Fear and Desire, Keys to Conflict - woman peeking thru fingers

Fear and Desire, Keys to Conflict

For those who have never seen the series, Quantico is about a class of recruits going through FBI training. It centers on Alex, a young woman with a few secrets in her past, secrets she desires to leave in the past.

Prefer to listen? Listen to Episode 38.

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Fears and desires drive conflict.

In fact, all of the recruits who live on her hall have secrets, and they all fear exposure. These are the characters who get tangled up in the drama surrounding Alex. Their individual fears drive the conflict in every episode.

Figuring out your characters’ fears and deepest needs and desires is a key to characterization and generating conflict for your plot.

Know your characters’ fears.

If you are struggling to invent conflict for your novel, go back to the drawing board and revisit your characters’ fears.

You need to know the wants and needs for every primary and important secondary character. This knowledge will give you lots of ideas for your plot.

This reminds me of when I was a little kid, like 4 or 5. My father was earning an engineering degree at NMSU. My family lived in a cottage located in married college housing, and we frequently took advantage of the university’s magnificent pool.

The only problem was, I had a deep-seated fear of drowning. I could climb down into the pool using the steps and wander around in the shallow end, but jumping off the side of the pool at the deep end was not—NOT at all—what I wanted to do.

My Dad had been part of the diving team back in his high school days, and he was determined to help me overcome my fear. So he would spend an eternity standing in the pool, kindly encouraging me to jump in where he would be right there to catch me.

Keep in mind, my younger sister, then 2 or 3 years old, had no problem launching herself into the deep end. Cannon ball! In fact, she would jump in and climb out three or four times while I hesitated on the edge.

I hated getting shown up like that, but the fear remained.

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Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

If you were to develop a character similar to me for your novel, you would be passing up an opportunity for conflict and drama and character growth if you didn’t make your character with the water phobia face her deepest fear head on.

Know what is at stake for your characters.

Hand-in-hand with your characters’ fears are the stakes they face.

What are the stakes? Put some sort of “death” on the line, and conflict becomes easier to come by. Death can be physical, social, political, emotional, or mental.

Everyone you know has one or more things at stake.

Let’s break that down. If your character’s chief fear is losing their mom, that’s an emotional stake. When her mom passes away, your character will experience an metaphorical emotional death. Deep grief takes a toll.

Or start with internal conflict if you are having trouble. What does the character want, and why can’t they have it? (Or why do they believe they can’t have it?)

Not every story needs huge, universe-shattering conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be big; it boils down to opposing views, priorities, beliefs, wants, and needs.

I don’t mean to say that conflict isn’t important, but it can be comprised of multiple, building conflicts. However, regardless of the scope of the conflict, the stakes for your main character or characters need to rise.

Related Content: Your First Chapter: Setting, Genre, Normal World, & Stakes

Do you need a handy way to examine fears?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is perhaps the easiest place to start when you are figuring out your characters’ motivations; however, the hierarchy is not conclusive and many people think it can be improved.

In case you are unfamiliar with the hierarchy, Maslow theorized that a human’s most basic needs are the foundation, things like food, shelter, water, a protection from the elements. The hierarchy is depicted as a pyramid with Physiological Needs at the bottom.

The next, higher layer of the pyramid is a human’s need for Safety and Security. Maslow believed that food and water are more important to humans than safety and security; we are willing to risk our safety to obtain our physiological needs

Above Safety and Security comes a layer for Belonging and Love. The next, smaller layer is our need for Esteem. Above that comes the pinnacle need for Self-Actualization which is described as achieving one’s fullest potential. Think of the Olympic sprinter breaking all the records and winning the gold medal.

According to Maslow, the lower, more basic needs must be met before a human turns their attention to the higher needs.

In general, this is true. The pyramid chart used for Maslow’s Hierarchy provides a handy reference and prompt, but keep in mind that a person can sacrifice survival for a higher calling, throwing it out the window in service to the tip of the structure which is labeled self-actualization.

Fears are often our strongest source of motivation.

Each of the needs on the hierarchy can be rephrased as a fear.

  • Fear of starvation.
  • Fear of a slow, painful death due to lack of shelter.
  • Fear of violence and violation when you lack safety.
  • Fear of being unloved, unliked, and alone.
  • Fear of losing all self-respect when you cannot meet your own expectations.
  • Fear of living a life that isn’t worth remembering.

Enneagram and Myers-Briggs are also useful tools for characterization.

According to Truity.com:

“The Enneagram is a system of personality typing that describes patterns in how people interpret the world and manage their emotions.”

The Myers-Briggs results are similar to the ones from Enneagram, at least for me. Many people prefer one system over the other, but both are useful for characterization.

According to the Myers-Briggs site:

“The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.”

Recently, I took an Enneagram test; I landed on 5w4 (5 wing 4) also known as “The Philosopher.” Spending too much time around other people stresses me out. I fear being overwhelmed or seeming incompetent or being unable to express myself and thus … earning criticism from others.

Predictably, I spend a lot of time and energy learning new skills, trying to understand the world around me, reflecting, thinking, and trying to earn the appreciation of others by helping them learn too.

I tend to be overly sensitive and too focused on the stuff going on inside my head.

Wow, that is too much information and hits too close to home.

I tend to overthink and view topics as an academic exercise instead of plunging in and learning as I go.

This is handy information for me to know about myself so that I can break free of the more self-destructive features of being a philosopher. So, I push myself to get my hands dirty and stop hesitating at the edge of the pool before I jump in.

Run your main characters through the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs test. Figure out their motivations and needs and fears.

Maybe you have taken a Myers-Briggs test; I land squarely on INTJ, “The Architect” or “The Scientist”. Often, INTJs are not … um … the nicest people: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.


Female INTJs are perhaps the rarest personality group, and this group includes folks like: Jane Austen, Angela Lansbury, Hillary Clinton, Jodie Foster, and Hedy Lamarr.

Okay, I can handle that.

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Photo by Elaine Howlin on Unsplash

According to the Myers-Briggs website, INTJs:

“Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.”

The fears for INTJs from Myers-Briggs are about the same as the ones indicated by the Enneagram:

  • The fear of being incompetent.
  • The fear of being wrong.
  • The fear of misunderstanding something important.

Enough about me; I’m just trying to provide an example. Run your main characters through the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs test. Figure out their motivations and needs and fears.

These tools will help you come up with your conflict and plot points if you have problems with that or run into a wall or draw a blank.

Many authors struggle to come up with realistic, compelling conflict for their plots, and we all know that we can’t afford to write a snoozer novel full of peace and harmony. Readers want to see a character strive to overcome hardships, to grow, and to conquer their fears.

How have you used your characters’ fears to drive your plot? Or, what is your favorite example of a character’s fears driving a plot? Leave your answer in the comments below.

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