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393883: Character and Conflict

  • Fall 2023
  • Section 1
  • 3 Credits
  • 09/28/2023 to 12/14/2023
  • Modified 11/22/2023

Meeting Times

Remote Instruction on Zoom. Attendance is required. 


One of the most misunderstood concepts in the craft of fiction writing is the relationship between character and conflict. A story can involve a complex character with fascinating thoughts, ideas and interests, but without a conflict that motivates the character to act, the ensuing story will be stagnant and flat. In this class, we explore, through our own writing and through published work, how to create richly imagined characters and how to challenge them with conflicts that threaten their hidden, most deeply held desires, forcing them to act in ways that change the world around them. Each week, we read sample fiction to identify craft tools that help us determine and convey the flaws in our characters, flaws that then help us pick a conflicted situation to push our characters into action. Weekly writing exercises put theory into practice and help you discover what works (and doesn't) in your own writing practice.


During this course, you will:

  • learn how to create complex fictional characters with realistic motivations, engaging voices, and conflicts that help drive a narrative
  • close-read short stories and novel excerpts to understand what makes characters feel real and how authors get audiences to sympathize and relate to them
  • practice writing such characters through in-class and at-home writing exercises
  • learn to workshop others students' work and receive and apply notes on your own work


By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • identify the fundamentals of writing complex and compelling characters
  • describe techniques authors' employ in published work that make their characters realistic and empathetic
  • write stories and/or scenes within novels that contain complex characters whose motivations and conflicts effectively drive the narrative forward


All course materials (short stories, novel excerpts, etc.) will be provided through Canvas.


Because this is a creative writing class, grades won't be based on the quality of the work or the level of the writing but simply on whether you come to class, turn in the assignments, and participate in workshops. Each week students will be assigned short stories or novel excerpts to read, which we'll discuss in class, along with a two-page writing exercise. After the first few weeks, students will also have to read and comment on other students work for an in-class workshop.


Type Weight Topic Notes
Attendance and Participation 25%  

Attend class meetings and participate in class discussions of the assigned reading.

Workshops 50%  

Submit two pieces (short stories or novel excerpts), maximum 30 pages, for in-class workshops and provide 1 page written feedback to other students' pieces

At-Home Exercises 25%  

Complete weekly two-page at-home writing exercises.



100 % 

to 90.0% 


< 90.0 % 

to 80.0% 


< 80.0 % 

to 73.0% 


< 73.0 % 

to 0.0% 

Course Policies


Attendance is mandatory. If there's an emergency or you have a commitment you can't change, let me know and make sure you turn in your writing exercise and workshop feedback by email.


Read everything that's assigned each week and come prepared to discuss it in class. The best way to get better at writing is to read. I'll vary the reading assignments as I see fit, but in general I'll assign a mix of short stories and novel excerpts, classical and contemporary works, and a diverse set of authors that includes women, people of color, etc.


Each student will have two of their pieces (short stories or novel excerpts, maximum 30 pages) workshopped in class. We'll follow the traditional workshop format: we'll discuss each piece for 20-30 minutes, and in that time the student will stay silent and take notes. At the end, we'll have a few minutes for the student to ask any questions. 

If your piece is being workshopped, remember not to get defensive or break the rule of staying silent. It can be difficult to hear your work critiqued, but it's a necessary step in becoming a better writer. Remember, you don't have to accept or even agree with every critique being offered. Keep in mind the purpose of your piece and at home after your workshop, judge each critique based on that purpose and disregard them if you feel they're not helpful. The ultimate purpose of the workshop is to help your writing get better. That means you want to balance being confident in your work and its purpose with being open to new ideas and feedback from others.

For the students giving feedback: remember to judge each piece for what it is rather than trying to make it something it's not. So for example, if we're workshopping a short story, don't say it should be a novel, or vice versa. Similarly, don't suggest radically changing the tone or the content because you might find that more interesting. Approach each piece by first and foremost respecting the author's intentions. Second, when you do offer critiques, remember to make them from the lens of specific fiction techniques, such as character, plot, setting, dialogue, etc. So, instead of simply saying "this is bad" or "I don't like this," identify what element isn't working and frame your critique through that element. For example: "I think this character's motivations aren't clear" or "I think this setting could be more detailed" or "I didn't understand this part of the plot."

Finally, and most importantly, be nice!

Late Work

All weekly writing exercises and student pieces for workshops need to be turned in on time to receive credit and feedback. If you need an extension of a few days to submit your workshop piece, or if you need to reschedule your workshop, email me ahead of time to let me know. Work that is not turned in will receive no credit, and workshop pieces that are turned in late without permission will receive no credit or feedback. In addition, feedback on other students' work submitted after the deadline will not receive credit.

The Writers' Workshop

Instruction in the Writers’ Program follows the guidelines established by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) guidelines for the teaching of creative writing, which include a “challenging writers’ workshop” as a hallmark. They define this as
…a seminar in which students critique one another’s work under the mentorship of an accomplished writer-teacher. The workshop is writing intensive, offering each student multiple opportunities for submission and revision of creative work. (AWP)
This method of instruction is considered the gold standard for developing writers at all levels of expertise, and workshopping is a key learning tool in nearly every course offered by the Writers’ Program. Workshopping teaches you to read and respond to written work from a variety of perspectives, and hearing critique of your own writing will help you understand how successfully your work achieves your goals. Every student is expected to participate fully in workshopping activities as defined by and guided by Writers’ Program instructors.

Scope of Work for Instructors

Each Writers’ Program instructor has signed an agreement to teach the curriculum in their course, following a syllabus of their own design with approval by the Writers’ Program director. Instructors are never obligated to read, review, critique, respond to, or otherwise address student work that has not been developed for their course or in response to specific assignments in their course. Individualized instruction like this falls into the category of a consultation, which is a separate service your instructor can provide through special arrangement with the Writers’ Program.

Underage Students

As UCLA's principal provider of continuing education, the majority of UCLA Extension courses are designed for the post-baccalaureate professional-level student. Enrollment is therefore reserved for adult students 18 years of age and older. All minors who enroll in a Writers’ Program course are subject to withdrawal and refund of enrollment fees.

Inclusive Teaching Statement

My main goal as an instructor is to help all students reach their creative writing ambitions. I understand this can be challenging, especially with something as nebulous as fiction writing, where success can be hard to define. When I was taking classes and developing my own writing skills, I had the guidance of committed teachers who were genuinely interested in helping me become a better writer. I want to do the same for my students, which is why I seek to provide honest and thorough feedback and to create a workshop environment where students can be honest and open too. Sometimes this may lead to conflict, and sometimes these discussions do get personal, but as long as we remember that success in creative writing is collaborative and not competitive and that everyone is there to help each other, I believe we can create a classroom environment based on trust and honesty, where students know that the feedback they get from each other is based on a genuine desire to help. Ultimately, I think differences of opinion are natural, especially when discussing creative work, and I hope to encourage open discussion that allows for multiple points of view and perspectives. If students do feel upset or offended by a classroom discussion, however, I encourage them to contact me or the Writer’s Program Student Affairs Officer to discuss and resolve the issue. As a writer of color, I understand that there can be a fine line between honesty and insensitivity, and sometimes insensitive comments are made during classroom discussions. I want to be open to student concerns and provide an empathetic ear. Ultimately, creating writing is challenging and often very personal, and so I want to create a classroom that is both a safe space to explore things through writing as well as an environment that will push us all to continue improving.

Institutional Policies

Student Conduct

Students are subject to disciplinary action for several types of misconduct or attempted misconduct, including but not limited to academic dishonesty, such as cheating, multiple submission, plagiarism, or knowingly furnishing false information to the University; or behavioral misconduct, such as theft or misuse of the intellectual property of others, harassment, or disruption of the learning environment.

All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition and includes the use of material generated wholly or in part through the use of artificial intelligence (except when the use of AI has received prior authorization for assessment as a reasonable accommodation for a student’s disability, or when the use of AI is a specified part of the coursework, e.g. data science or user experience). Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the Student Rights & Responsibilities Policy and to report concerns.

Services for Students with Disabilities

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, UCLA Extension provides appropriate accommodations and support services to qualified applicants and students with disabilities. These include, but are not limited to, auxiliary aids/services such as sign language interpreters, assistive listening devices for hearing-impaired individuals, extended time for and proctoring of exams, and registration assistance. Accommodations and types of support services vary and are specifically designed to meet the disability-related needs of each student based on current, verifiable medical documentation. Arrangements for auxiliary aids/services are available only through UCLA Extension’s Service for Students with Disabilities Office at (310) 825-7851 or by email at [email protected]. For complete information, please visit Accessibility and Disability Services.


The interim grade Incomplete (I) may be approved for a student who has completed the majority of the course requirements, with passing quality (grade C or higher), but is unable to complete a small portion of the coursework by the course end date for good cause. For courses in which an Incomplete may be allowed, approval by the instructor of record and the academic program director is required. The Incomplete grade is not an option for courses that do not bear credit, such as 700, 800, or 900-level courses.

  • It is the student’s responsibility to petition for an Incomplete by emailing the appropriate academic program department at least one week before the end of the course. The Program Department will initiate the petition process once the email is received.
  • The student, the instructor, the CE/Program Director, and the program staff must complete the petition prior to the final course meeting or before the quarter end date. This process can take up to one week to complete. 
  • The instructor will approve or deny the request. The instructor will provide details on what the student needs to accomplish in order to complete the course, as well as a due date for submitting completed work. The due date cannot exceed the end of the ensuing quarter when a final grade must be reported or the Incomplete lapses to the grade “F,” “NP,” or “U.” Visit UCLA Extension Grading Scale for more information.  

An Incomplete allows the student to complete only work that is outstanding and does not allow prior completed work to be retaken or resubmitted.

All Grades are Final

No change of grade may be made by anyone other than the instructor, and then, only to correct clerical errors. No term grade except Incomplete may be revised by re-examination. The correction of a clerical error may be authorized only by the instructor of record communicating directly with personnel of Student and Alumni Services.

Sexual Harassment

The University of California is committed to creating and maintaining a community where all individuals who participate in University programs and activities can work and learn together in an atmosphere free of harassment, exploitation, or intimidation. Every member of the community should be aware that the University prohibits sexual harassment and sexual violence, and that such behavior violates both law and University policy. The University will respond promptly and effectively to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and will take appropriate action to prevent, to correct, and when necessary, to discipline behavior that violates our policy.

All Extension students and instructors who believe they have been sexually harassed are encouraged to contact the Department of Student and Alumni Services for complaint resolution: UCLA Extension, 1145 Gayley Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024; Voice/TTY: (310) 825-7031. For more information, please view the University’s full Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence.

Additional Items

Protecting Privacy and Data During Live Instruction

Live meeting sessions for this class, when applicable, are being conducted over Zoom. As the host, the instructor may be recording live sessions. Only the host has the ability to record meetings, no recording by other means is permitted. Recorded sessions will be posted in the Videos area of this class unless otherwise notified. Due to privacy, recordings are not available for download and are only accessible via Canvas for the duration of the class. If you have privacy concerns and do not wish to appear in the recording, do not turn on your video and/or audio. If you also prefer to use a pseudonym instead of your name, please let the instructor know what name you will be using so that the instructor knows who you are during the session. To rename yourself during a Zoom meeting, click on Participants, click on your name, click on More, click on Rename. If you would like to ask a question, you may do so privately through the Zoom chat by addressing your chat question to the instructor only (and not to ""everyone""). Additionally, chat may be used and moderated for live questions, and saving of chats is enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this, please contact the instructor via Canvas Inbox.

Pursuant to the terms of the agreement between Zoom and UCLA Extension, the data is used solely for this purpose and Zoom is prohibited from re-disclosing this information. UCLA Extension also does not use the data for any other purpose. Recordings will be deleted when no longer necessary. However, recordings may become part of an administrative disciplinary record if misconduct occurs during a video conference.

Course and Instructor Evaluation

UCLA Extension values your feedback on course and instructor evaluations. We ask all students to take a few minutes to complete an end-of-course evaluation survey. Updates to the course and instruction are influenced by your feedback. Understanding your student experience is essential to ensure continuing excellence in the online classroom and is appreciated by your instructor and the UCLA Extension academic leadership.

Your participation in a survey is voluntary, and your responses are confidential. After instructors submit grades, they will be given an evaluation report, but this report will not contain your name.

About Your Online Course Materials

Please note the following about online course components at UCLA Extension:

  • Students must have basic computer skills, including the use of word processing software, email, and the ability to use internet browsers, such as Safari, Firefox, or Chrome.
  • Students are responsible for meeting the technical requirements of Canvas and familiarizing themselves with the Canvas Learning Management System.
  • Students are responsible for keeping a copy of all assignments and work submitted, and to be aware of all assignments, due dates, and course guidelines.
  • Students are encouraged to keep and/or download a local copy of their assignment files, as access to the online environment of a specific course is limited to 30 days after the final course date, as listed in the course catalog.

    To download all your assignment submissions in Canvas, please refer to the online support guide. for more information or contact Canvas Support via the help menu within Canvas.

UCLA Extension Canvas and Learning Support

For immediate 24/7 Canvas technical support, including holidays, click on Help (located on the menu to the left) where you can call or chat live with a Canvas Support representative.

UCLA Extension Instructional Design and Learning Support
The UCLA Extension Learning Support staff assists both students and instructors with Canvas-related technical support, as well as general and administrative questions.

Learning Support staff is available Monday through Friday, from 8 AM to 5 PM (Pacific Time), except holidays:

Campus Safety Escorts

For students taking classes held on the UCLA campus and in and around Westwood Village, the UCLA Police Department provides a free walking escort service every day of the year from dusk until 1 a.m. Community Service Officers (CSOs) are available to walk students, faculty, staff members and visitors to and from anywhere on campus, in Westwood Village, and in the village apartments. CSOs are uniformed students who have received special training and are employed by the UCLA Police Department. To obtain an escort, please call (310) 794-9255 and allow 15 to 20 minutes for your escort to arrive. For complete information, see:


Course calendar and related activities
When Module Title Notes
Week 1


  • What is a character? What is conflict? How do they work together to make a story or novel compelling?
  • In-class readings: excerpts from The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov)


  • Readings: "The Wagner Matinee" (Willa Cather)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 2 Workshop
Week 2
Round and Flat Characters


  • What makes a character complex or “round”? What makes a character feel real? In what cases are “flat" characters necessary for a story?
  • In-class reading: excerpt on character from Aspects of the Novel (E.M. Forster)


  • Readings: excerpt from Howard's End (E.M. Forster)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 3 workshop
Week 3
Character Motivations


  • How do character motivations drive a story forward? How can you make your character motivations more complex?
  • In-class reading: excerpts about character motivation from Will of the World (Stephen Greenblatt)


  • Readings: "Bettering Myself" (Ottessa Moshfegh)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 4 workshop
Week 4
Conflict and Plot Structure


  • What is conflict and how does it form the basis of a good plot? How can conflict help structure a narrative?


  • Readings: "Babylon Revisited" (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 5 workshop
Week 5
Character Backstory


  • How do we incorporate a character’s backstory? How much backstory is necessary for a narrative?


  • Readings: excerpt from The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 6 workshop
Week 6
Point of View and Voice


  • How does point of view affect our relationship to a character? How do we convey a character’s voice?


  • Readings: excerpt from The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 7 workshop
Week 7
Show, Don't Tell


  • How can the fundamental writing rule help us write more complex characters and create more interesting conflict?
  • In-class reading: excerpt on faces from The Art of Subtext (Charles Baxter)


  • Readings: excerpt from Neuromancer (William Gibson)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 8 workshop
Week 8
Character, Conflict, and Setting


  • How can the world of a story provide obstacles for our characters? How can setting contribute to a story’s tension?


  • Readings: "You're Ugly Too" (Lorrie Moore)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 9 workshop
Week 9
Character, Conflict, and Theme


  • How can a story’s central conflict help reflect its larger themes?
  • In-class reading: excerpt from The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)


  • Readings: "Gómez Palacio" (Roberto Bolaño)
  • At-home writing exercise
  • Read stories for Week 10 workshop
Week 10


  • How have ideas about character and conflict changed with different literary movements?
  • Brief thoughts on the publishing world
  • In-class readings: excerpt from Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)