Conflict. If you’re anything like me, the very word conjures up argument, avoidance, ‘peace at any cost.’ In real life, conflict is rarely fun or something I go looking for. But leave it out of our writing, and we can have some serious conflict with editors and readers.
The first step toward understanding conflict is to know what genuine artistic conflict is not. Compelling conflict rarely stems from:
* Slammed doors.
* Slapped faces.
* Misunderstood fragment of overheard dialogue.
* A spilled drink.
* Romance characters tormenting each other with “fake” lovers.
* Characters complaining they are never understood because
men and women can't communicate.
You get the picture. All of the above are actions and events; things that can certainly be the result of conflict and that can make characters angry, but conflict is much more than anger. Authentic conflict often begins long before your story opens and is the motivating spur behind every decision and action your characters will make. In order to uncover as many levels of conflict possible (and to make life near-impossible for your characters) it can be helpful to explore the following seven areas.
1) The World or Society at Large. This is the world your story characters inhabit. It can be as simple as a barren desert or as elaborate as a feudal realm set in the distant future. Whatever it is, it contains problems; problems that can disadvantage and hold your characters back from their goals in significant ways. For instance, a world at war can be set anywhere from ancient times to the present day, from Middle Earth to outer space, but no matter the weaponry used, war always involves great suffering.
At the opposite end, a peaceful, apparently beautiful society can be filled with social injustice or a devastating class structure. Characters caught up in a perfect life may be the most discontent of all. Consider the poor heroine who is engaged to the perfect man, has the perfect job, eats perfect dinners with her loving, supportive parents every Friday night. On the surface she seems happy, but she may be ready to strangle them all.
Including a backdrop of social turmoil to your work will provide your characters with either past negative experience to overcome, or an ongoing situation that creates constant hardship. “High society” with all its rules and traditions, vices and hypocrisies can be a terribly low place filled with dark secrets and psychoses.
2) The Immediate Professional Environment or Workplace. No matter the times they are born into, your characters all have to do something to make a living. Even if your heroine’s sole purpose in life is to be married off to a peer of the realm, this is still her “occupation.” No matter if your characters are nannies or rock stars, advertising executives or harried FBI agents; they will at some stage encounter the monster boss, rival co-worker(s), ruthless or incompetent employees. Sometimes the workplace itself harbors corruption and is a great source of conflict, such as an unethical law firm or a company cutting corners on its products.
3) The Family. Your characters’ families can provide some of the most interesting and complex levels of emotional and physical conflict for your readers. For instance, the vengeful ex-spouse; jealous or dysfunctional siblings; ill, difficult, or rebellious children; a dependent, needy parent. Keep in mind that even if your characters’ families fall into the warm and supportive category, there can be family conflicts that erupt between “good” and “bad” branches of extended families that can sometimes last for generations.
4) The Achilles Heel. Strong characters should each have an inherent weakness that trips them up precisely when they most need inner balance. You can find this weakness by writing character bios, but also by establishing both an outward goal and an inner goal per character. An outer goal is based on “what they want” while an inner goal is “what they really want.”
Your main character’s outward goal will provide much of the plot structure for the entire book. A good method for ensuring that you have filled this goal with conflict is to interview your character and ask what are his or her doubts, fears, and insecurities. For instance, a woman who wants to rescue abused children may in reality be seeking the nurturing and acceptance she never received from her own family. Her efforts to start a children’s shelter might reveal her own need to finally have a home where she, too, can belong.
5) The Hero and Heroine as a Pair. “Opposites attract” may seem to be your most obvious choice, but even if your hero and heroine are a match made in heaven, at some point you will want to make sure that their individual story goals conflict and send them reeling.
6) Secondary Characters. The problems and conflicts of secondary characters can often mirror those of the hero and heroine. Sometimes these problems can add more conflict for the hero and heroine to solve, especially when the efforts of secondary characters to “help” simply mess things up even further.
7) Villains. Villains can be found from any of the above categories and are one of your strongest sources of conflict for your characters. The job of the villain is to try everything possible to prevent the other characters from achieving their goals. The key to writing great villains is to keep them human with a mixture of both good and evil. Your readers and your other characters should continually be conflicted in their feelings toward villains—tricked, deceived, enraged, sympathetic, and horrified all at the same time. And villains should feel the exact same way about themselves.
More than anything, as you write keep in mind that conflict, at least on the page, is good. If you'd like to learn more about the subject, I've written an entire chapter on creative conflict in my book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.
Tip of the Day: Go for the jugular! Read some of your favorite books again and look for the different levels of conflict. While you're at it, go through your current WIP and see if you have used any of these seven conflict areas. What can you include or expand?