If you ever have trouble getting enough conflict in your story, or if characterization ever has you buffaloed, try this out.
In one of the many writing classes I’ve taken, the teacher said that we each have at least one picture in our heads of what we’re like. Sometimes we have one picture of what we want and intend to be like, one picture of what actually are like, and one picture of how we think people perceive us. Sometimes we have more than one picture of how people perceive us, depending on the people, on how we think we’re presenting ourselves, what our mood is on a particular day, and so on.
Your character has those pictures, too, whether you want to explore them at all or not. If there’s a grating discrepancy between picture one and picture two, or between either of those pictures and any of the third set (you character’s perception of someone else’s perception), there’s conflict. If there’s a grating discrepancy between either or both of those pictures and reality, there’s conflict.
If there’s a grating discrepancy between different people’s perceptions of a character, there’s conflict. How many times have you said or heard, “I don’t know what she sees in him,” or “Why are you still friends with that creep,” or “I don’t think that was her motivation at all; you’ve always had it in for her, but I don’t think she’s like that”?
Did you ever see Galaxy Quest? It’s a wonderful movie in more ways than I can say, but one of the really well-written and well-acted scenes was the one where the actor who played the captain in a cancelled but popular sf show, a man so full of his own importance he can’t be bothered to respect his fellow actors, overhears people mocking him as a has-been. It shatters his self-image, mostly because his self-image is entirely externalized: how he perceives himself is identical to how he believes others perceive him. When that shatters, he has to rebuild his self-image using only what is actually inside him as materials. Plus, you know, save the universe and stuff.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: How does your main character see him/herself? Is that realistic? Do the characters closest to him/her share his/her picture, or have different ones?