How to Use Obstacles to Enhance Character Development

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 20, 2019 • 3 min read

At the heart of any story is a main character on a quest to resolve a conflict and reach a desired goal. A writer’s job is to make the story compelling by placing obstacles in the protagonist’s way. Obstacles are a literary device that can build tension, transform characters, and propel a story in a new direction. Obstacles—combined with a protagonist determined to overcome them—are essential elements of a great story.



David Mamet Teaches Dramatic WritingDavid Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing

The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.

Learn More

2 Reasons Problem-Solving Is Important in Storytelling

To overcome obstacles, fictional characters need to develop problem-solving skills. Creating challenges for your protagonist is an important element in storytelling for several reasons:

  1. Problem-solving propels a story forward. Every story hinges on a character facing a problem. When the main character’s dilemma is revealed at the beginning of a story, most often during the inciting incident, it establishes the purpose of the plot. The main character’s journey as they navigate obstacles and solve problems drives the narrative arc through to the end of the story.
  2. Problem-solving skills are a powerful tool for character development. When real people face challenges in real life, they reveal a lot about themselves by how they react. When you put obstacles in a character’s way, it’s an opportunity to reveal deeper details about who they are by how they respond. If you ever have a story with a flat character, give them a situation that forces them to employ problem-solving skills and watch them come to life.

5 Ways to Use Obstacles to Enhance Character Development

The best way to accentuate the tension, raise the stakes, and fast-track character growth in a story is to create problems for your character that threaten to derail their journey. Here are ways you can introduce obstacles to enhance your story:

  1. Use obstacles to reveal character motivation. As a writer, you need to understand what motivates your characters and how they respond to problems. If it helps, work on some basic character development exercises. While you should flesh out the basics, like the character’s personality traits, mannerisms, physical appearance, and quirks, you need to know more about their life and what they’ve been through to figure out what motivates their actions. In the actual story, obstacles will illuminate your character’s motivations by drawing on these attributes. This will help you create a dynamic and relatable character.
  2. Layer obstacles for deeper tension. Obstacles can be literal—a physical person or object that stands in the protagonist’s way—or they can be unseen forces acting against a character. Use both types of obstacles to layer tension and create a story with texture and depth. For example, weave an internal conflict into the storyline, and create a way that a character’s beliefs are challenged by their problem-solving actions.
  3. Use subplots to complicate things. Every subplot needs a purpose. Write subplots for secondary characters that ultimately create complications for your protagonist. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have several secondary plots in each novel. For example, the main storyline focuses on Harry’s life as a student at Hogwart’s while trying to defeat Lord Voldemort. Rowling creates secondary characters like the Dursleys in her subplots who stand in Harry’s way.
  4. Put obstacles in your antagonist’s way. Why should your protagonist have all of the problems? Make your antagonist more than just the bad guy. They need everything your main character has—complexity, backstory, problems, and obstacles. Figure out what their motivation is for going against the protagonist, and slow down their chances of success with obstacles.
  5. Use obstacles to build a transformative character arc. Just when things are looking good for your protagonist and it seems like they’ve found a solution to their problem, put up a barrier to impede their progress. Obstacles are a force for transformation that creates memorable characters. When a character changes over the course of a story, they become more three-dimensional and intriguing. Think of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Each obstacle he meets changes him until his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future and his final transformation.
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing
Judy Blume Teaches Writing
Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing
James Patterson Teaches Writing

Want to Learn More About Writing?

Become a better writer with the Masterclass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and more.