February 17, 2020

Change the World with Your Writing: Character Conflicts That Help Your Reader (Part 1)

Continuing Series:  Change the World with Your Writing

p. m. terrell   @pmterrell
Columnist for Southern Writers 

A gripping read must have at least one character with which the reader can identify. A book that makes an impact is one in which the conflict this character must face places the reader in a position
to empathize with their situation and consider how they would handle it if they were in the character’s shoes. The top stressors an individual can face in their lifetime include:

 1.  The death of a spouse or loved one. The death of a spouse is considered the most stressful event
       in a person’s lifetime, and it doesn’t appear to matter whether they were together for a short time or a lifetime. With the former, the surviving spouse faces an unknown future, as all their plans were based on remaining together. With the latter, a lifetime of memories with the deceased spouse may cause the survivor to feel as though a part of themselves has disappeared. Particularly with sudden deaths due to an accident, suicide or other tragedy, there are volumes of things left unsaid, so there is a strong feeling that there is no closure. There are many ways in which your book can help readers experiencing a similar fate.

      With literary fiction, your book might begin with a character’s death and lead the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery, overcoming a myriad of emotions, as well as the practical matter of each day’s moments taken one step at a time.

      In mysteries or suspense, a common theme is when a spouse dies, the surviving spouse discovers deceptions.

      An out-of-the-box plot is Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, in which the survivor follows the deceased into another realm

       2. Separation or divorce. According to statistical data, the divorce rate is approximately 6.8 per 1,000 population. With over 327 million living in the USA, that’s a hefty number of divorces. Your book can help those going through the process by incorporating it as the central theme, or it can be woven throughout another plotline. How the death, separation, or divorce comes about can be just as important as how the character deals with it.

      Unlike death, there is always the possibility that the divorced spouse will come back into the protagonist’s life. For example, in Kathleen McGurl’s The Forgotten Secret, Clare Farrell embarks on creating a new life in Ireland after separating from her husband, taking us through all her challenges, pitfalls, and triumphs.

      A divorcee frequently must move to a new home or perhaps a new location altogether for purposes of work or starting over fresh. By taking the main character out of their comfort zone and plunging them into a foreign environment, even small successes are a reason for celebration.

3. Imprisonment. This can be the stuff of nightmares for most people, as the loss of freedom greatly impacts an individual’s psyche. In Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, we begin with an innocent man going to prison. As we follow his journey, it’s impossible not to wonder what we would do in a similar situation.

Imprisonment doesn’t need to be in a government facility, but could also involve abduction or slavery. A common suspense theme is the disappearance of someone close to the protagonist, which takes them on a journey that often involves a criminal underbelly.

Literary works often have the protagonist begin in an imprisoned situation and find their way out, which provides hope to those that can relate to the situation.

It can also move beyond physical imprisonment to psychological or emotional abuse, where the main character must break free from past thought patterns—even brainwashing—to become free.


Change theWorld with Your Writing:Character Conflicts that Help Your Reader p.m.terrell (click to tweet)

p.m.terrell is the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author of more than 24 books ranging from historical to suspense. She has used stressors in many of her books, including divorce (A Thin Slice of Heaven), a new job (Kickback), moving to a new place (Vicki’s Key), and others. Her most popular books, Songbirds are Free and River Passage, are creative nonfiction about her ancestors’ roles in migrating west in America while many of her suspense incorporate Ireland, her ancestral home, including Checkmate: Clans and Castles.


  1. Thanks Trish, these were great conflicts to introduce for our characters. Sometimes we forget the stresses we have encountered in life and how we reacted. By utilizing our own information we can create in our character real life situations where a reader immediately can empathize. For a reader to be vested in our characters is a must.

    Looking forward to reading part 2 next Monday.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information, Susan! I've learned through the years that a great way for authors to process their own trials and tribulations is through writing about them, and I've been amazed at how many readers have commented on similar struggles to book characters. I look forward to hearing from other writers about their experiences.