Last month I promised to talk to you about conflict and what it is. It seems really obvious. I mean, look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find: to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash, or as a noun: a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife; controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties; discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas; a striking together; collision; incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another.

So basically, it’s opposition that can result in strife, clashing, struggle, quarreling, etc., etc., and so on and so forth, dot dot dot. So there. No need to say more. Right? Well, maybe not. Okay, so let’s talk novel conflict. When you’re writing a novel, you usually have a central conflict. That means, there has to be something that your main characters are fighting against. Now that may not be literal fighting. It might be an obstacle that is simply in their way and they must overcome it, go around it, or figure out how to make it go away. It could also be incidental. For instance. What if two countries are at war and they are battling and your main character just happens to be trying to go through the battlefield and can’t go any other direction because he has to take that route? Maybe it’s a matter of time. Maybe it’s a matter of that’s the only way to get where he is going. He’s incidental to the battle, but it is a major problem for him.

In crossing that battlefield, your character is likely to run into more conflict. Those conflicts create smaller arcs that help carry the action forward and keep the reader interested as the larger conflict plays out. So possibilities include your character getting involved in a battle. Perhaps he sees an injustice and feels the need to step in and help. Perhaps he gets captured and is forced to spy for the bad guys. Perhaps he finds a magic coin and suddenly he starts spewing money every time he talks and he can’t stop. There’s an endless kettle of problems that comes with that. The possibilities for conflict are endless. But the point is, you have to make it hard for your character to get to the end of the book in one piece.

But make sure your conflict isn’t random or arbitrary. It  has to be anchored in your world, your characters and your story. As more conflict piles on, it shows your character and world more and so it has to be true to the story and world.  A novel also needs more than one conflict to keep reader interested for the length of the book. Your choices are external and internal conflicts. External is obviously conflict that comes from outside. Internal is from within.

Internal conflict is when a character struggles with herself. It could be a moral dilemma, a struggle between two desires, wanting something she can’t have and so on. To me, internal conflict is also necessary for a novel. I don’t think stories are all that interesting when the characters are struggling to make good choices. It’s really fun when they make bad ones. But the point is that they must struggle. I don’t much care for the black and white hero who is GOOD and is fighting against EVIL and has no worries or concerns beyond SAVING THE DAY. Blech. I want a hero who’s got problems. Who doesn’t want to do the right thing or who doesn’t even know what it is. I want someone who’s a little dirty and doesn’t wear a white hat. Same with the evil. I want someone who I like sometimes. Mercedes Lackey once said, “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.” That’s a wizard I want to know. I want to eat cookies with him and hope they aren’t laced with arsenic. It’s just more interesting.

Conflict is the engine of any story. One definition of a story is characters in conflict. I like that because it involves the two most important elements of a story–three-dimensional characters with problems. Our job as writers is to throw lots of problems at them. Ah, the joys of character torture. Make them suffer. It’s good for story.


9 comments to Conflict

  • Diana, Excellent description of conflict. You said:
    >>Ah, the joys of character torture. Make them suffer. It’s good for story.


    One writer (I forget who) said when you can’t figure out how to resolve the character’s or plot’s conflict, to make the conflict the worst thing next to death. Ratchet it up until there is *no* way out for the character. Then make it worse. And the resolution with come to you. So far that has worked for me.

  • Mikaela

    Your post helped me realise that I have too much external conflict, and not enough internal conflict. I definitely need to do another draft. sigh.

  • Deb S

    “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.”

    Great quote. I’m now picturing Slightly Overweight Evil Wizard, clad in moon and stars jammies, blustering and stuttering excuses to Wife as she catches him with his hand in the cookie jar.

  • Mikaela

    All right. This is totally out of topic.. Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson is doing something really cool.

  • I’ve always thought that Neil Gaiman is particularly adept at slowly ratcheting up the conflict tension in his novels. It happens almost comfortably — you don’t realize it as it’s happening, but suddenly the odds are so stacked against his characters that there seems to be no way he/she can prevail. And then Gaiman makes things even worse.

    Great post, Di. Thanks for this. Something else for me to think about as I develop my WIP.

  • Faith: I love me some good character torture. The theme is always make it worse.

    Mikaela: I do think making sure that having both conflicts are very important. And thanks for the link!

    Deb: do you think she makes him mow the lawn without magic next time as punishment?

    David: you’re about Neil Gaiman. I like that idea of comfortably getting to the point of no turning back and so much trouble there’s no getting away.

  • I got to about 80% complete on my WIP when I discovered I was missing some important conflict. I’d just written a minor climax scene and realised that I had nothing for half of my characters to do, they’d achieved everything and had no conflict.
    After reading your post I looked back at one of my main characters (I have 2) and noticed they had precious little internal conflict. He was too mild mannered, didn’t have any real personal tragedy in his past, didn’t have any addictions or bad habits and didn’t hate or fear anyone. Talk about weak. Anyway, back to the start. My novel used to start with “MC woke up.” Yeah exciting. Now it will be. “Betrayal, heart crushing betrayal.” Then he wakes up in the consequences of that betrayal. So he will hate someone, feel wronged and want vengeance, discover the person he wants vengeance against is also his only love, have a short temper, problems sleeping (because of vengeance, betrayal and such).
    Anyway it should make it a lot easier to find motivation for him and I just might break his legs at some point.

  • Scion: Oh you make me so happy to be helpful! And I love that new first line. I would definitely read more. And just hearing you describe the rest of your intentions makes me want to read more and more.

  • Young_Writer

    I feel bad for my characters when I’m in a bad mood. It normally resutls in the death of a friend or parent. Sometimes they fall off cliffs. Just depends 😉 I love thinking up new things for my characters, I know I love a book with a lot of raised stakes.