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03.06.2011 18:41    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Conflict  Fiction Writing  Fiction Elements  Writing Craft      Tags: conflict makes the story  conflic  story  cheryl st. john  

No matter what writing topic I'm asked to address, I hang the most importance on characters.  Conflict is drawn from characters.  It's based on their goals, their backstory and their motivation.  It is opposing forces that come from within the characters themselves.


Webster's Dictionary defines conflict as "the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction."  This definition is the essence of fiction, and we need to keep it in mind as we develop characters and plots.


If there's no conflict, there's no story.


In order to understand conflict and how to develop it, we must first understand what conflict is, what conflict is not, and what conflict can be.  The elements that make up a story are so closely meshed that at times it becomes difficult to dissect and make a firm delineation between them.  Characterization, plotting, and conflict are all intricately entwined in a masterfully developed story.


Conflict is not delay. Anything that helps or hinders your character's effort to get what he wants should go into your story.  Anything that doesn't, shouldn't.  We do use incidents now and then to show frustration or characterize or flesh out the story and make it seem real, but even though these incidents are useful, they don't complicate the situation or make it worse, therefore they are not conflict.


Examples of incidents: the protagonist can't find someone or something; he falls in a mud puddle; he misses a bus; he arrives at an important event late.


Conflict is not anger or bickering or foot stomping. This is probably one of the most widely misunderstood elements.  Getting mad and yelling at another character without reasonable believable motivation only makes that character childish or just plain mean.  This behavior is acceptable for antagonists, because it characterizes them, but your protagonists should have more depth.  There are always exceptions to the rule, for example The African Queen and High Road to China, are movie plots in which the characters argue relentlessly, but for these particular characters and situations, it works.  The key is to make your characters' personalities work for your story.


Conflict is not the characters fighting with each other.  It's them fighting with themselves. Misunderstandings are fine and many of the novels we read start out that way, but misunderstandings between adults are easily discussed and cleared up.  There must be conflict beyond the initial misunderstanding or that misunderstanding must be the catalyst for something more significant.  Often, when a person is angry, he's angry with himself or with an unresolved situation.  Dig deeper.


Conflict can be relative.  The character's motivation and reactions are what bring the conflict to life.  What constitutes conflict for one person may be taken in stride or perhaps even be an ideal situation for the next person.  If you were a writer with a bad knee, and you required surgery and had to stay off your leg for  a couple of months, of course you would be inconvenienced.  Someone would have to shop for your groceries and walk the dog, but on the up side, you'd get in a lot of writing time.


If you were a mailman, requiring the same surgery, then the time off your feet presents an entirely different dilemma because your livelihood is at stake.


The reader must know why this situation is important and why he should care.


Conflict must be an intolerable state of affairs; It must be problems or situations that your characters cannot ignore or explain away. From the very beginning, start off by pairing or grouping characters in sharp contrast to one another; develop well-motivated characters that by their very nature will feed the conflict and drive the story forward toward the resolution.  Give them many sides and varying traits, good as well as bad.  Interesting people have layers of values, convictions and faults.


Make it important that your character do something to remedy his situation.


Create the characters with built-in conflict. Build it in as you personify them and give them diversity.  Use their past, their needs and their fears.  Use their strengths and their weaknesses against them.


Their backstory, combined with characterization, will be motivation for everything they do.  It will shape their goals and define the way they react to situations.  Weak superficial motivations lead to weak superficial conflict, resulting in weak superficial characters.


Conflict is what reveals your character's emotions, and it's the emotion through which your reader identifies.  If the conflict isn't emotional for the character, it won't be emotional for the reader.  If you want the reader to care about these people, and you do, engage his feelings.


Conflict can be simple or complex. A simple conflict can be every bit as powerful as a complicated one; how the characters react and resolve it makes all the difference.  A simple conflict relies more on internal conflict and characterization.


Your characters must be motivated. The situation must be so important to them that it's intolerable unless they do something.  There are several terms you may have heard which basically cover the same thing: motivation, back story, prime motivating factor, and prime motivating incident.


Here's an example from the powerful prologue in Barbara Dawson Smith's Fire On The Wind:


"Tonight his mother would finally love him."  That's the first sentence.  Seven year old Damien Coleridge garners all his courage to approach the mother who calls him a demon and a devil.  He has spent hours on her Christmas gift--a picture he drew with hands that are scarred as a constant reminder of the fire two years previous that made his brother an invalid.  His mother blames him for the harm to her favorite son.


While she's entertaining guests, Damien approaches his mother, accidentally breaking a vase for which she verbally abuses him, and he gives her the drawing.  His mother takes him into another room where she tells him he's a devil who deserves to burn in the flames of hell.  She's rueful of the day he was born and wishes he had died.  She throws his gift into the fire.


That prime motivating incident drives Damien to live his entire life living up to his mother's distorted opinion of him.  He sees himself as totally unlovable and it affects his every relationship.


What motivates your character does not have to be negative, however.  He or she could be a person who can step in a steaming pile of doo-doo and come up smelling like freshly baked bread.  You'd match this person with a jinx.  Or say your character had the perfect home life, with all the love and devotion a child could want.  He believes in love and family, so you'd pair him with a cynic.


Knowing who they are and what experiences they've had makes your character's goals and reactions motivated and believable. It is imperative to keep your character's history in mind as you unfold the story.


Conflict must be personalized to the character.  If you don't know your story people and motivate them, you won't have a strong conflict.  A vague or general motivating force produces a vague and general plot.  Being specific will increase the emotional intensity of your story.


Conflict is not a plot device.  It's your character. Document what makes this person who he is today.


Conflict is divided into two separate, but linked categories: Internal and external.


Many writers get confused over these two types of conflict, but neither must be complicated.  Both internal and external conflict need to be in opposition to the character's internal and external goals.  Let's look at these goals first, since you can't have conflict unless there's something to oppose.


If you've studied Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, or if you've studied writing much at all, you know there are three parts to a scene: 1) Goal, 2) Conflict, 3) Disaster.


A goal is a mission.


The character wants one of three things:


1) Possession of something (girl, job, money)

2) Relief from something (blackmail, poverty, abuse)

3) Revenge for something (a slight, a loss, a betrayal)


There are short term goals and long term goals.  Short term goals are decisions your character makes in order to achieve a long term goal.  For example your character's goal may be to win the Miss America Pageant.  First, she must win the local pageant.  In order to do that, she will have to buy clothing and take singing lessons.  In order to do those things, she needs to raise the money.  She must take steps to attain the larger goal, in other words.


All goals must be concrete and explicit. Write them down and remind yourself often.


Conflict is opposition to the character's goal or it is the opposing goals of other characters. These opposing forces come out of your characters.


The stronger your character's goal and the stronger the danger that threatens it, the stronger your story.  The following example is from my book, Rain Shadow.


Rain Shadow's background:


Orphaned and adopted by a Lakota warrior, she was raised in the transient lifestyle of the Wild West Show.  As a young girl, a smooth vaquero left her pregnant to marry someone with respectability and money.


Her internal goal: she desires to find out who she is and to fit in; she dreams of putting down roots; she is determined to take care of herself and her son; she craves security and wants the respect that a heritage offers.


Her external goal: she wants to be a champion sharp shooter; she believes if she beats Annie Oakley, her real family will see her and come forward; she is determined to raise her son to be successful in the white man's world.


Internal conflict: she feels she doesn't belong in either world; she is out of place in Anton Neubauer's home; her son wants to stay, so she's torn between his happiness and her need to get away.


External conflict: the train on which they are traveling derails--her son must stay at the Neubauer farm to recuperate; she can't go on to winter quarters to practice; her son's father shows up.


Anton's background:


He was married to a woman who constantly compared him to his brother.  She verbally belittled Anton's physical flaws; she showed him no love or affection, though he tried his best to win her.


His internal goal: never be vulnerable again; never; never be hurt again; never reveal his inadequacies or imperfections.


External goal: to find his son a mother-- someone he has no feelings for; to give his son two parents


Internal conflict: his son adores Rain Shadow; he feels a need to protect her and her son, and she doesn't need or want protection.


External conflict: the work resulting from the train wreck prevents him from proposing to another woman; both sons and fathers plot to keep Rain Shadow there.

All internal and external conflicts are entwined.


Incestuous plotting is when one character's motivations or flaws feed into another's.  Rain Shadow is uninhibited and assertive which feeds into Anton's insecurity and vulnerability.


As you can see in that example, internal conflict is based on ultimate desire and basic fear. It stems from the "backstory" or the character's motivation.  It prevents the characters from getting what they want and keeps the reader anticipating what will happen until the opposition can be overcome.


Once you've given your story people motivation and goals, create scenes for them to react to.  These are the external conflicts.  The most effective ones are the ones you specifically create to feed into the internal conflict.


This is exemplified in INDIANA JONES where Indy has a fear of snakes and jumps into a pit full of them.  (We didn't learn until THE LAST CRUSADE that as a youth he fell into a circus railcar filled with snakes--his prime motivating incident.)  At the end of INDIANA JONES, Indy has to overcome his fear to get the treasure and to save the girl.


In PRETTY WOMAN Richard Gere's character has a fear of heights.  All through the movie, he avoids the balcony at his hotel room, but at the end, he overcomes his fear to climb a ladder and propose.  A character must make a sacrifice in order to be truly heroic and show growth.


Plot is the series of events that keep your characters together until issues are resolved at the end of the book.  Internal conflict is what gives the plot significance and keeps the characters emotionally at odds until the end of the book.  External conflict can be used to keep characters together. Events lined up one after the other don't make a story.  What gives the events significance is how they affect the characters.  Small annoyances, anything trivial or coincidental, grows monotonous.  This is conflict for conflict's sake and it wears out or bores your reader.


Conflict becomes motivation for the character's next decision and his new goal. Conflict requires a decision, otherwise the story doesn't go anywhere.


Changing goals is what keeps the middle of the book from sagging.


Conflict can be in the form of information.  New information changes the character's goals and moves the story.


Acts of God are all right.  Sometimes man against the weather or the land is the external conflict, and that has its place in many of our stories.  An opponent to be reckoned with is all the stronger if it is personified, however, and this is where a villain comes in handy.  Your protagonists are only as strong as your villain or the problem.


Therefore, motivate your villain.  Make him believable.  Just like your protagonist needs a flaw or two to round him out, a villain is all the more interesting if he's three dimensional.  The antagonists who evoke the most emotion are the ones who could have been the hero if they'd made better choices.


You could give two characters identical backstory.  Let's take twin brothers raised the same, treated the same, who even look the same.  One woman plays both of them for a fool, winning their love and then stealing their money.  They're both on a ship that catches fire and they both have to swim to shore.


One brother vows that no woman will ever pull the wool over his eyes again.  He builds his own ship, starts a casino, and because of his fear of fire, allows no smoking on board.


The other brother takes advantage of as many women as he can, subconsciously repaying the first woman.  He never wants to set foot on a ship again.  He has nightmares of drowning.


They will react differently when faced with the same protagonist or the same conflict.  They will both make decisions based on their backgrounds, but they'll be decisions in keeping with their individual character.


Goals, conflict and motivation should be so specific that you can write them down in a few words. For each character, I use a 5"x 8" index card.  As soon as I begin to develop the story and the characters, I start filling out these cards.  They help me define the character traits and make sure I have enough conflict to carry the entire story.


Make your characters squirm. Conflict should not be easily resolved or suddenly fixed by an outside force, or your reader will feel cheated. Tell them no and let them find their own way out of the problem.  If they have to work hard for a resolution, the reader will be justified in trusting you to bring this story to a conclusion worthy of their expectations.


  1. When plotting or editing, ask yourself these questions to make sure you've built a solid story:
  2. What is at stake and is it important to the character?
  3. How could this situation get worse?
  4. Could this conflict be easily resolved if the characters talked it over?
  5. Did you come up with unpredictable circumstances?
  6. Does your character react according to his background/motivation?
  7. What could happen to make the character change?
  8. Did the conflict create tension for one or more characters?
  9. Does the conflict force the character into action?
  10. Did you use scenes and viewpoint changes for tension and pacing?
  11. Are your characters a cast of diversified personalities who react to each other?
  12. What does the conflict make your character learn about himself?

© Cheryl St. John

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