a character with a difficult problem vs one with conflict

A protagonist from an upper middle-class family wants to study at Julliard to be a (fill in the blank). But they have a problem — Julliard is very exclusive, expensive, and difficult. So the character works hard, practices from the early hours to late at night, and does as much work on the side that they can to help defer the costs.

But it’s not until the character does all of that diligently and doesn’t get accepted that the first hint of conflict enters the story.

Conflict is what keeps a character from what they want. In this case, whether or not the protag gets accepted is completely out of their control. It was difficult to dedicate their lives to a single goal, but nothing tried to stop them from accomplishing their goals.

The entire story could have been told in a montage where every shot would be “character works hard to achieve goals.”

Now, imagine another character, about to go into hypoglycemic shock because they gave themselves too much insulin that morning and didn’t eat enough to counteract it. If the character reaches into their pocket and pops a lifesaver in their mouth or runs into a store to buy a new pack, they’ve just solved a difficult problem.

But, say, they grabbed their spring coat that morning so their glucose pills and their wallet are still in their winter coat they decided not to take and the only candy in sight is held in the tiny, clenched fist of an — unsupervised for the purpose of the story — baby.

One does not steal candy from a baby. But one should also not collapse into a sweaty lump on the sidewalk on a spring morning in downtown Calgary. That character now has a conflict that they have to either be unconscious or the person who steals candy from a baby for no apparent reason because once they eat the sugar, they’re no longer at risk of passing out.

They’d look like a perfectly healthy human who had just stolen candy from a baby.

Plots to stories should be difficult but there is no conflict until the character is presented with a task that they cannot do or a mental block that won’t let them. It’s only when the character is unable to succeed with the tools they brought into the story with them that conflict can drive meaningful character development.

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