Does My Character-Driven Story Need an External Conflict?

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I recently read your article on writing a character-driven story (I really enjoyed it, and it helped clarify my ideas quite a bit!) and realized that the fantasy YA series I am writing–especially the first book–is mostly character driven. From my browsing of bookstores, it seems that most popular fantasy YA books have strong throughlines of external conflict complementing or driving the plot. Though I definitely have external plotlines, they are mostly in service of my character’s internal journey and might not be considered super exciting on their own.

Do you think that incorporating external drama into my series–given the genre–is necessary, and if so do you have any tips, tricks, or advice on how to do it? Thanks so much!

— Ashley

Hi Ashley,

Whether you need a more external conflict probably depends on the nature of your character’s story. Having one can be very helpful for a couple reasons:

  • Novels are very long stories, and when readers are given the same type of conflict scene after scene, it can get tiring. Have different types of conflict allows the writer to switch things up.
  • A lot of emotional stories – particularly romances – have trouble putting in enough important plot points to fill a whole novel. Readers may start asking, “Why don’t they just get together/solve their problems already?” When the dilemma facing the character just doesn’t take a novel-length period of time to solve, adding another conflict allows the writer to essentially shorten the length of the personal storyline.

So if your character-driven story has a lot of variety built in and plenty of things that can happen without going back and forth or otherwise repeating itself, you may not need another conflict. But having one might really help if you find you have a muddlesome middle or are otherwise struggling to keep things interesting.

Please note that your external conflict doesn’t have to be full of explosions and fight scenes. A relationship arc, a mystery, or a personal quest could also add variety to your conflicts and help you fill the story out.

For more on this, I recommend my post on dual plot structures.

Happy Writing!

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  1. Sam Victors

    My first story is both character-driven and has an external plot, with the young heroine starting out as a pouty, fantasy-obsessed brat, whose bad wish gets her adoptive family kidnapped by a wicked Fairy Queen and her son, and now she has to go on this quest to the fairy Otherworld to rescue them.

    And it takes her 7 years to save them, and break the curse that was put upon them.

    Throughout her journey, she learns to be less bratty, find empowerment, and learn to balance her childhood fantasies with adult responsibility.

    And unlike Dorothy, Wendy, Alice, Jane, Susan and Lucy, my Heroine can return back to the Otherworld whenever she wants, like Persephone going back and forth from the Underworld to the World Above. That whole ‘too old to visit fantasy land’ rule is a cliche and false, made up by male fantasy writers to make their child audience feel guilty about growing up, while simultaneously teaching them to grow up.

    • Bunny

      Have you ever read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making? Long title I know, but it’s part of a really good series (which I think is called Fairyland). In this case, there are two types of interlopers into Fairyland: the Ravished and the Stumbled. The Ravished are taken to Fairyland by one of its inhabitants (in the MC September’s case, the Green Wind), and [SPOILERS] they have an hourglass which runs out but can bring them back to Fairyland on schedule. The Stumbled, who fall into Fairyland by accident, have a clock which winds down and cannot be reset – a fact which makes for an extremely compelling villain backstory in the first book.

      It’d be worth checking out, as your story and Fairyland seem to have much in common, including the themes of balance and growing up. In fact, the second book is somewhat darker and loosely based off of the story of Persephone, while the first is more inspired by retellings of folklore.

    • Andie

      Hi Sam;

      After reading your first paragraph; I am immediately reminded of the story Labyrinth. If you haven’t seen the movie, the protagonist Sarah, is an immature, fantasy-obsessed brat who wishes that the Goblin King will come and steal away her baby-brother. Which he does. Sarah then spends the entirety of the movie attempting to undo her wish and in the process, growing up along the way.

      Not knowing your age, (the movie was made over 30 years ago) It may be worth checking out to see how your story differs. While ideas can not be copy-written, knowing what’s already been done can help you put a delicious spin on your own story. Your idea of a curse, is intriguing, and a seven year lime span can definitely lead to character growth. (If it doesn’t something is seriously wrong).

      The idea of a homage isn’t new,(check out any Tolkien-based fantasy) nor is the reworking of the classic fairy tale (Hello, Disney) and clearly there’s a market for it. Its putting your own spin on things–a twist that nobody expected that can make your own work shine.

      • Cay Reet

        I also immediately thought of Labyrinth, as it were.

        A few details, though: Sarah wishes away her step-brother … and she knows to do that, because she’s been practicing her acting from a small book with the story about the Goblin King in it. If you like music and muppets and fantasy, Labyrinth is surely worth a watch – David Bowie did a great villain as the Goblin King.

        However, Sarah is not able to go back to the goblin kingdom at will afterwards, the stories ends after she has successfully gotten her brother back. There is a suggestion, though, that her new friends will stay with her in one way or other. The movies ends with a snow owl (and once you’ve seen it, you will know what that suggests).

        • Sam Victors

          I have seen Labyrinth, many times as a kid (grew up in the 90s).

          Originally, my story was meant to be a retelling of an Andersen fairy tale, The Wild Swans, but I took inspiration from Labyrinth.

          Like Sarah, my Heroine is fantasy-obsessed, and implied to be autistic (and somewhat based on me, a fantasy-loving autistic man), and is also hinted to be bi, but she’s not ready to accept sexuality yet. You see, my Heroine lives with her relatives as their adopted daughter (like Harry Potter), because her actress mother had her out of wedlock (the story is set in the 1920s), not to mention the Mother is an irresponsible and reckless woman, who doted on her ‘niece’ but frightened her with her adult vices and revealing the secret to her while drunk.

          The Heroine is also obsessed with mythology, fantastical stories (like Gulliver’s Travels or Dracula), and loves to research folkloric stories. She’s also a little more aggressive than Sarah, as she would physically attack those who taunt or disturb her fantasy games, and she’s very self-isolating, retreating to her room, escapism, and paracosm. The Heroine also loves to play all the gender roles in fairy tales, from knights to princesses to goddesses to women warriors. She’s something of a kleptomaniac, taking props from the school theater or bits of jewelry/clothing form her siblings to use as tools for her games.

          Although she’s able to recognize the queer subtext and elements in myths, especially Greco-Roman myths, she still rather not acknowledge sexuality at all, preferring romance and friendship (though to be fair, she’s 13 at the start of story, and is 19 or 20 at the end of story).

          The wicked Fairy Queen, the story’s villain (along with her spoiled son), plays a big role than just simple kidnapper; she originally wanted to seduce the Heroine’s father away, but he rejected her many times. For that insolence, the Fairy Queen punishes him and his family, by the wish of the Heroine (when was wishing upon a dandelion).

          Her son, the Fairy Prince, is kind of like Jareth, but at first he sees the Heroine as a foolish brat. But over time, as the Heroine grows older, he creepily begins to have feelings for her, and tries to seduce her under guise of the father the heroine never met (she has a picture of both her true parents, she always thought were uncle and aunt). The Fairy Prince is capable of love, and can be sincere in his devotion, but he’s just too emotionally immature and beastly, not to mention he always sees himself as someone’s superior, incapable of seeing anyone as an equal (apart from his mother and the rest of the Fairy Monarchs). He’s a walking, talking, power imbalance; an ageless, magical monarch prone to mood swings and can be domineering when given the opportunity.

          The wicked Fairy Queen, is just as monstrous as her son; slightly asocial but enjoys the luxuries and comforts of all worldly and otherworldly pleasures, pitiless, vindictive, and a classical kidnapper of men, women, and children (whether to be her lovers, companions or pets).

          And like Sarah and Dorothy, the Heroine has three companions, but they are all female; a dwarfess, a fox maiden, and a stone giantess. She also finds a mentor in an old wise woman.

          • Sam Victors

            The Heroine not only detests growing up, but fears it, believing that she will one day end like her mother, or she will end up in an asylum, as so many would tease her about.

            She also has no good female role model emulate; her birth mother is irresponsible, her adoptive mother/aunt is a loving but overbearing religious fanatic, her older sister is a tough but no-nonsense and self-sexist tomboy, her second elder sister is a shallow and vain girly girl, her third elder sister is a brainy but brown-nosing and smug bookworm. Even her schoolteachers aren’t good role models at all; the first teacher is a soft-spoken but irritating and patronizing misplaced kindergarten teacher, and the second teacher is a hardhearted and brutish disciplinarian.

            Its not when she meets the wise woman and the three companions does she find true female role models to not only emulate but to form a true friendship and foster family.

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