Conflict Matrix: Some observations

22 December 2014 10:00

Last week I posted about using a conflict matrix to figure out stuff that needs to happen in your story. I’ve been working on mine for the past several days (11 significant characters = 110 motivations), and I’ve made a number of observations that could be helpful.

Conflicts should be isolated When pairing off two characters, the source of conflict from character A to character B should only involve characters A and B. You should not involve any other characters in describing the conflict between them.

The reason for this is that the matrix is meant to define relations between characters, and to create interesting new situations in which characters can come into conflict. If the most important source of contention between two characters is another character, then you’re either over-estimating the importance of the two characters you’re trying to bring into conflict, or the character in question is under-developed.

To give a less abstract example:

Because that’s just asking to fail the Bechdel Test, or at the very least turn their interactions into a clich.

Avoid duplicate conflicts I’ve noticed that several characters in my matrix have the same reasons for coming into conflict with a certain other character. This is most noticeable with the main antagonist. This isn’t exactly surprising or wrong, but it doesn’t add anything new to your story. Having each character hate the antagonist for the same reason doesn’t add anything new to your story, which was the point to begin with.

Whenever you find yourself duplicating motivations, stop, and think about it. Do you really want to enumerate the most obvious reason, or do you want to add more conflict? Think of other ways in which they can come into conflict. A conflicting character trait? An as-of-yet unexplored shared bit of history? Be creative.

Take a step back The more characters you have, the bigger your matrix will be. This means you’ll need to figure out a lot of conflicts. Not all of these will be obvious to you at once, and staring at an empty square won’t help you think of them faster. Take a step back, skip difficult squares until a later time. Fill out more obvious ones first (remembering the previous two points), and remember that these things take time. Your muse gets tired too, and taking a break to exercise or shower (or both!) can be very helpful in recharging your imagination.

I’ll continue sharing my insights as I keep using this technique. Has anybody else used a similar technique, or advice to add on the subject? Feel free to comment!