None of my good-guy characters fought with each other.
I had bad guys fighting like cats and dogs at times, sometimes in horribly cliché ways—in fact I think my mom once said they were acting “like toddlers fighting over a new toy.” Occasionally, two characters would disagree with each other. In one of my (unfinished) novels, Nightsword, two of the characters learn that the main character has been hiding a huge secret from them the entire time they’ve been working together. But they didn’t really fight or argue, they just walk away from him.
I felt like giving myself a facepalm. How had I missed this for so long? Maybe it’s because of my personality. Small arguments, minor disagreements, I can handle those, even though they make my stomach turn. When it comes to big confrontations or when people start raising their voices, I shrink into a little ball and hope no one sees me.
While I was working on Forged Steel, my urban fantasy novella, I decided to make my good guys not get along. Two characters, David (a human who has been aware of the fae Underworld for most of his life) and Eliaster (a fae warrior who only stays in the Underworld in order to protect humans from the fae) clashed from the start, as they’re both take-charge guys who wanted to be alpha male. My main character, Josh, had a bit of a pride problem, so that caused him to clash with Larae, the fae girl who is completely no-nonsense, and Eliaster, who thinks that Josh needs protecting because he’s a dumb human.
It worked all right, I suppose, but I felt like it could be better.
Just a few months ago, Justin and I started watching Lost (yes, it ties into what I was talking about before). One of my favorite ways to learn is from reading authors I admire or watching movies from directors/actors that I like. Lost happens to be directed by one of my top 3 directors (J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, and Joss Whedon) so I knew I could learn a lot from watching it.
Sure enough. One of the first things I picked up was how the characters fought. A lot. And believably. I picked up a few ideas on how to make Josh’s pride even more a problem, thanks to Sawyer. Got a good look at two guys fighting for alpha male, thanks to Jack and Locke. And, of course, this being Lost, I got lots and lots of ideas on how to make character secrets a big fight catalyst.
I also discovered that it’s kinda fun, making your characters fight and keep secrets from each other. You can play with a lot of fun stuff there. If characters already have some ongoing tension, drop them into a life-or-death situation. Stand back and prepare to take shelter. Or make them have a fight, then plop them into a situation where they still have to work together.
Just be prepared—if your characters are the rebellious type, you should expect some pouting or weapons-sharpening-with-the-intent-to-take-down-author.
Can you over-do this? Heck yeah. You can make the fights non-stop, loud, and about completely petty things, which gets annoying real fast. At least, it does to me, but I was never one to put up with high-school girl drama anyway, even when I was a high-school girl. Ever since my mom pointed out my tendency to make villains fight about nothing, the quickest way to kill a story, for me, is to have petty toddlers saying, “Mom, he touched me!” “He touched me first!” “Did not!” “Did so!” *whack* “Moooom! He just hit me!”
Unless, of course, it’s a comedy about dealing with the trials of motherhood, and even then that will get old.
You could also fall into the trap of characters suddenly exploding, with no build up. Even the most stoic elf is going to have a hard time hiding if it he’s about to get angry. Someone is going to notice that the guy’s eyelid is twitching or his face is getting red or he’s starting to breathe a little heavier…you know, whatever little tic happens when something’s going to blow.
It definitely takes practice, and heavens knows that I’m no expert, but I do like how adding in arguments and fights between good guys adds to the storyline. Not only is friends and family arguing with each other realistic, it can really ratchet up the tension of the story. You wonder if bitterness is going to form, if two characters are going to be able to reconcile their differences in order to work together, or if the arguments are going to drive characters apart and prevent them from their goals.
Make your characters fight. It adds tension. It happens to all of us at one time or another. No one is perfect. Besides, all stories are essentially, at the most stripped-bare and nitty-gritty, about some form of conflict. Judiciously adding in more will give the story depth and spice.