Writing a Conflicted Character

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Revision, Feb 28, 2012.

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  1. Writing a Conflicted Character

    One of the most important parts of roleplaying is keeping your character concept clear. This requires keeping from slipping and doing something contrary to your character's written personality and/or alignment. But what happens when your character has a moral dilemma, a conflict, or an alignment shift? How do you make this believable and what do you do if you think shifts in paradigm are happening too quickly?

    Internal Conflict

    Where motivation is what drives a character forwards, internal conflict occurs when a character's various motivations butt heads. (Example: A man who must choose between doing his duty to save a ship or saving his love from her captors.) This can lead to a character having to make a decision, a character who chooses to repress their emotions, or other fun character drama and can often lead a plot in a new direction. Internal conflict should be used carefully. Your character should not have a new conflict every post. When it happens, it should be special and work to really develop your character. If you see a chance for a bit of internal conflict, don't just brush it off because it is easier not to look into that part of your character. To do so is to miss an incredible chance for enrichment.

    Not all conflict is flashy, and some is down right gritty. In the course of your game, your character will make many decisions. Any decision has a potential to create this sort of conflict, however, most decisions will not. It is also likely that, unless your character is pressed for time, most internal struggles will take the span of many posts to resolve.

    Carrying Out Conflicts and Timing

    So how do you post an internal dilemma and how long should it take? If your character is pressed for time, they likely have to make a choice in less than a minute. Often, they have mere seconds to decide what to do in a situation where lives are at stake. In such cases, you should try to limit the initial realization and resolution of the conflict to a post or two, and focus the posts about fifty fifty on the conflict and the actions taken. This may cause a character to later regret their decisions or become even more conflicted or even disabled by similar challenges in the future, particularly if they feel they made the wrong choice. Since many internal conflicts are caused by lose/lose situations, the likelihood of at least some regret is high.

    Other dilemmas, especially those that cause alignment shifts, take longer. They should span many posts and take up less of each post than an immediate conflict would. It may seem hard, but try to limit how often and how much your character dwells. You don't want them to become inactive. If you can, show the dilemma in their actions. Do they pause with a glass half raised to their lips? Do they find they can think of nothing but their beloved when the look into her oblivious eyes? Whether you choose to show this conflict through internal dialogue or external actions, it should not be the focus of every post. In fact, some posts need to be free of it to move the story along. Most longer spanning internal conflicts will be pushed to the back of a character's mind when things get action packed, only to surface later. The exceptions are internal conflicts that are caused by a strong trauma or might cause a dramatic (read: good to evil, lawful to chaotic) shift in alignment. Even so, try to temper these by shortening their duration some.

    Loyalty Conflicts, Moral Dilemmas, Paradigm Shifts, and Alignment Shifts

    Though similar, there are a few kinds of internal conflicts that your character will encounter.

    Loyalty Conflicts
    are those situations in which your character's loyalty is called into question. This may be due to some trick of the enemy, the perceived betrayal from a superior or agency, a hostage situation where a character must choose between two captives to save (or a captive and a bad alternative), or it may be that a character must abandon everything and everyone to complete a quest objective. These are very common, and tend to have a short decision making time span but a long time to regret a “bad” decision.

    Moral Dilemmas are those conflicts that come up when a character must choose whether their morality or their humanity (or sometimes morality or duty) is more important. Morals are our guiding principles and do not always align well with our human desires, failings, interests, and jobs. (Even though I am using the term 'humanity', this also goes for other sentient species you may play.) Moral dilemmas can occasionally look like loyalty conflicts, but instead of the person or agency being the central focus, the character's morals and beliefs take center stage.

    Paradigm Shifts are moments or events where your character's entire world outlook may be changed. Just as often as not, this can be a good thing. However, whether it is good or bad, it is still a stressful, developing event. Paradigm shifts can include taking up a new religion, choosing a new calling or leaving an old one, or the sudden realization that the situation you are in is not good for you and that you really should stand up to your “friends”.

    Alignment Shifts are probably the most dramatic of internal conflicts. They are often precipitated by the other types of conflicts. They can happen instantaneously or over the course of weeks, months, even years. A character may slowly slide through a series of alignments to reach the eventual new belief and action structure, they may only change a small degree, or they may have a sudden, dramatic shift. Play it out accordingly and remember that the longer it takes, the less it should dominate posts. Alignment shifts are rare, especially in older characters.

    Examples of Conflicted Characters:

    Various Movie and Show Spoilers (open)
    Loyalty Conflicted: Cole from Charmed is a very strong (though perhaps not well written) version of a Loyalty Conflicted Character. His alliance to those he serves and the evil within him is constantly battling his love for Phoebe Halliwell. He makes many choices over the course of the series that affect him for good and bad and eventually lead to his downfall. It can be debated that eventually, his love for Phoebe does win out, but it takes the course of several years and comes and goes as the focus for episodes. Near the end, he is hardly featured at all.

    Moral Dilemma: The character Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a lovely example of a morally conflicted character. He must constantly choose between his own inner desire to care for others and do right by them and his (often much stronger) desire to live as a good Ferengi and keep to the Rules of Acquisition. So strong is his moral adherence to the Rules and to the status quo that he almost loses his life rather than lose his ties to his people, though eventually, the desire to live does win out.

    Paradigm Shift: Almost the entire cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has these at one point or another, be it Willow taking up witchcraft, Xander deciding he is no longer the butt monkey of the group, or Tara and Giles deciding they must leave in Once More With Feeling. Buffy herself has a few of these, and goes from an optimistic young lady to a strong but very confused adult over the course of the television series.

    Alignment Shift: Possibly the most dramatic examples of alignment shifts are those of Anakin Skywalker. He had two of these, both precipitated by Loyalty Conflicts. In doing everything he could to save Padme, he let himself fall to the Dark Side. There were many other factors involved and Anakin was a highly conflicted character. However, when it came time to save his son, he shifted back to good, even if it was only for a few moments.

    What Do You Do if You Think Things are Moving too Fast?

    Sometimes, it seems that a conflict you wish to last for weeks of in game time is going to peter out or be solved too quickly. This is especially common with the forbidden romance loyalty conflict. There are a few ways to remedy this. If you can, have something distract your character. If that won't work, and it is agreeable to others who are playing, you may be able to do a minor time skip and condense some of the angsting. Finally, if neither of those alternatives work, take some time away from the RP and let yourself focus in on the character again, reminding yourself of their inner nature and what they are devoted to.

    So, I hope this article has given you some insight into an oft difficult but fulfilling aspect of roleplaying. If you want, see if you can write down some minor and major conflicts your character has had, currently has, and might have in the future. Have fun!
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