As I understand it, conflict means presenting a character with an obstacle that he can only overcome through change. The problem is that I can't think of such a thing. Nearly all conflict that comes to my mind, even internal, is expressed externally: perhaps the character is faced with an antagonist, or he wants to charm someone, or solve some problem. This doesn't seem to work with my story.

Let me set the scene. Merciless bullying at school left marks on my main character, and the most prominent is her uncompromising refusal to be a bystander. Normally, that's an admirable trait, and in another genre, she could've been a hero. But that didn't happen. Presented with lose-lose choices where most would take the easy road and not get involved, she tried to make the best of bad situations, and that's left her with many regrets over her history of dubious moral decisions.

(For example, after a disaster strikes her city and the government's considering condemning it, she threatens the mayor with his son's life to get him to speak against it. She has a couple of good reasons for that, but the mayor did nothing to deserve it, and it doesn't change what she did. This is not a one-off thing.)

My story takes place after that. She's given a second lease on life in a far more casual setting and a mission: "Die [of natural causes, I mean] without regrets. That'll be your redemption." Tonally, this is supposed to be a lighthearted gag about a grizzled vet getting dumped in what amounts to a playground, but it's impossible to ignore the baggage she's carrying with her, so I'm trying to balance the two.

She knows something within her has to change; but what? It can't be her unwillingness to look the other way, because that's nothing bad on its own. After some deliberation, I decided that, when presented with a question with no right answers, the best she can do is heed others' opinions instead of forging on with hers alone. That's what democracy's all about.

How can I convert that into narrative conflict? I can't create an antagonist she can't otherwise overcome, because that would contradict the "hard mode → easy mode" trope. I don't intend to write romance, so I don't know about charming someone, either.

The closest equivalent I can think of is the TV show, Arcane. Its main character undergoes drastic change after a traumatic event, but when someone from her past resurfaces, she's faced with a dilemma: does she stay who she is or go back to who she used to be? Until she's solved this conflict, she can't find inner peace. The difference is that, for her, inner peace is a life-or-death necessity, because she's legitimately going insane, psychosis and hallucinations and all.

My character can go on as she is. It might not be a fulfilled life, but she'll survive. How can I change that?

If I were not angling for a happy ending, I could write a tragedy where she's unable to come up with an answer; but I am.

And on that note, everything I've said here assumes that I, as the author, must have an answer to my character's problem and guide her to it. Is it possible to write an exploratory story where I don't? What are examples of such?

  • Who has given her the new mission? Dec 1, 2022 at 6:44
  • @Mousentrude A god, technically, but that's irrelevant. It's more of a "do what you will, but here's some advice" rather than "I order you to carry out this mission". She can do whatever she wants. I suppose I could change that and make it binding, now that you mention it. That could force her hand. It's one way to do it. Dec 1, 2022 at 7:33
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    "My character can go on as she is." Are you sure? She sounds like she has a penchant for solving problems with violence, like nearly killing the mayor's son. I think part of the conflict would be that solutions in her old life don't translate to the new life. One way to really emphasize that could be to make her deal with children. (Either as guardian/parent, or maybe teacher or some community role.) It's always fun to see grizzled vets deal with kids.
    – user54131
    Dec 1, 2022 at 7:36
  • @towr That's something that occurred to me, too. But how would I turn that into conflict? Would she struggle to gain the child's approval? Or to protect them if and when they're taken hostage? Dec 1, 2022 at 7:48
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    It depends on what sort of story you want. If you want something action-packed where her old solutions work, then a hostage situation where she beats up the bad-guys can work. If instead you want a more lighthearted fish-out-of-water story, then simply the everyday struggles of life (getting the kid fed, to bed, to school etc) can work. The age of the kid can also totally change the dynamics. A teenager would be great for a story about gaining mutual understanding and earning each others approval. Maybe the teenager is on the same path she was (bullied, resorting to violence).
    – user54131
    Dec 1, 2022 at 8:57

2 Answers 2


A Problem with a different kind of solution:

Your MC is like a soldier. Give a person a weapon, and they fight. When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail.

But every time your character reverts to solving problems with violence, there are unintended side effects that seem worse. You beat up a gang leader, and the morally ambiguous gang leader's vulnerable followers are mistreated and the neighborhood is overrun by worse criminals. A violent person is suffering a mental illness and your MC kills them. The family is suing, the police are angry, and the charity the mentally ill person ran collapses.

Give the character challenges best solved by cooperation, fundraising, political activism, and acts of selflessness.

Or you can make their challenges more personal. They have to rebuild someone's trust. The MC doesn't want romance, but someone else (nice, not stalker-y) is actively pursuing THEM. A vulnerable person comes into their life (child? accidental victim?) and they must pursue that person's goals to atone for past misdeeds.

If you need it to be more action-oriented, then the real problems could be caused by villains off-screen that no amount of bad-guy pummeling will solve. They must learn to be sneaky, deceive, lie and cheat to gain valuable info. Their simple sense of violent-but-honorable solutions is challenged with a different kind of moral ambiguity. Infiltrating a criminal organization requires them to put short-term vengeance aside to achieve greater goals.


I would suggest that you set sterner moral limits for how the character is allowed to achieve her objectives.

The previous scenario you described with the major's son is a great example of "the end justifies the means". How about she isn't allowed to do that anymore?

Instead, she has to come up with more creative, 'good' solutions to problems. You can even describe what she'd instinctively like to do, and use that for some combination of comedy and showing her frustration at not being able to just wade in and start kicking butts.

Maybe she fails a bunch of times along the way, she may have to learn a whole new skillset. But in the end you can present some situation where she almost falls back into her bad old ways, resists...and then finds out that if she had gone in all guns blazing, the result would have been a catastrophe...lesson learnt?

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    Related to this, one might consider the philosophical Principle of double effect. Doing something good that unintentionally results in a bad side-effect is morally acceptable, but doing something bad in order to accomplish something good is immoral. Dec 3, 2022 at 2:53

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