Why Your Characters Should Hate Each Other
Conflict is the core of any novel — what does your protagonist want, and what’s preventing them from getting it? But conflict between characters — interpersonal conflict — is just as important for building tension and keeping the reader engaged.
Before I start writing a novel (I’m a committed plotter, so I do a lot of prep work), I make a list of all my characters. The list includes a bit of backstory, appearance, and what each character wants more than anything (if they don’t know, I write that down, but I also include what they don’t know they want — because I’m the author and I know everything about them, after all). But I also consider how each character would interact with the others. For example, what would irritate the deuteragonist about the protagonist’s best friend? Does the best friend think the protagonist is too much of a risk-taker? Does she, in turn, regard him as overly cautious?
Characters who get along with each other run the risk of being boring. If you think of your favourite scenes in your favourite books, there’s a good chance they involve interpersonal conflict. It could be the argument that leads up to the first kiss, or the moment when the heroine stands up to her persecutors. But interpersonal conflict isn’t just for the climactic scenes—it also works well when it’s sprinkled through the novel in smaller moments. For one thing, it’s realistic, and for another, arguments create contrast that shows us who our characters are: what they stand for; what their strengths and blind spots are.
In my first novel, Even the Darkest Stars, there are a lot of conflicts running through the narrative — between the protagonist and her sister; between the protagonist and her mentor; between her sister and her mentor. One of the smaller conflicts involves the protagonist, Kamzin, and a secondary character, Dargye.
Dargye is an older man unused to answering to younger women, while Kamzin is the 17-year-old girl who happens to be in charge of their expedition. At one point, Dargye refuses to build a fire where Kamzin tells him to — not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, and she’s ready to throw up her hands and walk away. But in the end, she goes and stamps out the fire he’s building with her bare foot. Dargye, startled and probably impressed in spite of himself, ends up building the fire exactly where Kamzin told him to. Again, it’s a small moment, but hugely important in terms of what it reveals about the characters and how they’re going to develop over the course of the novel. And how dull would that scene have been if everyone simply shuffled around doing whatever Kamzin asked?
Wherever you can, I highly recommend inserting conflict into your scenes, and as many diverse (and ideally argumentative) personalities as possible. I aim to have every one of my characters hate each other, even just a bit.