Part 1 looked at some of the main causes of character conflict, the kind of things that give our characters motivations, things that make them act and behave in certain ways which raise the tension and keep the reader interested - such as love and hate, the need for a character to reach his or her goal, desire, the good guy versus the bad guy effect, making choices and facing dilemmas.
In this concluding part, we’ll look at a few more causes, ones that we don’t always readily give a second thought to, but they are important ones nonetheless, because they are elements that can cause conflict, and where there is conflict there is tension and emotion, the very substance of stories that readers love.
Ignorance might not seem an obvious choice of the cause of character conflict, but characters, like people in real life, have a tendency, and a great capacity, to be ignorant of a lot of things, and when someone doesn’t see the truth or refuses to believe something or someone, that’s when the trouble starts.
Characters who are ignorant of the things that are happening around them will always attract conflict, because there will always be other characters desperately trying to change their opinion or outlook. This kind of external conflict can exist between one of more characters.
Look at it this way - what if your main character can’t accept something, despite everyone else telling him differently? In real life we are all probably guilty of that at some point in our lives, and that goes for your readers, too. They will know this feeling, so this kind of conflict will certainly resonate with them, because they understand the emotions going on with the all the characters, they will relate to this type of conflict.
Another one is prejudice. This is something that we all fall prey to, in one form or another. It’s human nature to prejudge. No one is perfect, and your characters, with all their imperfections and flaws, should be no different.
When we prejudge, we make our own assumptions about something or someone – more often they are unfounded and completely wrong. And that’s the kind of prejudice that causes conflict – characters being treated in a different way because of who they are, who they are with and what they do, or they are treated differently because of their skin colour, their gender, their looks, beliefs or their sexuality.
Some of the best novels contain characters fundamentally weakened by prejudice – think To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Human Stain.
And so to our final primary cause of conflict...fear. Good old-fashioned fear of the unknown always causes conflict because ultimately we fear what we do not know or understand.
It’s also closely linked with prejudice and ignorance, since fear, prejudice and ignorance go hand in hand.
Again, it’s human nature to fear something we’re not quite sure of. And those fears don’t have to be external. They can be internal fears – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of making a fool of oneself. All these fears lead to a heightened sense of emotion, and that can lead to friction with other characters, especially if they don’t really understand what your main character is thinking or feeling.
In real life we have encountered many of these fears, so we know what kind of tensions and conflicts it can cause to those around us. Fear is a powerful reactionary emotion and one of the strongest emotions used in literature. And because it’s so powerful, it causes a great deal of conflict.
Whatever the reasons behind it, characters love to fight and disagree and argue – it’s what makes an interesting story. But next time to you sit down and create a story, think about the very reasons why your characters act the way they do, and the very real causes of character conflict.
Next week: Writing Short Stories