There is a basic yet crucial rule to storytelling: conflict reveals character. In order to show an audience who your characters are, you need to put your characters in situations where they face conflict (an obstacle that prevents them from reaching their goal). The greater the conflict, the greater the revelation of character. This is why the heroes we love in stories walk the more difficult road.
Yet conflict not only reveals the deeper identities of fictional characters, it also reveals who we are in real life.
There is one particular experience I had that drove this lesson home. It happened a few years back when it was about time for me to renew my visa in Nicaragua. I drove down to the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border to get new stamps in my passport. It was the second of January, and I was about to learn the hard way that the day after New Year’s was one of the worst times to cross and re-cross the border. It seemed that Costa Rica and Nicaragua were swapping populations on that day because the line stretched out horribly, zigzagged, and showed no end in sight. And it was a line that barely moved. It seemed like fifteen minutes would pass between each trudging footstep forward. I had taken my place in line in the morning. The hot sun burned my neck, but then dark clouds rolled in and rained on me, drenching my clothes before rolling away. Then the sun came back out and dried my clothes, but more clouds rolled in to rain on me again. The sun came out yet again and then went down. When I finished my time renewing my visa, it was dark out. I had stood in line for eleven hours.
As I had stood there and waited, I learned something about people: they show who they are when put in frustrating situations. I could tell who the cutthroats were, those who pushed and shoved or used deception to get in front of others. I could tell who the kind people were, the strangers who would hold my place while I went to get a drink of water. What I observed of those who shared in that horrible experience of crossing the border gave me a small glimpse of who they really were.
But let’s up the stakes a bit. Let’s imagine that the line wasn’t to make a routine cross from one country to another but to get onto a limited number of lifeboats on a quickly sinking ship. In such a life and death situation we would get an even better look at who people truly are—the selfish who would fight and claw their way over their own friends and family to get to the front, and the selfless who would give their place up so that others could live.
Who are you when the chips are down and the stakes are high? Who am I? If we really think about it, we may not be happy with the answer. But conflict does something more than just reveal our characters; it changes our characters as well. Think about the story of the Prodigal Son. He had a wild lifestyle of pleasure that did little good for anyone; but then his money ran out and the party was over. He confronted conflict, one that came in the form of poverty; and because he faced this conflict, he decided to change his course in life and return to his loving father. If he had not faced this conflict, he probably would have continued on in his wild living. Hard times instigated his change.
In each conflict we face we have a choice in how we respond. Over time, our choices become habits; and depending on the choices we consistently make, we either get bitter or get better. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Therefore when we face conflict, we can picture our life stories being written. What type of characters are we? What character do we want to be? Those who strive for hope? With our life story in mind, we can look at conflicts as opportunities to change who we are—to become the people that God would have us become. We remember that the heroes in stories walk the more difficult road. But they are deemed heroes because of it.