Characters, Conflict, and Goals

It can be difficult to show the connections between key elements of craft to students in introductory fiction writing classes, but this activity is designed to do just that. By slowly introducing important elements of craft such as character traits, conflict, and goals in an in-class writing activity, you can lead students towards a better understanding how these elements work together in both overt and subtle ways in their own writing. 

This activity requires some post-it notes or flash cards, at least enough for four per student in your course. Create four lists, one for each of the following: character occupation, simple goals, general character traits, and points of conflict and write them on the cards.

The reason I chose these four sections is because, as I explain to students, we are all individuals with an occupation of some kind (that doesn’t always match our personalities) and that we all have traits and goals that drive us. Whether we’re a teacher trying to get through a lesson or a student trying to survive until the weekend, our personalities and experiences influence our choices in a multitude of ways. But, more often than not, there’s also some form of conflict getting in our way.

I’ve found it useful to keep all the list as everyday as possible so that they’re easily accessible to students and so students don’t get too caught up in one element over  another. For example, the occupations (nurse, accountant, janitor, etc.) and goals (buy milk, attend an interview, say yes) are relatively mundane. The character traits (pride, greed, honor) and conflicts (sibling, debt, fear of being alone) are broader and allow for more interpretation and creativity on the part of the student. 

The activity takes place as follows:

  1. Randomly give students a character occupation and allow them 5-10 minutes to brainstorm this character. What’s important here is not writing a detailed description, but rather developing a basic sketch focusing on the who’s, how’s, where’s, and when’s of the character.
  2. Give students a character trait and have them rework their characters for 5-10 minutes. Encourage them to build a detailed back story for their character’s assigned trait, even if this could ultimately have very little to do with the end result (don’t tell them that!). 
  3. Distribute the goals and have students sketch a scene where the character tries to complete it. I’ve found it useful to ensure these goals are simple, everyday tasks such as catching a bus, asking their crush on a date, or going to the bank. You want to make sure students aren’t overwhelmed or distracted by plot length goals as saving the empire and achieving redemption as this detracts from the overall aim of the activity.
  4. Introduce the conflict. You can do this either while the students are mid-scene or after they’ve completed it. It’s useful at this point to remind students that conflict can be internal or external, that it can come from people, places, or events, so that they can consider all the ways conflict can arise.
  5. Encourage students to share their work. You can do this either by asking them to share a scene or have them reflect on their experiences developing their fictional world as each new element is introduced.

At first the combinations can seem odd, but your students will end up with some interesting situations. For example, I’ve had a librarian with a fear of aging having to walk a dog while dealing with allergies and a locksmith with dyslexia turn down an invitation while saying yes. Each combination, however, reveals plenty of space for interpretation and engagement. 

While this activity initially requires a little prep work, after you’ve made the note cards you can easily reuse them in the same class or others. You can also have students brainstorm ideas for the four categories. In constructing my lists, I used the app Lists for Writers but I’ve also found April Henry’s list of character occupations helpful as well as MIT’s 638 Primary Personality Traits list. 




Feature image by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.


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