Conflict between characters is a vital tool of storytelling, but it can also be tricky, especially when both characters are on Team Good. Authors often have difficulty constructing conflicts where neither character is obviously at fault, or they have difficulty dealing with the implications when one character is obviously at fault. This leads to conflicts that feel contrived and make the characters involved less likable.
Unfortunately, this problem is really common in popular stories. On the bright side, it also means we have plenty of examples to take apart and learn from, so let’s get on that.
Spoiler Notice: Magic for Liars, Cast in Shadow, and Another Life.
At first glance, The Next Generation seems like an odd choice for this list. Isn’t TNG famous for lacking any inter-character conflict at all, contrived or otherwise? It does have that reputation, but there are always exceptions. One of those is the conflict between Pulaski and Data, although using the word “between” may be giving the show too much credit here.
This all happens in the show’s second season, when Dr. Pulaski takes over as the ship’s chief medical officer. At first, it seems like she’s just going to be an archetypal gruff, no-nonsense doctor like McCoy in the original series. But then she meets Data, everyone’s favorite android, and immediately decides he’s not a person. She can’t even be bothered to pronounce his name properly.
It gets worse from there. Pulaski hounds Data with proclamations that he can’t possibly do human things like – solving a mystery story? I’m honestly not sure why she went with that one, but here we are. Naturally, Data never rises to Pulaski’s provocations and always treats her with perfect courtesy.
This conflict feels incredibly contrived because Pulaski has no reason to go after Data the way she does. She has no motivation that we know of, so the only explanation is that she’s just a bigot. And yet, she’s also a main character that we’re clearly supposed to like, and it’s hard to do that when she’s constantly dehumanizing a fellow officer.
From what I can tell, this conflict was engineered in an attempt to recreate the banter between Spock and McCoy from the original series, with Data filling in for Spock. That was simply never going to work, because Data is a very different character. Spock can be a snarky bastard when he wants to, whereas Data doesn’t seem to have an unkind circuit in his positronic net. It’s also possible Pulaski’s bullying was meant to push Data into further exploring humanity, but he was already doing that. He didn’t need any pushing.
In this sequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we see the Pevensie children return to Narnia, only to discover that hundreds of years have passed. Oh no! Everything looks different, and our heroes are having a difficult time finding their way. What are they to do? Well, they could rely on the divine guidance sent directly from Aslan, AKA Lion-Jesus, but they’re not going to because it’s time for some contrived conflict!
You see, not long after arriving in Narnia, young Lucy receives a vision. In this vision, she sees Aslan pointing the way they should go, which seems like an obvious solution, right? But no, Peter and Susan, the older siblings, don’t want to go that way because it’s steeper than the route they’re currently on. They even think Lucy might have imagined the whole thing. Edmund, the final sibling, believes Lucy but still goes along with Peter and Susan.
This is all a setup for the kids having to restore their lost faith in Aslan later,* but it doesn’t make any sense. In the previous book, these kids spent an entire lifetime in Narnia, and those events only happened a year ago. The Pevensies know all about Aslan, and they know he has a special connection to Lucy. They’ve even been in a similar situation before in the previous book, when they didn’t believe Lucy’s original claims about Narnia. She was right then too.
Within the context of the story, there’s no reason for the characters to have lost faith in Aslan so fast, unless we fill in some headcanon about the real world being a corrupting influence. The film version of Prince Caspian tried to provide a stronger reason: the path Aslan indicated led straight off a cliff. This certainly gives the characters a stronger reason not to follow Lucy’s advice, but it also makes Aslan seem like a jerk ordering his followers to risk their lives for no reason.*
3. Stranger Things 2
The main conflict for season two of Stranger Things comes from an extra-dimensional monster, and that works reasonably well. The contrivance comes entirely from the relationship between Eleven and the newly arrived Max, in which Eleven decides she hates the newcomer for no reason at all.
To be fair, Eleven’s not the only one. First, her boyfriend, Mike, decides he doesn’t want Max joining the group because she would naturally be taking up the “one girl allowed” slot. That’s already pretty contrived, but at least we can attribute some of it to a combination of learned sexism and Mike still grieving over Eleven, since he doesn’t know if she’s even alive at this point.
But then Eleven gets in on the action and it makes even less sense. After a year of being cooped up in a remote cabin, Eleven finally ventures forth to rejoin her friends. Then, she sees Mike and Max in the same room together, which makes her so upset that she hits Max with a psychic punch and then runs off without even saying hello.
Wait, what? The implication here is that Eleven gets jealous, but that doesn’t work at all. It’s not like Mike and Max were making out. In order for Eleven to be jealous, she’d need to somehow have internalized the idea that there can only be one girl per group and also the idea that any contact between boys and girls is inherently romantic. She’s only had access to TV for a few months, so this seems unlikely.
But even if we accept that Eleven has absorbed enough sexist ideas to be jealous of Max, it still seems highly unlikely that she’d run off. She’s been pining after Mike for a year now, and we’re supposed to believe that a little jealousy is all it took to drive her away? What’s worse, this conflict with Max never goes anywhere. Neither Mike nor Eleven have a moment where they realize they were wrong, let alone make amends. The only silver lining is that the show reverses course in season three, making Max and Eleven the best of friends, which is some truly great TV.
In this magical mystery novel, protagonist Ivy has a conflict with her sister, Tabitha. At first, we’re told this conflict comes from the fact that Tabitha has magic and Ivy doesn’t. When they were kids, Ivy was jealous and resentful, whereas Tabitha acted more than a little elitist. This led to them becoming estranged as adults, and their interactions are what you’d expect: tense, but not overtly hostile.
That doesn’t sound contrived at all, so what’s the problem? It all starts with the main plot: a murder investigation that Ivy is conducting. Early on, she finds out that Tabitha was dating the victim and concludes that Tabitha is likely the killer because, in Ivy’s words, “it’s always the spouse.” She doesn’t have any actual evidence, and her statistical assertions seem pretty shaky considering how underrepresented women are in the ranks of murderers.* So, this is already pretty contrived.
But then we get a reveal of sorts. It turns out that Ivy actually blames Tabitha for their mother’s death from cancer, because Tabitha never came home when their mother was dying or tried to use her magic to cure the disease. This is used to justify Ivy’s murder suspicion, since she already thinks Tabitha is the kind of person to callously let a loved one die.
Ivy’s suspicions do make more sense now, but the reveal is still incredibly contrived. First, this is only a reveal to the reader. Ivy already knew all this, which means the book hid important information. That’s super annoying, especially since all it accomplished was to make the story more confusing. But worse, now that we finally know Ivy and Tabitha’s real backstory, their previous interactions don’t make sense.
Before the backstory reveal, the sisters acted like you’d expect estranged siblings to act. Ivy even hopes they might be able to reconnect. This is not a train of thought Ivy would have about someone she blames for her mother’s death. So, by revealing the info we needed to make sense of one confusing plot point, the book creates a second confusing plot point, and it’s got no explanation for this one.
Adding even more confusion, while Tabitha does eventually explain that her magic couldn’t have done anything about the cancer, the story never addresses why she never came home to see her dying mother. Ivy just acts like that particular conflict is over now and everyone’s moved on. I guess she was in a really forgiving mood that day.
Buffy is a long show with a lot of inter-character conflicts that range from super compelling to totally contrived. On the more contrived end of the spectrum, we have the tale of Riley Finn and the breakdown of his relationship with Buffy Summers. In his early appearances, Riley is a fairly uncomplicated love interest for the slayer, but in season five, he starts a downward arc in preparation for his departure from the main cast. This sees him grow increasingly isolated from the other characters, until he can’t take it anymore and leaves Sunnydale for good.*
That’s not an inherently terrible idea, but the way Riley’s downward arc starts is incredibly contrived. Namely, he decides for no discernible reason that Buffy doesn’t actually love him, and then he tells Xander about it, which might be even weirder. This flies in the face of Buffy’s obviously being head over heels for Riley, but why let a little thing like character consistency get in the way of some sweet angst?
As the fifth season goes on, we finally get some context for why Riley is unhappy in his relationship: a combination of jealousy toward Buffy’s ex and feeling like Buffy isn’t vulnerable enough with him. That second one is especially weird, since Riley seems to mostly feel inadequate because Buffy doesn’t cry on his shoulder enough.
That’s not exactly unrealistic, but it’s certainly unsympathetic. Riley’s departure is cast as a tragic moment, with Buffy even trying to stop him but not quite getting there in time. But because his relationship issues are so out of left field, he mostly just seems like a controlling jerk and we’re glad to see him go. All of this happens because the writers couldn’t come up with a real issue in the Buffy/Riley relationship.
As a final bit of weirdness, Riley’s departure didn’t require his relationship to fall apart. He had a much more compelling motivation: feeling useless without a squad of soldiers to command. It seems pretty reasonable that he’d want to return to the military where he can actually contribute. This motivation is even present in the show, but it always takes a back seat to the relationship problems.
This fantasy novel of magic and mystery focuses on Kaylin Neya, an officer in her city’s police force. She gets assigned a new partner to investigate a grisly murder, how exciting! Naturally, we expect some friction with the partner, because what cop story would be complete without it? But apparently that wasn’t enough. When Kaylin meets her new partner, a man named Severn, she immediately tries to kill him.
We aren’t told why she does this, only that it has to do with their shared backstory. This story is told in third-person limited, which means we have another novel that’s hiding important information from the audience for a “reveal” later. Those always turn out so well! For some reason, Kaylin’s superiors are remarkably nonplussed about the whole attempted murder thing and promptly send her out with Severn to solve crimes.
For a while they act more like you’d expect new partners to act. He gets on her nerves, she shows him up, it even seems like there’s a romance brewing. We still don’t know why she tried to kill him, but at this point it’s increasingly obvious that whatever the motivation, it’s not going to square with the way they’re interacting now.
Later in the story, Kaylin tries to kill Severn again, and this time we’re finally told why: she thinks he murdered some children when they were younger.* Just as we expected, this backstory completely invalidates their relationship dynamic until now. There’s no way Kaylin was exchanging witty banter with someone she believed to be a child murderer.
Worse, this contrived conflict manages to catch Kaylin’s superiors in its blast radius. Earlier, it was already really weird that they kept Kaylin and Severn together after she tried to kill him, but the book hurried on and hoped you wouldn’t notice. Now, after a second attempt, Kaylin’s boss has the gall to act shocked that Kaylin would do something like this. How could he possibly have known?
7. Another Life
Naturally, I had to save the best (worst?) for last. Another Life is a new Netflix scifi show, and today we’re going to focus exclusively on the first episode,* because it is built entirely on contrived conflict. We start aboard the Salvare, a spacecraft sent out to make contact with alien life, and an ignominious start it is.
Things go wrong from the moment the crew is awakened from cryosleep. First, they don’t seem to know each other’s names, which is just strange since they’re supposed to have trained together before the mission was launched. Then, they immediately fall into petty bickering and dominance games. This is supposed to be an elite crew of professionals, but it looks more like a group made up of all the worst people you’ve ever worked with.
But wait, there’s more! The ship then runs into a navigational problem where some aggressively bad technobabble* is forcing them to take a detour. This will extend their mission by a few months. The only other option is a dangerous maneuver with an 11% chance of total destruction.
Naturally, the captain decides to take the scenic route since she doesn’t want anyone to die and the crew… decides to mutiny over it? What possible explanation could there be for this? It depends on what scene you’re in. Sometimes, the crew tries to justify their choice by talking about how important this mission is. This fails because they don’t seem to be on a time limit, so losing a few months isn’t a big deal, and the mission won’t be completed at all if their ship is destroyed. In other scenes, the crew admits that they mostly don’t want to wait a few months, and while that’s at least honest, it’s still infuriating.
The only way to explain this mutiny is for the crew to be so incompetent that it breaks all suspension of disbelief. It is simply inconceivable that the first crew sent to contact aliens would be so bad at their jobs, and watching these jokers bumble around makes you pray for a warp-core breach.
If that wasn’t enough, we get some contrived conflict back on Earth too, where a scientist is trying to figure out an alien probe. The conflict here is that the general in charge of the project keeps looking over the scientist’s shoulder, making the whole job harder and more stressful. Except, there’s no reason for the general to be there. Why is she micromanaging her scientists in a field she knows nothing about instead of waiting for the results like a reasonable boss?
On second thought, if this is what the higher-ups are like, maybe it is plausible for the space crew to act like they just walked off the set of a mean-spirited comedy. It’s still really contrived though.
If inter-character conflict is a fine wine to pair with the main course of your plot, a contrived conflict turns that wine into vinegar. What should have elevated the story and made it more impactful instead turns it into a total drag, with audiences just hoping it will be over soon. Don’t let this happen to you. If you want conflict between your characters, make sure it’s for a good reason.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?