Boundaries, Fertile Ground for Conflict

Broken Boundaries

Today we are going to return the favor to the creative nonfiction folks. They have learned that using our techniques for fiction writing makes their stories more interesting. Today we are going to “borrow” from nonfiction to look for ways to make our characters deeper and more interesting to readers. We’ll use the book, Boundaries, written by two psychologists, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Published in 1992, revised in 2017, it has sold over 10 million copies, and has led to additional books, Boundaries in Marriage, Boundaries with Kids, Boundaries with Teens, Boundaries for Leaders, and Boundaries in Dating.

The goals of the authors:

  • Help develop healthy relationships
  • Learn when to say yes and how to say no
  • Learn to set limits in life and relationships
  • Understand legitimate boundaries
  • Learn to manage our digital life so it doesn’t control us
  • Learn how to deal with those who are hurt by our boundaries
  • Learn how to deal with someone who wants our time, energy, love, and money
  • Understand why we feel guilty when we consider setting boundaries
  • Know how to answer the idea that boundaries are selfish

Full disclosure: The book is written from a Biblical perspective, but the principles and advice apply to the psychology of all people, regardless of faith, religion, or culture.

So, why are we discussing this topic? Our goal is to reverse engineer the relationship-problem advice (i.e., make trouble), to create conflict, scars, and motivation for the goal/motivation/conflict of our characters.

And, why is conflict so important? Inner conflict is one of the great glues to bond the reader to our characters and keep the reader turning pages. Here are quotes from two top writing coaches and authors:

“Remember, conflict and suspense do not grip a reader unless and until she bonds with a character. Inner conflict is one of the great bonding agents. Explore deeply the inside of your Lead and give us glimpses of the psychological struggle. If you do, we will turn your pages.” p.143, end of chapter 9, “Inner Conflict,” CONFLICT AND SUSPENCE, James Scott Bell

“Inner conflict is an interior war. Like an invasion unfolding live on television, it’s a gripping contest that keeps readers glued. While conflicting feelings are a momentary effect, inner conflict can echo in readers’ minds years after they finish a novel.” p.23, chapter 3, “The Inner Journey,” WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION, Donald Maass

First, what are boundaries? Boundaries are “invisible property lines” that “define what is me and what is not me…where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” (p. 31, Boundaries, 1992 ed.)

Next, let’s look at the four basic personality types in terms of relationships, particularly unhealthy relationships:

  • The Compliant – those who can’t set boundaries and can’t say no to others who seek to invade their boundaries, even when they want to say no
  • The Avoidant – those who set boundaries, even against those who would help them or care for them, and even when they need care or love
  • The Controller – those who aggressively or manipulatively violate others’ boundaries for their own benefit, even when they realize what they are doing
  • The Nonresponder – those who set boundaries against their own responsibility to love, even when it is clearly their responsibility

There are others, and combinations, but these are the four basic types. And by now you are seeing how one, or especially two, of these types in a relationship (marital, friendship, business, family, criminal, anything) could lead to some interesting problems. Boundary problems from a character’s early years or their past can leave scars and set up inner conflict. And that is what we are looking for.

Boundaries, by definition, involve relationships. Unhealthy relationships are usually the result of boundary problems and cause conflict, inner and external. The inner conflict causes, at the minimum, personality issues, and at the worst, motivation for external conflict and criminal acts.

Therefore, looking for (or creating) boundary problems between characters or from their past, can be fertile ground for inner conflict (motivation), which results in external plans (goals), that helps establish a character arc. The motivation, goals, and character arc can then guide the creation of an appropriate plot in which to tell our story.

One additional point with boundary problems, the conflict often ramps up when one person decides to change their boundaries. Here’s a personal example:

I grew up as a first-born, and was nurtured to become a Compliant (turn the other cheek; if they take away your shirt, give them your coat as well). I had no idea there were other options. When I finished my education and returned to my home community, my mother continued to exercise her skill at controlling me. She could talk me into doing almost anything she wanted done. Isn’t that what the eldest is supposed to do? I ended up in a service occupation. People quickly learn if you’re a push-over. I was burning out when I discovered Boundaries. It was life-changing. I foolishly took a copy of the book to my mother for her to read. When I returned the following week, she practically threw it at me. “Who ever gave you this trash?!”

So, Dear Writer, it’s time to plow our past to see what scars we can turn up:

  1. What scars do you carry that have resulted from boundary problems in your past?
  2. Or, if that is too personal or painful, what boundary problems have you observed in acquaintances (no names, please) that have left them with scars and relationship problems?
  3. How might those scars and boundary problems provide material for inner conflict with characters in your stories?
  4. Or, describe for us some of the most creative relationship problems you have developed for characters in your books, especially those that led to inner conflict for a character, and applied glue to the readers’ fingers to keep them turning pages.
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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

32 thoughts on “Boundaries, Fertile Ground for Conflict

  1. Good morning, Steve!

    I would say that I am uncharacteristically stunned into silence by your post but for the fact that I am HOWLING over your reaction to BOUNDARIES, which was lagniappe to what went before. We are apparently twin sons of different mothers. My first major revelation regarding my childhood was The Twilight Zone (Series 3, 2002-2003, UPN) episode “It’s Still a Good Life” (a sequel to the classic “It’s a Good Life”) which explained my dad. And now this. I am going to send your post to my brother. We will undoubtedly talk for hours about it.

    Thank you for making my weekend, Steve, as you always do. Have a great weekend.

    • Thanks, Joe. I worried that the subject might be too painful for some, or that the questions weren’t broad enough to keep from reopening wounds. I’m glad you found it interesting.

      There is another large area, besides first borns and their relation with parents, that I believe is very common. I’m eager today to see if anyone mentions it.

      I hope you and your brother have fun discussing your past. Have a great weekend!

  2. My mother was a Holocaust escapee. It was always about being compliant. Don’t call attention to yourself. Be better than what people expect you to be. Get good grades. It took me a LONG time to be able to say “no” to people wanting me to volunteer for this, help with that. However, she was a controller. Still is at 95. I just got back from a visit with her, and her caregivers are doing a wonderful job of letting her think she’s making all the decisions.

    • Thanks, Terry, for your story. It’s seems that there are many of us out there who have had mothers who were masters of control. It’s probably part of running an efficient family and household. I had to chuckle at your last sentence: “letting her think she’s making all the decisions.”

      From my experience with families going through the transition of aging parents relinquishing control to their children, I think it is one of the most difficult periods for families.

  3. Steve, I can’t help being movie-minded, and your mention of a controlling mother immediately brought to mind the Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager. It is all about that dynamic, and the quest to be free from it. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list!

    • Thanks, Jim. I’ll put it on my list. And, regarding another recommendation, I’m halfway through THE MALTESE FALCON. In addition to the interesting omniscient cinematic point of view (and probably because of it), it’s a great lesson in using action beats. I’m really enjoying it.

      Thanks for the Bette Davis classic recommendation.

  4. Great post, Steve! I’ve copied and pasted it into my KZ file for further mining…I see my current MC in a couple of those boundary categories. And, myself, of course.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of middle child syndrome. That’s me. Still. In constant worry mode over everyone’s relationships with each other. Oy! When I was a youngster, my parents tried to get me to stop micromanaging everyone’s quibbles with each other, but it never took. So, here I sit, my over-40 kids and almost grown grandchildren suffering from my attempts to manage them. Now, it’s my kiddos who say, “Let it go, Mom. We’ll take of ourselves ourselves.” Maybe next year it’ll take. 🙂

    Maybe I could write a character who’s like me, but slightly off. Could be fun!

    • Thanks, Deb. Great ideas on the middle child syndrome. I never thought about it that way, but it’s caught in the middle. Desire to please others, so Compliant. But trying to manage others to “keep everyone happy,” so a Controller.

      I model my secondary characters after my grandchildren. One of them is definitely a middle child. I’ve always portrayed her as the one who hold things together and sacrifices herself to keep others happy. I’m thinking in the next book that I need her to begin exploring what she really wants, rather than what everyone else wants. I hope it makes for some interesting conflict.

      Thanks for your comments and ideas. Good luck with that character that you know so well.

    • Interesting, because my second child turned out to be twins, and it’s the younger of the two (by 3 minutes) who assumed the role of middle child in the 3-child dynamic.

  5. Happy Saturday, Steve!
    This is one heck of a post. Very interesting take on human relationships and a fascinating tool to explore/generate conflict within and between characters.

    An old friend of mine passed away a couple of months ago. I only learned about it this month when his sister (who lives in another part of the country) reached out to me on Facebook to let me know about his memorial service. He and I met in college and became fast friends. He was a kind, gentle soul, but the sort of person who waited for you to reach out to him. He’d almost never call you, and as the years went on, that became never call you or email. He’d wait for you to call him. Always happy to hear from you, but he’d never reach out. My life became very busy a few years ago, juggling the day job, writing and self-publishing and I lost touch.

    I suppose my late friend would be an example of a non-responder, perhaps in a soft sense. He generally needed the other people in his life to take charge and catalyze action–be it a get-together, an outing, etc, with exceptions when he was younger. Nonetheless, he was a great guy, a quiet, kind soul who is missed by those who knew him.

    Perhaps long habit further strengthens or emphasizes these personality types. Something to think about in terms of characters and how their personalities develop and grow, or ossify, as they age.

    BTW, I’m currently reading Screenwriting Is Rewriting by Jack Epps, which, emphasizes the internal struggle/arc for characters during revision, focusing on the writer making a series of different revision passes through their story, be it a screenplay as Epps discusses, or novels. The book was talked up by an author who gave a revision mini-workshop I *attended* earlier this month. Today’s post ties in nicely to that.

    Thanks, Steve, for another thoughtful post! Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Thanks, Dale. Interesting story about your friend. That does emphasize how personality and relationships can change with aging. I always thought my father became a hermit after he retired. Now, I’m following in his footsteps. Thank goodness for a wife who pulls me out of my isolation occasionally.

      Thanks for the tip on the book by Jack Epps. I’ll check it out.

      Have a great weekend!

    • Dale,
      Maintaining long distance friendships is one of the most difficult things to do, at least to me. I grew up on the east coast, then about 23 years ago, as the only black sheep of the family, I moved west (dream since childhood). Staying in touch with most family is easier, but with friends, it’s awkward.

      Partly because I & my friends are that transitional generation who grew up when computers were just beginning to become a thing. Neither me nor some of my friends are phone yakkers, and some of those friends never took to the Internet or social media. So contact was swapping Christmas cards and such. And eventually, despite best intentions, those card swaps trickle to a stop because each becomes busy in their own respective spheres. And we each probably feel awkward when there’s a lapse in time between contact.

      Due to that, I’ve lost contact with friends. And of course time and age marches on. Perhaps it’s easier for younger generations who became more immediately committed to the Internet and social media.

      • BK, thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like there is a lot of emotion in the changes that have occurred with your relationships. I can identify with much of that. I grew up before computers (at least personal computers). The only computer I knew was used for quantitative analysis in college. It ran on Basic, and it filled the whole room.

        I think that contact with old friends is made even more awkward because we change physically. At my high school class reunions, I struggle with recognizing people. We need name tags.

        I hope you find some of those old friends who might have followed you west, and can reconnect. Have a great weekend.

      • I think you’re right, some of it is generational. I just turned 60, and my late friend would have in July. He worked in the tech industry, but avoided social media like the plague. He didn’t engage in a lot of the social activities–especially board gaming and roleplaying–which the rest of our circle did.

        He only lived about 5 miles from me, but was increasingly became a hermit. I kept meaning to reach out to him during this pandemic year, but never quite got around to it.

        Like Steve said, I hope you can find some of those old friends and reconnect.

  6. Let me tell you, the babies have troubles also. My mother was great at trying to make me feel guilty. She tried not talking to me–the old silent treatment– and I told her it worked with my father but wouldn’t with me. I was alerted to what was being sacrificed for me. I was also encouraged which somewhat made up for some of it but I knew they were depending on me in their old age. My brother joined the navy and left for good. He very occasionally kept in contact. Of course, he had troubles of his own I wouldn’t have wanted. Good piece, Steve. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Patricia. Good to hear your thoughts on the “baby” of the family. The youngest of the family are often stereotyped as the ones who are “spoiled,” so, good to hear you defend them. When it comes down to it, we probably all have scars from the parent – child relationships. Hopefully we can mine those feelings and memories to create deeper characters, with more interest, and more conflict.

      Have a good weekend!

  7. Very interesting social commentary you raised here, Steve. Conflict. I guess if it weren’t for human conflict I’d never have had a job as a police officer because policing is all about enforcing boundaries to mitigate conflict that people intentionally or unintentionally cause. I never heard of the categories in Boundaries but as I look back, the law enforcement struggle was all about trying to referee conflict brought on by the Controller and the Non Responder against the Compliant and the Avoidant. At least that’s the way I see it this foggy spring morning. Thanks for this, Steve, and Happy Saturday to everyone at the Kill Zone.

    • Thanks, Garry. I like your comment: “policing is all about enforcing boundaries.” I bet you have a wealth of memories of bizarre relationships seen during your police days. Great fodder for more good books. Good observation on the personality types who are the inflictors and who are the victims.

      Have a great weekend!

  8. The first rule of fiction and nonfiction aimed at the public, make the reader care about your information. For example, the story of a person affected by that info is prime starting territory for almost every feature health article in magazines like “Prevention.”

    Reddit is teeming with boundary stompers like toxic families, broken romantic partners, and even neighbors from hell who don’t respect property boundaries. As a guess, I’d say problems with boundaries is the primary cause of how screwed up most people are.

    • Thanks for your comments, Marilynn. I love the way you “tell it like it is.” And I would agree with your assessment that “problems with boundaries is the primary cause of how screwed up most people are.”

      I brought up the topic today, hoping that it would get us thinking about underlying pathology and potential inner conflict, so that we can build more original characters (vs. stereotypes) that make the reader care (and keep on turning pages.)

      Have a great weekend!

  9. Holy wow, what a fascinating subject! Compliant middle child here – the peacemaker (or attempt at it, anyway). I’ve been married 3 times – to a Controller (didn’t end well), another compliant (we’re still friends), and for 34 years to a non responder.
    But I can’t wait to use this in my plotting – but even more, it’s not often I learn something totally new about myself. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Laura. Interesting comments. You probably learned something new about yourself, because in the past you were taking care of everybody else. Good luck with that plotting. I hope you come up with some interesting characters and conflict. And thanks for stopping by.

  10. What an insightful way to examine conflicts, Steve. And the comments are as interesting as the post itself. You clearly touched a nerve which is something we writers are supposed to do. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Debbie. And thanks for stopping by. I hope that the discussion will help us “structure” people think a bit about character driven stories, looking at the inner journey, the conflict, and making the plot work for the story that needs to be told.

  11. Sorry I’m late! Fascinating post, Steve. My mother was compliant. Born in 1930, it might be generational. Women of that era tended to be people pleasers and not rock the boat. After my dad passed, she got more independent (she had no choice) but she still looked at the world with rose-colored glasses. Eternal optimist, which rubbed off on me.

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks for your story of you and your inheritance. That eternal optimism that rubbed off on you may be partly genetic. My dad was manic. Manic-depressive disorder runs in my family. I got the manic genes, always ready to take on another project. My wife is the cautious one. I tell her that I’m the gas pedal; she’s the brake pedal. We make a good team.

      Have a great remainder of the weekend!

    • Thanks, Jodie. I appreciate you stopping by. And thanks for your continued involvement at TKZ. I hope we’ll see more of your posts in the future.

      • Thanks for the great article Dr Hooley! A wise man suggested this very same book to me! It’s on my list! Starting some writing back up and have been working on poetry. I forgot how fun it can be to write. May all your new ventures bring you the best life has to hold!

        • Thanks, Barb. And thanks for stopping by. Good to hear that you’re restarting the writing. Good luck with poetry. And I hope that I’m reading some of your books in the future.

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