No story is without conflict. It’s a driving force not only for the plot but also for the characters. It makes characters do things they wouldn’t normally do. It makes them behave in ways they wouldn’t normally behave.
But to understand why characters react to conflict this way, writers should learn the fundamental primary causes of character conflict and why they’re so important in fiction writing, the kinds of reasons that universally make sense and provide the catalyst to create such tension and conflict.
You have the characters, you have the plot layout, you have a rough idea of the ending, you have scenes plotted and prospective subplots, but your novel lacks the tension and the conflict, so you might wonder: exactly what kind of conflict do I create for my characters?
That depends on the plot, other characters and the surroundings, because there are certain types of conflict to help writers:
Man v Man – This is external conflict
Man v Himself – This is internal conflict.
Man v Nature – This is external conflict.
The most important thing for any story is that the main character wants something, but he or she is somehow being prevented from getting it. Think how you feel if you couldn’t reach your goal? Think of the frustration and anger and disappointment this would create because your goal is in reach but you are thwarted at every turn. This is external conflict.
Another cause of any conflict is good old fashioned love and hate. Characters love to hate each other just as much as they love to love each other. Characters who don’t agree – even best friends - will clash, thus providing lots of different tension and varied conflicts. This is also external conflict.
Another cause is desire, which covers a large spectrum of emotions. Desire is falls under this type of cause, because sometimes what we desire isn’t always what we get. It’s not just desire of another person, but sometimes it’s the desire of a special object or place, or the desire to achieve something. The desire can be obvious or it could be profound. It really doesn’t matter, because the true conflict comes when the character’s desires are not fulfilled, which causes internal conflict.
Let’s not forget another primary cause – the antagonist versus the protagonist, or sometimes known as ‘good versus evil’. Every story will have a protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the bad guy) who will clash throughout the story, each time growing in intensity until it culminates in the final showdown or ‘end game’ where the hero might win the day. Or he might not. This is another example of external conflict.
Here’s another one to consider: Imagine being faced with many choices – what do you do? What path do you take? What might happen? Will you make the right choice? Choices make for good conflict because there is always the danger that your main character will make the wrong choice, which will result in danger and tension and lots of conflict.
Most stories will involve the character making important choices; whether right or wrong. This is internal conflict.
Similar to choices, another primary cause of conflict is the dilemma. No one likes to be faced with a dilemma, but unlike choices, which can be right or wrong, the dilemma forces the character to make a choice between two bad outcomes. In other words, there is never a right choice. But the decision behind whichever the choice the character decides on will be full of conflict and tension. This would take the form of internal conflict.
Think about the states of conflict we create for ourselves in everyday life – the emotional conflict, dramatic conflict and sometimes physical conflict. Somehow we resolve them in our own way. Sometimes it’s a good outcome, sometimes it isn’t, but nevertheless we are forced to behave in certain ways, we lash out, we react badly or irrationally, we act hastily.
Sometimes we do things we regret. And that’s because such conflicts awaken our instinctive desire to act and react.
In the concluding part of this look at primary causes of character conflict, we’ll look at some other familiar causes of conflict, which are important to any story.
Next week: The Primary Causes of Character Conflict – Part 2