Conflict is the lifeblood of a manuscript. Without it, nothing happens except a lot of rationalization and angst.
Deb Dixon explains it perfectly: Conflict is the reason your character can’t have what he or she wants. If your character could have what he or she wanted, then you have no book!
In life, how we manage conflict—how we act when up against it—makes us… “us.” Same is true for your characters, especially main ones.
Conflict keeps your story going and reveals much about your characters.
Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. Three levels of conflict for your characters add “meat” to your story, so consider what your main character faces on each of these levels:
- Inner… Inside the character… Often occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
- Personal… Between characters
- Universal/societal… Characters versus fate/God/the system
Although you can probably thinking of several more, consider the five major sources of conflict for people:
Keep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.
All characters must have an agenda, i.e., goals they want to achieve.
That gives them a driving force, even if it’s passive or negative. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively, subtly or not at all, which also says something about them.
Thank you, once again, Deb Dixon. Conflict is:
- A struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
- Bad things happening to good people.
- Bad things happening to bad people.
- Friction, tension, or opposition.
- Two dogs and one bone.
For example, in romantic fiction, conflict works best when your heroine wants one thing and your hero wants another.
Conflict doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing that has your hero and heroine fighting like cats and dogs every time they’re in a room together. However, conflict can’t be something they can easily fix with a simple conversation over a beer or a glass of wine. Even in a light-hearted contemporary romance, both your hero and heroine must have skin in the game, and the conflict must be sustainable, i.e., able to last through the entire book.
In YA, conflict may be between the main character and himself/herself or the main character and the powers that be/society. In mystery/suspense, conflict may be between the main character and the villain. In Science Fiction, it may be between the main character and technology or the main character and the powers that be. No matter the genre, conflict is integral.
Make it sustainable or don’t bother.
Why sustainable? Because that’s what keeps a reader’s interest. If not sustainable, conflict runs thin within the first third of the book, and your main characters spend the final two-thirds rationalizing to themselves and the reader why they’re not solving their challenges.
Sustainable conflict is best when the characters are in direct opposition in a struggle that neither one can walk away from.
How can you ensure your conflict is sustainable? It must have various levels where things happen to raise the stakes for both your hero and your heroine.
How do you do that?
With some answers to some simple questions and the tried-and-true conflict box.
Let’s take a look at The Bridges of Madison County (Originally, a romance novel that became a well-known movie).
Who changes the most
Whose story is it?
Meryl Streep’s character… Francesca Johnson… the heroine.
Who makes the main character change?
Clint Eastwood’s character… Robert Kincaid… the hero.
At the beginning of the story, what must your main character have or be, i.e., what’s her goal?
Francesca must be a good wife and mother.
At the beginning of the story, what must your hero have or be, i.e., what’s his goal?
Robert must finish this photography job and move on to the next one.
Your story launches when your protagonist pushes to achieve her goal.
In The Bridges of Madison County, the story launched when Robert stopped and asked Francesca for directions to Roseman Bridge.
Your story takes shape when your antagonist pushes to achieve her goal.
The story takes shape when Robert accepted Francesca invitation to dinner.
The back-and-forth, cause-and-effect pushing and blocking of goals is fuel for your story.
This back and forth creates a nice multi-layered story that keeps everyone’s attention and keeps us all invested in both characters.
Over and over again, Francesca felt pulled to the stranger that ignited a long-extinguished passion for life. Over and over again, Robert tried to respect Francesca’s situation in the community and her marriage but couldn’t help himself.
The big Black Moment was when Francesca found herself (with hubby) behind Robert at a red light. Robert is leaving town, and Francesca considered jumping out of the truck and running away with Robert. She chose not to.
To determine if you have a focused central conflict, run a conflict box. (Kudos to Michael Hauge.)
Our protagonist is Francesca. She changes the most in the story.
Her goal is to be a good wife and mother.
Our antagonist is Robert.
His goal is to finish this photography job and move on to the next one.
Now, what blocks Francesca from being a good wife and mother? A stranger (Robert) ignites a passion within her.
What blocks Robert from finishing this photography job and moving on to the next one? They fall in love.
Sustainable conflict is when the heroine (in this story, the protagonist) and hero (in this story, the antagonist) are in direct opposition in a struggle that neither one can walk away from.
To check this, first draw a line from your protagonist’s goal to your antagonist’s conflict. If your protagonist is causing your antagonist’s conflict by pursuing her goal, you’re halfway home.
Is Francesca’s pursuit of being a good wife and mother causing Robert’s conflict? Yes. He wants to respect her marriage but can’t help falling in love with her.
Great! Now the other half. If your antagonist is causing your protagonist’s conflict by pursuing his goal, you have sustainable conflict. Draw a line from your antagonist’s goal to your protagonist’s conflict. If your antagonist is causing your protagonist’s conflict by pursuing his goal, you have sustainable conflict.
Is Robert’s pursuit of finishing this job and moving on causing Francesca’s conflict? Yes. She wants to let him do his job but keeps finding ways to spending time with him.
Yeah! Sustainable conflict! Whoo hoo!
Next… Part 2… Sustainable conflict in Mystery/Suspense…