I love conflict in stories, but not all conflict is created equal. There’s one type that really annoys me as a reader or a viewer.
Maybe I’m just a team player at heart, but I prefer a group of characters who work together to overcome problems. That “us against the world” attitude that makes me want to cheer for them and I can’t wait to see how they deal with the next obstacle thrown their way.
As soon as they turn on each other and start bickering, or stabbing each other in the back, then I want to kick the whole lot to the curb. It’s hard to root for people who are being mean, petty, and selfish. Watching people fight is not my idea of enjoyment (though countless daytime talk shows says I might be in the minority here).
As a writer, infighting feels like lazy plotting to me. Stuck on what to do? Let’s have everyone turn on each other!
Now, I’m not saying that characters can’t disagree, or fight, or even betray each other. When done well, those elements add to the richness of a well-told novel. I’m also not talking about protagonists fighting antagonist, because that’s their jobs.
I’m talking about core characters who typically work together fighting each other because it’s easier than creating worthy obstacles for them to struggle against.
Here’s a test to see if your characters are having useful fights or just fighting each other:
1. Why are the characters fighting?
If there are solid, believable motivations for the fight, then odds are it’s helping, not hurting, the story. Disagreements on the right course of action for the same goal is a good conflict, because the issue’s not what to do, it’s how to do it. Disagreements over what to do because one character is pissed off at the other for a slight and is just being contrary, is manufactured conflict, and probably not the best way to advance the story.
If there are no real motivations for a fight then there are probably no stakes either. No stakes equals a boring scene, because nothing bad will happen to make the reader care how the fight turns out. If the fight truly doesn’t matter, it doesn’t need to be there.
2. What’s gained by the fight?
If the characters are turning on each other, there’d better be a good reason plotwise. A difference in morality or beliefs, a strong sense that one person is crossing a line or making a mistake, the deliberate attempt by the author to show the conflicting sides of an argument to make a point–whatever it is, the fight achieves something that deepens or advances the story.
If the fight achieves nothing but make the characters angry at each other, odds are it’s not doing much for the story and it can make the fight feel contrived. Also be wary of fights that do nothing but separate the characters so they’ll be alone or at odds when the antagonist strikes.
3. What changes because of the fight?
Like any good turning point, the fight should affect the plot or character development in some way. If the story and the characters are the same before and after the fight, that’s a red flag the fight is unnecessary. Make sure the fight changes what happens–let it change opinions, change goals, change the stakes–whatever it needs to do to make it a plot point and not just filler until the next actual plot moment.
4. What’s revealed during the fight?
Fights get emotional, and when people get emotional they often say things they wish they could take back. Secrets and miscommunications are often what trigger a fight in the first place. If your characters aren’t saying anything they wouldn’t have said while calm and rational, then why are they yelling it? What’s the point of the fight if it doesn’t cause new information to come to light?
5. How are the emotions affected?
When tensions are high, people will snap at each other. If these spats turn into a larger fight, how does this affect the characters involved? Maybe it causes a shift in thinking or opinion, or reveals a less-than-likable side to a character that changes how another character feels about them, or maybe it sparks (or re-ignite) a passion or attraction. It’s hard for people to fight and not get emotionally caught up in it, or have those emotions color their judgment for a period of time afterward.
While not everything on this list has to appear in every fight (or any if the story really calls for it and you can make it work), it’s worth checking to see if a fight between characters is helping your story or just delaying when something interesting occurs. It can seem like an easy fix to toss in a fight to shake things up, but if the fight serves no real purpose, readers won’t care. If your characters are going to fight, make sure it’s a fight worth caring about.
How do you feel about character infighting?