Are characters defined by conflicts?

I spent most of yesterday writing a murder mystery party, a commissioned piece for a friend. Writing something like that is all about the characters. Description and dialogue will mostly be covered by the behaviour of the players on the night. What you get to create, as a writer, is the characters, their conflicts, and of course the clues and background that will lead to the revelation (or escape) of the killer.

The nature of the piece, filling it with secrets and arguments, made me reflect on the relationship between characters and conflict, and it made me wonder – are characters primarily defined by their conflicts?

Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character
Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character

Think about it. What do you know about the sheriff in High Noon? Probably just that he’s standing up to the criminals defending his town. What’s the defining shared feature of the heroes of Star Wars? They’re rebels, their very careers defined by the conflict they’re in. Or look at Harry Potter – his whole life, from the way his face looks to his family circumstances to his often neglectful attitude towards education, it’s all defined by his conflict with Voldemort. Without that conflict, Harry would just be one more ordinary wizard.

You could argue that conflict is a reflection of character, but given the central role of conflict in making stories dynamic, is it maybe the other way around? Are interesting characters interesting because of the conflicts that they represent, the struggles they go through, the things that they value enough to get into a fight over them?

Does conflict make the character?

Not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know. Which do you think is the driving force?


Picture by Global X via Flickr creative commons