Conflict is not only an integral part of writing a novel, it is the primary part of writing one. Without conflict in your story, you have no plot, your characters are flat, and your writing serves no purpose. But how does a writer go beyond played-out story tropes and create engaging conflict that captures readers? It all comes down to finding differences in values.
Values & Conflict
Most new writers tend to think in terms of polarizing values when trying to create conflict, which is a great way to bleed it out of your story. If your protagonist values the simple life and your antagonist values wealth, naturally they’ll experience a severe clash, as one negates the other. But not all values are so black and white in the real world, and the art of writing is to present a fictional reality that mimics our own in some way.
When plotting (and sub-plotting), give some thought to varying the levels of contrast between values. Recognize that not all of your character’s morals and wants are either strictly “good” or “bad”, but absolutely capable of both being thought of as “honorable” (like love and safety) that can still be in conflict with each other. If your protagonist wants to marry his high school sweetheart but the government arranges marriages for the genetic viability of their offspring which would result in eradicated illness, that poses a wrinkle in each side of the equation. In fact, the closer you can get the reader to sympathizing with BOTH sides, the deeper your conflict writing becomes.
We often think of character vs. character fights when we think of conflict, but truly remarkable writing deals not just with the interpersonal but also with intrapersonal. In fact, the most profound issues our characters can face is within themselves, and often mirrors the external issues they face in some way. This is how they grow, and that is the main journey our character will go on through our writing.
Try to pinpoint what values the character has that can be at odds with another value they have and exploit that imbalance. Perhaps she loves her husband, but he’s lost his job and she is torn by the fact that she also values financial security for herself and her sick child. Maybe he values his relationship with his father who happens to be drowning, but can’t save him because he’s terrified of water. Or maybe a girl values honesty but is sworn to lie to protect her brother.
The key is to take stock of what makes your character tick, find what he thinks is good, take two of those things he thinks are good and make them clash. Poke at his fears, his flaws, his ideals. Make him make a choice between to good things or between two things he doesn’t want, and make his choice in THAT affect not just his own life, but those around him, also.
All 6 Conflict Types
We’ve talked about internal conflicts (man vs. self) and one type of external conflict (man vs. man). We even touched on societal conflicts in our example of love vs government-arranged marriage (man vs. society). Let’s break these, and the other three, down.
Man Vs. Man:
This is likely the most often thought about when considering conflicts. It could be the protagonist vs. a villain archetype, or could present itself as arguing lovers or a parent and child with conflicting opinions and outlooks.
Man Vs. Self:
The internal part of the conflict, which we’ve already discussed. This type is almost always necessary in some form to create depth in your novel, and should be used in conjunction with an external conflict.
Man Vs. Supernatural:
Another external type, this pits your character against the unknown, magic, gods, demons, fate, or anything that “outside” of a naturally occurring foe.
Man Vs. Nature:
Going in the other direction of man vs. the supernatural is man vs. nature. This can include struggles again hurricanes, tornadoes, grass fires, earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, and the like. While not an unknown force, nature is still just as lethal and unpredictable and can add excellent stress to an already overwhelmed character, or used as a primary conflict where your setting is well defined.
Man Vs. Society:
One we briefly looked at was societal conflicts. This generally puts your character at odds with a “societal norm” which makes them an outcast against many. A great example of this is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character Hester against society in “The Scarlet Letter”.
Man Vs. Technology:
Few stories capture this conflict as well as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Man vs. technology doesn’t just entail high powered devices (Shelley hit on what happens when technology advances beyond our control and our hubris clouds our judgement) but it certainly can deal with the influence it has over our lives and where that influence is taking us. Many stories that revolve around this primary conflict use it to dissect AI or nuclear powers gone awry, but it’s truly limited by the writer’s imagination and can be quite powerful.
A novel is nothing without a conflict, and the best tales told don’t rely on one alone but many, allowing their character to grow through their choices and the resulting realizations. To get the most out of the conflicts present in your story, figure out where the values lie in your characters and the opposing values of those against them, and make them believable.
What conflicts are you creating for your characters and how do their values, and yours, affect your story? Let us know in the comments!