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
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
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.
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
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.