Right or Wrong

In Voyager, Torres and Seven have a personality conflict. In Voyager, Torres and Seven have a personality conflict.

Because we’re working with heroes, it’s important to distinguish whether this is a conflict where one person is right and the other wrong, or whether it’s a conflict without a right answer. Unless you have a reason to make your conflict a matter of right and wrong, I recommend keeping it neutral. Heroes need to stay sympathetic, and right and wrong conflicts make managing their likability more difficult.

The trickiest part of neutral conflicts is coming up with a fitting reason for their disagreement. Consider these options:

  • Value Differences: Any two characters should have a different set of values, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what they are. Perhaps one character wants to deliver justice to antagonists that have fled while another doesn’t think that justice is worth risking anything important. In Star Trek, there are frequently value disagreements between the Captain and the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. The doctors have all taken vows to do no harm, and that vow is more important to them than following orders. In the Voyager episode Tuvix, Captain Janeway decides to end Tuvix’s life in order to bring Tuvok and Neelix back from the dead. The Doctor refuses to perform the procedure, so Janeway does it herself.
  • Conflicts of Interest: Give your characters personal interests that work in opposition to each other. If they are trying to decide which of two feuding factions to ally with, put some close friends or relatives on either side. Your characters can also compete for an item or position they both want desperately. In season 3 of Enterprise, Lieutenant Reed raises his hackles when Major Hayes and his military officers are assigned to the ship. Because Reed is in charge of safety and security, their authority overlaps. They get into conflicts over who leads missions and how the crew should be trained.
  • Differing Experience: Diverse backgrounds will give your characters a compelling reason to disagree about the same situation. You can start with your character’s profession. A character who is a diplomat may feel that negotiating first is always the best policy. A military officer may underestimate what diplomacy can accomplish and want the tactical advantage that comes with striking first. Cultural backgrounds can also make a difference. In Enterprise, Captain Archer and Commander T’Pol disagree about whether the Andorians can be trusted. That’s because T’Pol is Vulcan, and the Vulcans and Andorians have been at war for centuries. T’Pol is aware of the long history of Andorian deception, whereas Archer focuses on his personal experiences with a particular Andorian Commander.
  • Personality Clashes: Sometimes characters just rub each other the wrong way. Look at the personalities you’ve already established for your characters. If any of them are abrasive or rash, that creates an opportunity for conflict. It also helps if they have just been introduced, and they are still learning how to relate to each other. In Voyager, Lieutenant Torres and Seven of Nine clash several times. Torres is hot-headed, and Seven has to learn to collaborate without a telepathic connection. As the Chief Engineer, Torres gets mad when Seven makes changes to important ship components without asking. Torres berates her rather than showing patience with her learning process.

In any neutral conflict, make sure that both characters act out equally. Enterprise treats the conflict between Reed and Hayes as symmetrical – the conflict comes to a head when they get in a fist fight that Archer punishes them both for. However, Hayes never acts inappropriately; he just does his job by suggesting more combat training for the crew. Reed, on the other hand, feels threatened by Hayes and obstructs Hayes’s work when he can. A lopsided conflict like this needs a resolution that fits with a heartfelt apology from the offending party. We never get that from Reed.

Similarly, a neutral conflict needs an appropriately neutral resolution. Even if everything turns out in one character’s favor, they can have a conversation that recognizes how the outcome could have been different. If the characters still disagree at the end, the rest of Team Good should feel divided to signal that no one was right. In the aforementioned episode Tuvix, the entire crew aside from the Doctor sides with Janeway. This gives Janeway’s choice a sense of writer endorsement that takes away from the moral dilemma.

Creating Conflicts With Right and Wrong

In Enterprise, Captain Archer is almost always right. In the few instances he's clearly wrong, all the characters make excuses on his behalf. In Enterprise, Captain Archer is almost always right. In the few instances he’s clearly wrong, all the other characters make excuses on his behalf.

Sometimes it’s useful to create conflicts where one or more characters are flat out wrong. But this has to be done with care, or it could damage likability.

Balance Character Candy and Spinach

Unfortunately, both Enterprise and Voyager use this type of right-wrong conflict to provide the Captain with a challenge and then allow the Captain to triumph by sticking to their guns. For instance, in the Voyager episode Alliances, Captain Janeway gets in an argument with Commander Chakotay because he insists they need allies to survive, and she wants to go it alone. At his bidding she makes a couple attempts at alliances. Neither attempt goes smoothly, and she abandons her efforts. The episode ends with her giving a big “I told you so” speech.

The temptation to put the Captain on the right side of arguments with other protagonists is understandable. The leader of Team Good is usually the main character, and without opposition they’ll just do what they want and call it a day. But while these conflicts give leaders something to struggle against, they’re still a poor choice. That’s because the leader is already the most glorified character on Team Good, not to mention the one with the most authority. Making the leader right so frequently not only makes them insufferable but also kicks the other characters when they’re down.

Using one-sided conflicts to show how a character is right even though no one believed them is a lot of candy. Unless that character has a huge pile of spinach to make up for it, it will put them on a fast track to becoming unlikable. If a character already has a lot of spinach, and then you make them wrong, they could start to look incompetent. So before you create a one-sided conflict, look at your heroes and think about who needs spinach and who could use some candy.

Spotlight the Character Who’s Wrong

To better manage likability in one-sided conflicts, making a character wrong should be for the benefit of that character. It’s a great time to really hone in on who they are as a person and help them grow. Develop a character arc for your wrong character that highlights a flaw (hopefully one you’ve established previously) and show them struggling against it. They don’t have to be free of the flaw when the conflict is over, but they should learn an important lesson. Combined with other learning experiences, their flaw can eventually disappear.

One-sided conflicts can also happen not because of a flaw but because a character is ill and not in their right mind. If you take this route, I still recommend letting the character take something away from it, besides guilt over something they couldn’t control. In the Voyager episode The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine installs new equipment that allows her to download data into her mind, as she did when she was a full cyborg. The information is too much for her brain, causing her to generate a continuous stream of conspiracy theories. While the conspiracy theories weren’t her fault, it still provides Seven with an opportunity for growth: she has to come to terms with the limits of her new physiology.

Compare this to the episode Hatchery in Enterprise, in which Captain Archer is infected by a pathogen that causes him to protect alien offspring at all costs. His actions force his officers to mutiny just to get him medical attention. At the end, the only message viewers are left with is that maybe protecting babies is bad?

Luckily, Star Trek always does one thing right: illnesses causing irrational behavior are treated like illnesses, not like character flaws.

Don’t Use Luck to Make a Character Right

If you want to make a disagreement look neutral at first and then reveal one character is right, tread carefully. In these situations, it’s easy to give a character an unfounded opinion and then make them right by dumb luck. This comes off as a contrivance.

In the Voyager episode Prototype, Captain Janeway and Lieutenant Torres fight over whether to help a race of robots reproduce. Torres wants to help them create new robots so they don’t die out; Janeway insists it’s too dangerous to give that power to them. Torres ends up helping the robots anyway, and then it turns out they are in a big robot war, supposedly proving Janeway right. But the robots could have just as easily been innocent. By Janeway’s logic, they should never assist any alien species with anything.

Remember that the circumstance surrounding the conflict can turn out in a huge variety of ways simply by chance. If one character’s judgement works out best in a situation, it only makes them right if you show how events couldn’t have gone any other way.

For example, in season 4 of Enterprise, Archer gets in a conflict with Dr. Suung* about genetic augmentation. While this conflict has plenty of problems, Archer’s insistence that genetic augmentation is a bad idea is backed up by history. In Star Trek canon, genetic enhancements unintentionally resulted in people with greater aggression, causing the Eugenics Wars. When Dr. Suung learns that his “children” are violent, this history helps make the situation feel inevitable.

Avoiding Pitfalls

In Voyager, when Kes' psychic abilities begin to appear, Neelix tells her she's imagining it. In Voyager, when Kes’s psychic abilities first appear, Neelix tells her she’s imagining it.

When implemented poorly, protagonist conflicts result in petty behavior that doesn’t reflect well on the characters or the storyteller. Look out for these things in your conflicts.

Quibbles Over Partial Evidence

Arguments over facts don’t make good disagreements unless one of your characters is unreasonable. The protagonists either have enough evidence to reach a conclusion on the issue, or they don’t. Characters that receive ambiguous evidence and then insist on its meaning look like squabbling children. In Enterprise, a man shows up claiming to be an agent from the future. Even though they don’t have enough information to know whether or not he’s telling the truth, Archer is sure that he’s a time traveler, and T’Pol stubbornly insists he can’t be. 

Similarly, don’t use “hunches” in a story as though they’re evidence. A character that uses their “hunch” in place of real evidence has a flaw, and they should be on the wrong side of the conflict. That is, unless the hunch is the symptom of an actual reason the character can’t explain, such as a magic power they don’t know about. In that case, they should believe their feelings are unreasonable and act appropriately. In Voyager, Kes has latent psychic powers that she doesn’t understand. She admits what she feels without insisting that her nebulous feelings are evidence.

Characters should acknowledge alternate possibilities and incomplete evidence. In the scenario with the robots that wanted to reproduce, imagine if Torres had simply proposed that they investigate the robots in order to address Janeway’s concerns. If Torres and Janeway behaved like adults, they would have no reason to fight. That’s why conflicts over facts rarely work out.

Arguments Over Personal Choices

A character’s personal choice isn’t good fuel for an argument with comrades. At best, the outside character will come off as a bully. At worst, your plot will be incredibly problematic.

A good person that watches someone they care about make the wrong choice will be supportive, not confrontational. Of course, gently encouraging a friend to face their fears or make up with an estranged relative doesn’t make for great conflict. If this interaction is ramped up to produce more conflict, it becomes manipulation or bullying. In Enterprise, Commander Tucker pressures T’Pol to attend movie nights when she doesn’t want to, and he argues with her about how she is ignoring her feelings for him. This is more than a little creepy. Her “no” means “no,” okay? In Voyager, Janeway insists on making Seven of Nine into a human despite Seven’s incredibly adamant insistence that this is not what she wants for herself or her body.

Both shows validate the bully by making the bullied character grateful in the end. But this outcome is a contrivance of the storyteller; it doesn’t make these interactions okay. Besides being problematic, it’s just bad storytelling. A conflict involving a personal choice should center around the person making that choice. Seven of Nine should have had a complex internal struggle, resulting in her making the hard decision to become human. Putting the spotlight on Janeway only moves the plot away from the character with the actual problem.

There’s one exception to the problems with these conflicts. If the character is clearly harming themselves or others with their personal choices, it’s valid for another character to intervene. In the Voyager episode Nothing Human, Torres tries to refuse medical treatment that she needs to survive. Janeway makes her get it anyway, because they are stranded so far from home that the ship can’t get a new Chief Engineer, and without Torres, other crew members could die. In these situations, the decision to intervene shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Don’t Add New Character Flaws

It’s a lot easier to keep your protagonists in conflict if they aren’t all mature, reasonable people. Absolutely use existing character flaws to ramp up your conflict, but don’t make new character flaws appear out of nowhere; stay true to the characters you’ve established.

That means in most situations, characters should trust each other. Not believing someone when they complain about an issue isn’t what a comrade does. In the Enterprise episode Vanishing Point, Hoshi starts fading away after being transported for the first time. She tries to tells others about her issue several times, but they all dismiss it as her imagination. Hoshi may be scared of transporters, but it’s quite a jump to go from having a mild phobia to outright hallucinating. It’s hard not to conclude the crew is gaslighting her.*

Similarly, characters should communicate with each other. This is why misunderstandings do not make for good conflicts: they can be cleared up with one conversation. If your conflict relies on a lack of communication, you need to establish a solid reason why your characters don’t clear the air. A one-line explanation from a character isn’t sufficient; build it into your plot. If your characters tried to reconcile their differences already, and the discussions only went downhill, that could be a good reason. In Voyager, when Seven starts creating conspiracy theories, she manages to convince both Janeway and Chakotay that the other could be conspiring against them. This gives them a good reason not to communicate with each other. Even so, they eventually do, and it allows them to discover something is wrong with Seven.

Recognizing Power and Privilege

Sometimes Phlox and Hoshi have great interactions, other times they cut each other down. At times Phlox and Hoshi have great interactions; other times they cut each other down.

Whenever your heroes get in a conflict, consider who has power and privilege in that situation. It’s fine for a leader and a servant to have a conflict, but the leader will have to show more restraint. A leader can usually do whatever they want to their servant without retaliation, but the servant has limited means to antagonize the leader or defend themselves. If the leader uses all their power in the conflict, they will become a bully.

When you are creating a conflict between protagonists, take a moment to identify the power balance. Which character has more power? How are they using it in the conflict? In both Enterprise and Voyager, the captains use their power to threaten other characters simply for disagreeing with them. The other characters can never do this to the captain. Even when the doctors try to use their official authority to dismiss the captain for medical reasons, the captains simply ignore it and continue on as before. In the Voyager episode The Disease, Janeway punishes Kim for violating regulations, admitting even as she does so that she is biased against him. If the writers had thought critically about the power dynamics of this situation, they would have realized that this makes Janeway look really bad. A leader who knows they are biased should hand off punishments to someone who’s impartial.

Similarly, think about which person has privilege, in general and in the current situation. In the Enterprise episode Home, there’s a scene where Hoshi and Doctor Phlox discuss his choice whether or not to attend a restaurant on Earth. As a woman of color, Hoshi would usually be the less privileged of the two. But in this case, the issue is that on Phlox’s last trip to Earth, he faced harassment and physical threats because he’s an alien. Hoshi’s harsh insistence that Phlox should go to another Earth restaurant so that he doesn’t let the harassers win is incredibly inappropriate. Phlox is the victim; fixing the situation isn’t his responsibility. As a privileged human, Hoshi should focus her efforts on advocating against the discrimination her fellow humans are engaging in.

Remember: a battle between people of different power or privilege isn’t a fair fight. If you want your protagonists to be good people, the character with the advantage must hold back from using it.


If you can, plan protagonist conflicts before they happen. That way you can establish the character flaws you need, consider the situation more carefully, and decide where you want to take their relationship long term.

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    I haven’t seen Star Trek Enterprise, but going with the example of Hayes and Reed, Reed has a point, even if the show wasn’t smart enough to show it. In all of the various series, Starfleet wins wars not through superior military power but because their officers are superior scientists and diplomats. Victories through intelligence and cooperation rather than firepower are their specialty. If Reed had taken that position, he would have been right.

    Though Hayes does also have a point in that Starfleet should have a bit more of a focus on military roles, in particular that they should have a proper marine corps that is properly equipped with heavy infantry weapons and proper air support. Transporters and orbital bombardment may make full scale invasions obsolete, but they don’t make well equipped infantry obsolete. Even when it comes to shipboard security, Starfleet personnel are hardly impressive.

    The Siege of AR-558 shows both sides to be correct in some sense. While the Colonial Marines from Aliens could have practically held the chokepoint with a pair of smart guns, Starfleet engineers again showed their strength in that they were able to disable and reverse the minefield.

    • Chris Winkle

      Unfortunately the argument between Reed and Hayes isn’t about how militarized Star Fleet should be. I wish there was more of that debate, I liked it in the other series. But in Enterprise, everyone is in agreement on that. Instead it’s about whether Reed or Hayes gets to lead combat missions, etc, entirely a personal pride thing. Reed is really the instigator, and it makes him look petty.

      • SunlessNick

        Also a conflict that ought to have been solved simply by their job descriptions: Reed was a shipboard security and armoury officer; Hayes and his team were added later on because a specific need had come up for off-ship soldiery. That gives them two explicitly different – and equally important – areas of responsibility.

  2. SunlessNick

    Seven of Nine should have had a complex internal struggle, resulting in her making the hard decision to become human.

    Or even to recognise that she can never really be human again – not psychologically so, anyway – and her newfound individuality is uncharted territory she has to figure out regardless of what Janeway thinks she should be. On that basis, I always liked her relationship with Tuvok, because he didn’t burden her with the expectation that she just slot back into being human.

    Another point about Janeway’s role in all this is that Seven of Nine asks if whether once she’s recovered from the immediate trauma of de-assimilation, would be she allowed to return to the Borg if she wanted to. And Janeway outright *defines* recovery as no longer wanting to. At least they gave Seven a scornful reply about so much for free will.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh man you’re on the Seven/Tuvok train with me? Not necessarily as a romance, just two characters who should have hung out more?

      • Cay Reet

        I also thought they would match well … as friends of a sort, people who should have hung out together.

        It seemed obvious to me that Seven, due to having been assimilated that early in her life, would never become fully human by normal standards, because she was missing essential experiences which make humans human. I thought, however, that that wouldn’t have to be bad as a such.

      • SunlessNick

        Totally. Not for romance in my case, but yeah.

  3. JackbeThimble

    One show that handles these kinds of conflicts spectacularly well is ATLA, especially the 1st season. Almost every filler episode of Season 1 is focused around a conflict between Katara and Sokka over how they should respond to such and such a sidequest that pops up this week and they almost always have both sides make compelling arguments with believable results without resorting to Deux Ex Machina or slagging on either character.

  4. Sanchez Wong

    I enjoyed most of the post, but I disagree with the actions that Hoshi should take. I’ve never got into Star Trek so I’m just looking at this from at the information you’ve given me. However, the action of “advocating against the discrimination her fellow humans are engaging in” assumes that the majority of the human race actively engages in this kind of activity. This seems to be counter-intuitive to the setting of Star Trek from what I know. If this is not the case, then people that Phlox encountered are just a tiny percentage of the populace and Hoshi will be preaching to the choir.

    As for a solution, the racist humans are probably the product of ignorance, and the only way to combat that is better education as well as being raised to think critically. However, this’ll only affect future generations, and won’t fix the racism some people currently hold not solve racism entirely. Therefore, I agree with Hoshi’s suggestion, how Phlox responds to their racist remarks (in my opinion) is the best way to stand above them. If he stays away from Earth, it’ll just prove to the racist that his kind do not belong there and encourage their behavior as it has shown results. On the other hand if he goes there regardless of what the racist say then he’ll show them he’s their equal despite what they think of him, and that he has every right to be there as them.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So, the issue here is that Phlox is the victim. He gets to decide what’s best for himself and his own safety. Hoshi, who is not in danger here, is prioritizing her desire not to “let the racists win” over Phlox’s safety.

      If Hoshi is serious about wanting to combat xenophobia, she has many options other than putting Phlox in danger by pressuring him to go somewhere that isn’t safe. If nothing else, she could say something like “hey, if you want to go back, I’ll get together a posse of the crew and we’ll watch your back.”

      • SunlessNick

        Further to this, Enterprise is set well before what we think of as StarTrek – the Federation doesn’t exist yet, and prejudice against aliens is much more common.

        • Sanchez Wong

          Yes, my mistake. My friend informed me on that note, and I stand corrected. Thank you.

          However, from what my friend told me the prejudice is caused by people afraid of what happened when Earth was attacked by an alien race rather than general xenophobia. While their fears are unfounded it sounds like this general fear is caused by people uneducated about aliens as a whole.

          I think you’d agree with me that there’s a whole spectrum of alien species in Star Trek. Exposure and knowledge about other species and cultures is the only way to remove this. Shielding them from other species will quietly grow the idea that aliens are bad because we’re keeping them away from Earth.

      • Sanchez Wong

        So Phlox should let others handle a problem that’s primarily affecting him? He should let others fight his battles for him instead of finding the courage to stand up against it on his own? He is the victim, but I disagree that the victim gets to choose what’s best for them. That’s like a patient prescribing their own medicine to themselves without consulting a medical professional of any sort.

        • Cay Reet

          Especially in the early stages of the Federation, in which he lives, I think it’s not a bad idea to have backup. That doesn’t necessarily mean having others fight his battles, but if he gets into a fight and is in danger, there will be others stading by his side.

          And it’s not necessarily about fighting actual battles. But if he gets attacked verbally for being an alien, some people standing by his side and telling the attacker(s) that he’s a friend and a good person and they should get their act together would be a good thing. He can’t do that for himself, but other humans giving those attackers an earful can be effective.

          And in a case like this one, the victim gets to decide what is best for them. A patient prescribing medication is something completely different. You can’t force someone to go through a situation they’re afraid of – especially not when it’s not necessary for their survival. That’s an enormous stress for their body and their emotions.

          • Sanchez Wong

            Phlox had some friends in that scene defending him already, and while extra humans may help it looked like he had no problems taking care of himself in that scene. It’s more that Phlox himself needs to find the courage to stand up to injustice, however I can understand him not wanting to cause a scene and bother his friends.

            She’s not forcing anyone to go through anything, she’s trying to convince Phlox to see the bigger picture. Whether or not he actually goes through is still up to him in the end.

            It’s not necessary for his survival, but the fight against xenophobia is an ideological fight. Phlox has to decide for himself whether he values his life or the values he himself believe are right more.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, the bigger picture is good and well, but if someone is too afraid of going back into such a situation, there’s no reason and no point in forcing them to do so. Especially if the person putting pressure on them to go back into the situation doesn’t have to fear it, anyway, because they’re not victim of xenophobia (put in other reasons to attack people here) themselves.

            If Phlox wants to fight against xenophobia, it’s his decision and his right to do so. But if he just doesn’t want to cause a scene and would rather avoid places where people are attacking him, it’s perfectly fine for him to do so. Nobody should push him into a situation he’s afraid of or very uncomfortable with.

            And what I mostly wanted to point out is that the victim of xenophobia (in this case) has the choice about whether or not he’s willingly going back into such a situation. It’s NOT like self-medicating.

          • Sanchez Wong

            Odd that I can’t reply to your other statement. I guess there’s a limit.

            Again, no one is forcing Phlox to do anything, Hoshi is trying to reason with him. Forcing him to do it would be dragging him down to Earth against his will and pulling him into a restaurant. I don’t see that being implied in the slightest in the article so why do you insist on using the term ‘force’?

            I suppose you’re right that this particular situation isn’t necessarily like self-medication. I was thinking more along the lines of victims with severe traumatic experiences when I made that comparison as that was the initial impression I got from this situation. However, I guess this situation is more akin to a bully at your local intergalactic planet.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, there’s a limit to the number of answers you can give. Once you’ve reached it, you can only answer to the last answer with the ‘reply’ option.

            I admit ‘force’ is a strong word. The point made in the article is that someone who won’t be facing the problem at all tries to tell someone else how that problem should be solved. Phlox has reason to be weary of repeating his experience. Being bullied is never fun. Talking someone into doing something is, of course, not the same as physically dragging that person along, but if you have enough influence, it’s can be making that person drag him- or herself into that situation again.

          • Sanchez Wong

            Glad there’s a workaround.

            While they can convince them to make a decision, it’s still their decision to make in the end. I won’t deny that they can influence it, but the one who has the final say is them.

            I think we’ve gotten to an agreeable point, and I don’t want to turn this comment section to our own little talk show anymore than we already have. As such, thank you for the discussion Cay. I won’t be replying anymore, but if you leave a reply shortly I’ll be sure to see it. Have a wonderful week~

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, I think we see eye to eye on things here, no need to discuss it further

            Have a nice week yourself.

  5. Janet

    To be fair, Trip does emphasize the importance T’Pol’s choices in Breaking the Ice. And in Home, he doesn’t tell her about his feelings before she marries Koss. The caption makes it seem like he opposes her choices every time. That said, a LOT of people don’t notice that Trip bullies her into going to movie night with him. That’s especially true of shippers (full disclosure: I am one). I was guilty of that until I saw a Horizon review by a Trip hater. When I look at fanfiction forums and episode reviews by shippers, I see criticism of Archer for ordering her on a date. But not a peep about Trip. Even feminists were silent.

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