All stories thrive on conflict. It is as inherent to our human nature as breathing. From the earliest days of cavemen to the latest headline, all of the stories we’ve told each other in human history have been rooted in conflict. Without it, we have nothing to overcome and nothing to strive for. War is the pursuit of (the resolution to?) conflict. Peace is the absence of, or result of an applied solution to - conflict. Without conflict, you have a soma-based story - a memoir or a recollection of a series of memories or a transcription of a scene. Your book becomes a silent movie without a plot. Hell, the best memoirs are about people overcoming a truck-load of adversity, which usually involves a lot of conflict. All of our great movements in history, be they based on Civil Rights, Suffrage, Liberation, Resistance, Occupation or Conquest involve opposing forces. Now this isn’t to say that your moving recollection of your grandmother’s life need be embellished with chair-and-cane gladiator matches from her last days in Restful Pines Retirement, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that even sweet old Nana had a throw-down or two back when she was a younger woman.
Well sure you might protest and assert that she was never the type to lay a smackdown on any a hood rat who disrespected her. No, she was better than that, you proclaim. But this does Nana a disservice, because some types of conflict can be fought over glances, words and facial expressions. Depending on the scenario, there are times when a raised eyebrow can be as devastating as a hook to the jaw. Just ask the folks from Downtown Abbey.
CONFLICT TYPE #1: CHARACTER AGAINST NATURE
DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS FAMOUS LITERARY CHARACTER IS?
HOW ABOUT HIS MODERN DAY EQUIVALENT?
The first is Robinson Crusoe, the latter interpretation is Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Read the former if you’d like to learn how to build log cabins and/or need a sleep aid; watch the latter if you’d like to see Tom Hanks scream at a volleyball.
The point is, in both cases there’s not much in the way of conflict between characters in either story (save for some cannibals in Crusoe), instead both choosing to explore their main characters through conflict with their environment. Crusoe reflects the colonial mentality of Mastery Over All, a common theme of the time the book was written, whereas Hanks’ Chuck Noland struggles to achieve the basics of survival and his sanity suffers as a result. While both men were represented as being quite capable prior to their ordeals, each story reveals something about their mettle and their levels of adaptability which not only is reflective of who they are, but are also reflective of who we are as an audience. Think about it. Would today’s audience likely identify with a modern day Robinson Crusoe - a man whose sense of mastery allows him to herd goats, collect a parrot, build shelters, fight off cannibals and rescue a man-servant (don’t get me started) OR a portly, hard-working middle-manager for a large corporation?
The themes and conflicts are essentially the same, but the execution and what they mean for both the character and the reader are inherently different. So having your character struggle with their environmental hardship (common in Western, Frontier and even Science Fiction) can be a great way of revealing character through conflict.
For example, will your character rise or crumble under pressure? Will they personify their adversarial environment by giving it a name (ie. the Schiaparelli crater from Andy Weir’s The Martian) or giving themself a new name to face it (ie. Alexander Supertramp, the nom de guerre of Jon Kakauer’s protagonist in Into the Wild). In both instances, the men adapted differently to their circumstances. The titular martian, Mark Watney, stranded astronaut faces this external challenge by making nerdy math jokes and trying to science his way out of every problem he faces. Alexander Supertramp, on the other hand seemed entirely unprepared for the journey he willingly embarked on and eventually succumbed to his lack of knowledge.
We see these types of adventure stories in movies as well, such as The Grey and The Revenant, which are Liam Neeson vs wolves and Leonardo Dicaprio vs bear respectively. If you’ve seen these films then you understand that the central point about these types of narratives are not about what it takes to survive the wilderness. You could write a tense life-and-death story about a marine vs a raccoon and make it work as long as the story reveals something about the characters.
So put your characters in a tough spot. Take away their resources, take away their crutches, be they mental, physical or emotional. Now see how they react. If the reactions don’t change, then maybe you need to retool your characters.
CONFLICT TYPE #2: CHARACTER AGAINST SOCIETY
Welcome all ye freaks, rebels, deviants and disaffected teenagers, this here be the conflict for you. Take a gander at the latest YA shelves and you’ll see some variant of “_____-aged troubled teen discovers she is the ______ kind of _________ in the world who doesn’t understand her. She must navigate this treacherous (Canadian spelling, bite me) situation with the help of the mysterious hunky ______ Mc________face who may or may not be interested in her. Too bad, she’ll never notice the real affections of her best friend __________, who is also interested in her. Can she learn how to use her ________ powers and escape the clutches of the Evil Adult Society before it’s too late?”
It’s a formula for a reason. The reason is that it works. It works because for many adolescents, navigating their changing physical capabilities and sexual entanglements, this is precisely what it feels like. The world is against them. Nobody understands, least of all the irritating, all-powerful people in charge and only they, the protagonist, really has it all figured out. Stories with totalitarian societies and rebellious main characters give teens and those who love YA fiction an outlet for this kind of counterculture thinking, because this is how the world feels.
This also has roots in many classic fiction stories such as George Orwell’s 1984, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and in modern-day stories such as The Hunger Games, The Giver, or Divergent. An important quality of this type of conflict is to determine how your character will a) interact with their dystopia and b) change or be changed by it. In all of these cases, our main character challenges the norms of their society. In most cases, they are successful in either breaking free from or breaking down the structures of control that dominate said society and usher in a new era.
This type of phenomenon is not limited to YA or teen fiction however, as adult fiction is littered with this kind of conflict where the main character rebels against a society that confines or constrains them. The novel Fight Club by Chuck Pahalniuk deals with this outsider status in a very interesting way, by having the protagonist start out in a conflict with vapid modernity & society which he cannot resolve, so he creates another character/persona who can make the changes he can’t and inadvertently creates his own antagonist in the process.
Similarly, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the world is a vast, harsh and cruel place, wherein the environment has created a new kind of society (or lack thereof) where people prey on each other. Our main character is not only a man fighting for his and his son’s literal survival against the elements but their morality also makes them outsiders to their now-barbaric world. Both the environment and the resulting society and the characters’ contrast to it, tell the reader something about who they are. This is another way you can combine both Against Nature and Against Society conflicts directly into your fiction.
If you are considering this type of conflict to drive your story, you should ensure that both your society and your character who’s opposed to it are very sharply defined. It is not enough to say that the society is totalitarian or lazy or entitled or militaristic, you must provide concrete examples to prove this is the case which should be in strong contrast to either the reader’s presumed daily life or the protagonist’s thoughts/feelings in order to get the message across. By this I mean if you want to say that the society has such poor resources that coffee is strictly regulated, then you can illustrate this by having the character have to pay their coffee-maker with a credit card to receive their morning shot of espresso. I know for some writers, that, at the very least would represent a dystopia.
Don’t think that you have to limit yourself to any one of these conflicts in order to make your story work. You can mix and match them up, as long as you have sufficient weight and reasoning in your narrative to justify transitional conflicts.
CONFLICT TYPE #3: CHARACTER AGAINST SELF
Next we come to the artists, the louts, the drinkers, boozers, gamblers, addicts and all-around deadbeats of the world. If you want the clearest example of what this kind of character conflict is, take a look at perhaps one of the original examples below:
If you guessed one Dorian Gray, you’d be correct. In Oscar Wilde’s protagonist is a libertine pursuing the life of varied & amoral experiences. His body and his mind remain unmarked by his escapades because the weight of his actions is marked not upon his soul, but upon his portrait. For Dorian, not having to look at his decaying reflection in the portrait means never having to face the true consequences of his actions, either on himself or on others. He is in effect, running from his own conscience. Thus he remains ageless and for all intents and purposes, immortal. But, like a fly trapped in amber, Dorian does not grow or change upon consideration of his life, because he does not consider his, nor anyone else’s life.
Characters who are in conflict with themselves, be it through action or inaction, doubt, guilt, self-loathing, self-flagellation, self-aggrandizement or any other type of psychological short-circuitry, lack the ability to cope with their issues in any kind of healthy way. And this, dear reader, creates conflict. Not only with themselves, although that is the central tenant, but with everyone they encounter.
To put it another way, let’s take a look at a popular comic & movie character you can find adorning movie screens and children’s pillowcases: The Hulk. Sure he’s a big green ball of muscles that likes to smash things, but the man behind it all, Bruce Banner is a tortured soul because he literally loses all control of himself whenever his adrenaline spikes. Think of the psychological chains that places on his mental and emotional responses to situations. He cannot allow himself to have the normal range of emotional responses to stimuli, be it excitement, irritation, anger or lust. Take a look at his expression in the image on the right. This is right after the scene where he has succumbed to an artificially-induced loss of control wherein he destroyed a city, causing thousands of dollars in damage, inflicted terror on the innocent civilians and nearly killed his friend Tony.
What emotions do you think this kind of character would be feeling in a moment like this? Given what we know about him and how conflicted he is, what sorts of feelings wouldn’t he allow himself to feel?
The answer to the latter question is critical to how he handles other developments, such as a romantic connection to his team-mate Natasha.
She broaches the subject with empathy, describing herself as a monster as well due to her upbringing as an amoral assassin, suggesting that perhaps they could find comfort in each other.
Bruce wants it, he wants her, as not only is she an attractive, available woman who is clearly putting herself out there for him, but she also accepts his internal conflict and the destructive physical and emotional consequences thereof. But this conflict, this war fueled by Bruce’s fear of the Hulk and the cost of Hulk’s rampages, forces Bruce to turn away from the type of love and connection he desperately wants. Thus, one internal conflict impacts his emotions, his interactions and decisions and in turn, creates a secondary internal conflict when it affects his ability to meet his own needs.
Don’t be afraid to let your character’s internal conflicts spiral outward, affecting their interactions with other people, creating more conflicts.
INTERNAL CONFLICT ISN’T A SINGLE RAINDROP, IT’S THE BEGINNING OF A RAINSTORM.
CONFLICT TYPE #4: CHARACTER AGAINST OTHERS
If you’re looking for a how-to for writing a hands-on type of conflict between characters, stroll on over to the Write-A-Fight article and enjoy the fisticuffs.
For this type of conflict, I thought we might take a different approach and look at how to create tension between characters who have opposing philosophies or worldviews. Some of the best interpersonal dynamics in stories are born from two things: similarities and differences. It’s an old adage that the person we despise the most often represents or displays a trait we dislike about ourselves. Likewise, great opponents can and do recognize the similarities in one another even while they may be on opposite sides. How often have you seen or read the sentiment “... would that we had met under different circumstances, we might have been friends…”? This is a signifier that the characters see something in one another that they could respect.
In the case of two famous characters like Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty, one is a bohemian master detective of unquestionable intelligence and the other is an amoral intellectual criminal with a ruthless streak. Their conflict is not merely one of policeman vs evil-doer; Holmes’s entire M.O. is about exposing the truth and reveling in the deductive process, whereas Moriarty would rather his puppeteering be incognito - his is more shadowplay. As such that aspect of their personalities is diametrically opposed, which would naturally bring out conflict in any scenario where they are required to play to their strengths.. Imagine getting these two to have a game of CLUE together...
Below is a quote courtesy of arthurconandoyle.com
Both men would be considered geniuses, but they engage in pursuits on the opposite sides of the law. They share an arrogant streak as well, as Holmes derives pleasure from the fact that police require his expertise to solve cases, whereas Moriarty’s ego is stroked through his success at manipulating the criminal underworld to do his bidding. Take a look at the clip from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows below, wherein their similar mental philosophies translate down to hand-to-hand combat. Being evenly matched, the lengths they go to to prove their superiority lead to their mutual destruction.
Great nemeses are constructed as reflections of the hero. Taking the opposite path can yield some interesting results in terms of character construction. The key is not to make either one a caricature. Your villain or antagonist doesn’t need to be Snidely Whiplash, tying maidens to train tracks in order to be effective.
Another example of this would be the story of dueling magicians from the film The Prestige. Its story follows Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, rival stage magicians in 19th century London. Obsessed with capturing the crowd by creating the best stage illusion, they compete against one another in a dangerous game of one-upmanship that has tragic results. For those of you familiar with this film, I want you to think back to how the rivals are depicted.
Borden, played by Christian Bale, is talented at the craft of magic and demonstrates absolute dedication to his performance. However, he lacks the critical component of showmanship, leaving his audience underwhelmed. His drive and focus alienates his wife and child.
Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, is similarly talented and absolutely dedicated to the perfection of his craft. While possessing a greater natural showmanship, he is undercut by a lack of originality and inventiveness - Borden can see tricks and methods that he cannot.
While these two men literally have the same pursuit and occasionally overlapping love interests, they inevitably come into conflict with each other because their philosophies or approaches to their craft are different - rooted in the personalities of each man. While Borden could be considered single-minded in his search for the ‘world’s greatest magic trick’, Angier is content to have a bigger crowd and the pretty girl. When the latter is taken from him in a stage accident involving Borden, Angier’s dedication turns to rivalry. Since due to circumstances beyond his control he cannot prove Borden’s guilt, he gradually grows more and more obsessed with beating Borden at his own game, namely by learning how he does his best tricks. Not content to simply outperform the more unrefined magician, Angier’s need to be the undisputed star causes him to sabotage his own relationships in attempts to plant spies in Borden’s employ. As things spiral out of control, Borden retaliates, giving Angier a limp, while the flashier magician responds by burying one of Borden’s loved ones alive. Angier’s need to crush Borden causes him to go to unheard-of lengths, contacting one Nikola Tesla to build him a machine that would perform feats of science that were indistinguishable from real magic, but at great cost. Now were Borden in his position, he may have made a different choice, choosing not to murder his double over and over again. But Angier, being as obsessed as he is, and as selfish as he is, decides to go ahead with the dangerous machine in the hopes of luring Borden out into a fatal confrontation.
What I want you to see is that it is their mental states, their philosophies that bring these two men into conflict with each other. Had they been car salesmen or florists or softball coaches, their story would have had a similar trajectory (in general, not the details).
When you are creating your antagonists or other characters with whom your main character must come into conflict with, consider the variables in the examples above and make them as similar and as different to your star as you can.
CONFLICT TYPE #5: CHARACTER AGAINST THE READER
Now we come to the final and potentially the most complex of all the conflicts you can write. No, I don’t mean Game of Thrones., because seriously what the hell is going on with that series - are there like 195 characters?
The conflict is you vs remembering who the hell that guy even is.
Here is where you really get to take some risks with your characters and their decisions. Depending on the story and its genre, you may have some leeway in terms of readers’ expectations with regard to what they’d accept. You can have some characters make controversial or even downright despicable decisions (looking at you Cersei) and yet still somehow make them either relatable or even likeable (Jaime for reasons unknown).
Let’s take the hold-your-nose-level-of-ick that is Jaime and Cersei’s relationship on that show. Sure incest is gross, but it’s included in the narrative as part of each character’s relationship map and there are many scenes they share together with deal with this repulsive subject matter. Assume that 99.9% (fill in your own joke about the other 0.1%) of readers will object to this relationship on a variety of moral grounds. If the story is told compellingly enough, that moral objection will go out the window and they will keep reading. Think about it: How books, tv shows and movies can you think of, off the top of your head, where the main character(s) were repugnant or controversial in some way?
Stop when you get to a dozen.
Why does this sell? Because people want to be challenged, unless we’re talking politics. People pick up books to feel things, to tap into deeper emotions, to scratch that proverbial rainbow of feelings and see what they can sniff. Otherwise, what’s the point? All media is meant for consumption, which is why we write books. Even now, there’s a new television show being prepped about if slavery in the Southern U.S. had continued to present day. There’s the shock and titillation factor, and there’s also the curiosity factor. Readers do sometimes like knowing something the main character does not. This applies to those main characters who have committed a crime or done something horrible deserving of retribution. Whether the character is contrite or not, readers do expect something karmic to happen in order to restore their sense of justice in the world. Or confirm their cynical sense of injustice in the world. Either way, they’re on board.
Sometimes the journey can be painful. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is a good example of this. It tells the story of a Polish Catholic woman named Sophie interned in Auschwitz, who over the course of the narrative is forced to choose which one of her children would be killed by Nazis and which would be spared. For any parent, this represents an impossible choice, but Sophie does choose. Those who would have made a different choice or none at all would immediately disagree with Sophie, but would still keep reading, because they’d want to know the effects of that choice because they’d invested in the character of Sophie.
Another technique you can use is one of the Unreliable Narrator - where the reader is sure that the voice telling the story is not exactly telling the truth as it happened. They could be intentionally or unintentionally obscuring the truth. This puts the reader in conflict with the words on the page, as they know the person telling the story might literally be lying to them with every word. It forces the reader to work more to learn what’s real and what’s not. While it can invest them more with the story, it can sometimes backfire if the reveal is handled too late, making the investment the reader has made throughout the book moot.
You, as the author, have that choice. It’s ultimately up to you how that story goes and what risks you’re willing to take to keep the reader’s attention.
This brings us to the end of this article. While not exhaustive, I hope you’ve found it helpful and hope that it’s made you think about what kinds of conflict you want to include in your next work.
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