Conflict, the Ultimate Character Development Workout

Like it or not, our antagonists help us build our emotional muscles

Posted Feb 29, 2016

Have you ever noticed that the same type of character keeps showing up in your life and pushing all of your buttons? These people may look nothing alike or even share the same gender, but they keep presenting you with more or less the same frustrations and issues. Or perhaps it’s not a certain person but a certain negative situation that you always find yourself struggling with. Perhaps you’re always picking up the slack and yet your contributions are never appreciated. Maybe you keep dating high-maintenance women or neglectful men. Why do these characters and situations keep appearing in your storyline?

If you look at life as a story, these characters are the antagonists of our narrative — and while we may not like or appreciate them, they play an instrumental role in shaping our plotlines and our character. The antagonists are the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking he or she wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, the antagonist is just helping us build our strengths while further honing the underdeveloped areas within ourselves.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires antagonists or the conflicts they present, for that matter. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not only do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize that they are an important part of the hero’s development.

Embracing Opportunities to Build Character

Every protagonist has a character arc, a particular way he or she matures and develops in response to the shifting tides of the story. At the outset of every narrative, the protagonist possesses certain viewpoints and capabilities that have gotten the character by until now. Inevitably, situations arise that challenge these perspectives or demand other skills the hero doesn’t yet possess, thus creating the main conflict of the narrative; after all, if the character already possessed the necessary skills or a broader perspective, there would be no challenge and no conflict in the story. Ultimately, the protagonist faces an opportunity to change in some way. The degree to which the protagonist embraces this challenge, or tries to avoid it determines who he or she becomes, for better or for worse.

Similarly, you are an ever-evolving protagonist with choices to make about how to respond to the stuff that happens in your life. As an ever-evolving protagonist, not only do you possess the power to adapt to plot twists, but you can view these unexpected difficulties as opportunities to to further hone different aspects of your character.

After all, character development doesn't occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. The circumstances presented by the antagonists of our stories present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well...even edgier.

In my book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life #), I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative. I tell participants that their antagonist can be interpreted loosely as either a person who is giving them grief, like a boss, or a troublesome situation, like unemployment. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with this person or situation might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven't historically felt so strong.

For example, say a successful executive tends to critically judge the less fortunate, and he suddenly loses his job. His story’s antagonist — unemployment — reflects this judgment back on him, and if embraced, it could lead him to develop more compassion for those, like himself, who struggle with less. Similarly, say a middle-aged woman loses her job in a recession. She can’t control who hires her, but she can summon the necessary resilience, discipline, resourcefulness, and perseverance to keep trying and find alternate sources of income as necessary

Recognizing Personal Victories

This approach recognizes the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. While this is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success - when was the last time you bumped into a friend who announced, “Great news! Yesterday, I conquered my need for my boss’s approval, and today I didn’t scream at my son when he accidentally spilled milk all over the floor!” - for psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character. 

Framed this way, the antagonists of our stories present us with an invitation: When they show up, do we run away, turn our heads, or surrender to the way things are while hoping for the best? Or do we rise to meet the challenges, embracing our antagonists as if they were full-body toning instruments designed to open our heart muscles and build up our resistance to the gravity of life? What opportunities for personal growth would we miss if our obstacles simply disappeared?

Once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.