I’ve often said that good characters are at the heart of every good story. This is true, however there is another crucial element that is required for a compelling story and that is conflict. Of course, as we shall see, a well-written conflict is born of well-written characters. The two elements are not mutually exclusive. Let’s start by trying to define what we mean by conflict.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines conflict as ‘an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles’. This is certainly a good enough definition, however when it comes to the conflict found in any good story, I would take it one step further and suggest that conflict is an active disagreement between people with opposing goals. Alternatively, your central conflict may also revolve around one character’s goals being at odds with a particular circumstance. In any event, your protagonist wants something so badly it was worth writing a novel about it and yet someone or something is preventing him from getting it.
Creating a strong conflict is mandatory in any style or genre of story writing. Your reader will bore quickly without it. Even the most seemingly mild-mannered, light-hearted, inoffensive stories have conflict at their core. My two year old is currently quite obsessed with The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, in which a mouse living in the woods avoids being eaten by various predators by pretending he’s going to meet a particularly ferocious imaginary friend. It’s a children’s picture book, yet at its core we still have this conflict between the cunning but ultimately vulnerable mouse who wishes to avoid being eaten and all the other characters who do want to eat him. Thus we have characters with diametrically opposing goals, thus we have conflict, thus we have a story.
So if you’re writing a story and you feel like it’s lacking that bit of tension needed to keep it interesting, take my advice: go back to your characters. It can be tempting to try and fix a lack of tension by throwing in more fight scenes or adding a pointless romantic subplot, but if your characters’ goals are not at odds with each other or with a particular circumstance, adding extra subplots or intense scenes will only make your story appear bloated.
First, check your characters’ motives. What is that one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning and spurs them on to action? Remember, this will be the basis for whatever goal your character has and it is this that will lend importance to your characters goals and make your audience care about whether or not they achieve them (I’ve spoken a bit about this before here).
Now ask yourself: on the basis of my character’s motive, what are they actually trying to achieve? This is their goal. Success or absolute* failure will mean the end of the story because the conflict will have been resolved. All of your main players should have clearly established motives and goals. If you have a character whose goals are diametrically opposed to another’s, you pretty much have your conflict and a clearly established antagonist  into the bargain.
Of course, there are other, less obvious types of conflict than simply pitting two characters against each other. These will still be grounded in your protagonist’s motives and goals, but instead of coming into conflict with another character, they will be brought into conflict with themselves or other external forces, such as God, nature or a socio-political situation which is beyond their control. Even in these cases, the principle remains the same: your character needs to acquire or accomplish something but something external to his or herself is stopping them from doing it.
In addition, there are also internal conflicts, where a character is wrestling with his own contradicting goals and motives. I’ll maybe(!) write a separate post about internal conflict because it can be footery to get right, especially if you’re wanting to write a story where something actually happens (and yes, you do want this). Suffice it to say for now that the issue still concerns a conflict of goals and motives: the main difference being that the protagonist’s goals are in conflict with each other. For my money, however, an internal conflict should not be used as a substitute for an external conflict, but something to go alongside it.
Whatever kind of conflict is at the heart of your story, remember this: it starts with your characters. A character will not throw themselves into danger for no reason. They need to want or need something badly enough that they are willing to struggle against themselves, others and all the forces of nature to get it. Only when your audience understands and cares about their goals and motives will they care about whether or not your protagonist manages to overcome whatever antagonists you throw their way.
*There will usually be an apparent failure halfway through the story. This is not the end, but rather gives the protagonist the final push they need to try again and succeed. You knew that already though.
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