Characters and conflict are close companions in any story.
Even if the main conflict is external, a character must experience and react to it. A massive snow storm is less interesting if no one is there to be snowed in, put in danger, or unable to access food or medical care. Internal conflict depends on a character’s thoughts and emotions to be relevant and engaging. There is no internal conflict without a character to experience it.
Pairing Character and Conflict
In order to develop interesting conflict for a character, you must identify what the character wants. These should be internal and external desires or goals. If a character does not need or want anything, they will not only be incredibly boring, there will be no important stakes for them when challenged.
Internal goals may be feeling loved or having a stable life, offering or seeking forgiveness, developing self-confidence and overcoming fear, etc. A goal should have a definable and attainable goal. This helps both the character and reader know when of if the goal has been achieved.
Internal goals may impact external goals. An external goal like getting into a prestigious performing arts school may depend on and confidence to get through a rigorous interview. Lack of confidence could result in a poor interview and missing an opportunity.
External goals may be getting a promotion and ensuring financial security, completing a difficult task, or taking a risk on a relationship where the other person has potential to cause the main character harm of some sort. The character has less control over external goals because they are more profoundly impacted by situation, other people, or society.
The Revelatory Nature of Conflict
Conflict reveals truth about the character. What that truth is depends on the character and story. A character may seem charming and easy going until just the right button is pushed and they explode, showing their true colors under pressure. Conversely, a shy or weak-willed character may take a stand or speak out when she or someone she cares about is threatened, showing true inner strength uncomplicated by overthinking of pressure from others.
Choices and actions reveal the character’s thoughts, motivations, weakness, and strengths. When choosing what conflict to make use of in a story, consider what skills or attitudes the character needs to develop and what situation will push them toward change. A lazy character will never put forth major effort unless he is faced with a situation where complacency will cost them more than they are willing to lose.
The more difficult the choice or action, the more that is revealed. A character who may tells white lies to survive a hostile work environment may be able to rationalize away minor dishonest decisions if there are no real consequences to her actions. That same character may be appalled and go to authorities when asked to participate in fraud that would hurt others.
The more the reader learns about the character, the more connected they will feel to him or her. The conflict should be meaningful and realistic enough that the reader feels an emotional connection to the character’s struggle to make the right choice.
Conflict and Change
Happy characters don’t grow or change. They must face crises in order to progress through their journey. When developing the character arc, two to three pivotal changes the character needs to make. These may be learning a skill, overcoming a shortfall, developing emotionally, etc. You can then work backward and choose a crises/conflict that will force the character to make choices and grow in a way that helps them make that change.