Writing Compelling Conflict: Complexity Between Characters

How complex conflict in a story needs to be can depend on factors such as length or genre, but it should always be complex enough that characters have to work to get through it.

If the main conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it is likely too simple and unrealistic as the main source of conflict.

While some writers are more storyline focused that character focused, character are still an integral part of developing complex conflict. A great place to start when integrating characters and conflict is to develop inherently conflicting characters. Jane Austen’s works are prime examples of pairing up conflicting characters, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

All stories should have complex and conflicting characters, but in character-driven stories, conflict MUST start with the characters in order to provide believable opportunities for growth and development. Internal conflict is key in character driven stories. Differences in personality, beliefs, desires, or goals will push characters away from each other, creating a stumbling block they must work to overcome if the relationship is to work or the goal is to be met.

This type of conflict may be derived from aspects such as specific character traits, race/nationality, political/religious/morals views, money, career, family, social status, long terms goals, etc.

Conflict Between Groups

This same idea can be expended to character groups. Conflict between specific groups can create obstacles for a character reaching their goal or desire or achieving personal growth. Members of specific groups (work, social, athletic, racial, religious, etc.) have certain types of goals or core beliefs.

When pitted against a character with opposing goals or beliefs, he or she is forced to make difficult choices or changes. This can be a great source of internal conflict with external ramifications.

It’s important to consider this type of conflict when initially developing a character and setting the goals the will work toward in the story. Once you have each character profile compiled, compare the profiles of the two main characters.

Where do their goals clash? How will those opposing goals hinder a relationship (friendship, romantic, or familial)? Determine whether the opposing goals are deeply held enough to provide rich and believable conflict or if they need to be further explored and developed.

Love Isn’t Enough

Resist the urge to lean too heavily on the “love conquers all” idea. While we all might like to believe that love will fill in the gaps between conflicting desires and goals, it doesn’t. Not long term, anyway. Readers know this and need more than love to explain why the story will continue to work out after the last page.

Giving up too much or making too many personal sacrifices that aren’t met equally will eventually lead to resentment and distancing. It isn’t necessary to explain everything, but if you have succeeded in creating complex conflict between two characters, put an equal amount of effort into making sure your explanation for why it will work out in the long.

If a character changes a core belief or goal, there needs to be a strong and valid reason for that change, and falling in love isn’t enough of a reason by itself. Something needs to change internally for the character. External reasons for change are often short lived.

Sacrifices between characters may not be equal, but there should be a balance that makes sense for the story and characters. If one character gives up or changes a major belief or goal and the opposing character gives up nothing and only gains, this will not feel believable or long lasting to most readers. Both opposing characters need to grow and change.

Looking at Jane Austen again, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had to make internal changes and reevaluation their goals and desires by the end of the story. If only Elizabeth had changed to be less hasty to make judgments of others and Mr. Darcy was allowed to remain haughty and dismissive yet win still Elizabeth over, the ending would have felt dissatisfying and unrealistic.

When developing conflict in a story and between characters, take the time to determine whether it is complex enough to be believable and create a satisfying ending for readers.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Crisis vs Conflict

The difference between crisis and conflict may seem slight, but it’s very important and can have a huge impact on a story.

Crisis is an event or action (an emergency), while Conflict relates to the impact of an event or action on a character or characters. Think about an action movie versus a drama. Action films focus on events, and often have a succession of events that add more crisis up to the climax. Dramas are more focused on the fallout, rebuilding, or working through involved after a crisis or trauma has occurred.

Crisis cannot sustain an entire story (in most cases) in a realistic manner. It’s exhausting for readers to be constantly immersed in major events. Conflict, however, is the basis of a strong story arc. There are events and crises woven into the story arc, but there is also time between events for development, growth, reflection, failure, and change.

Crisis centers on action, excitement, and/or danger. The reader’s attention is intended to be held by constant new events. This method often leaves too little room for character development and meaningful story progression. It relies on highlights rather than deep diving.

While Conflict does include action, excitement, and/or danger, it centers on how the characters experience the events, how living through a crises affects him or her, and how each individual character recovers from a crisis or deals with the consequences.

To illustrate the difference, consider these examples.

Crisis: Someone holds up a bank and the character witnesses a fellow customer get killed.

Conflict: The character survives the hold up and is plagued with fear for her safety, is having difficulty functioning at work, and is pulling back from relationships.

Conflict deals with long term effects of crises and can involve in multiple interrelated crises over the course of the story arc. Crisis is a single event, and instigates conflict. This is why it’s important to have a balance of the two. Use crises to spark dramatic change, but develop conflict through the character’s thoughts, emotions, and actions that are caused or exacerbated by the crisis. This provides more opportunities for development and growth and will ultimately create a deeper and more engaging story.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Realistic Progression

Developing realistic steps and reaction in critical in planning and writing great conflict. Readers need to be able to connect with and understand a character’s choices, even if he or she doesn’t agree with or like that decision.

Conflict in Romance

Love at first sight doesn’t mean smooth sailing into the sunset. A fast and intense beginning to a relationship often leads to belated problems because the couple makes decisions before they are prepared to make them or before they know each other well enough to accurately evaluate the situation.

Friends to lovers romances are great opportunities for conflict. There is often fallout with other friends and family, and the problems that come with knowing each other too well, such as knowing all of each other’s part relationships and indiscretions.

Workplace relationships face many external sources of conflict in addition to the usual internal conflicts. Company policy may force the characters to hide their relationship, staff may accuse them of favoritism, if the relationship fails they still have to work together, and so on.

Internal and External Progression

If the main conflict is largely internal, a character must take logical steps to address it. This may include therapy, opening up to another character, confronting someone who hurt him or her, etc.

External conflict, such a two coworkers going for the same job and being unable to keep work and their relationship separated, takes delving deeply into emotions and actions.

The conflict progression may look something like the characters not talking about it, to slipping in disparaging comments at work, to taking specific actions to derail their work or respectability. As the risk that they might not get the job over the other intensifies, so will the emotions involved and the willingness to take action.

A great example of this comes from the film, “What Women Want.” The progression focuses on two coworkers vying for dominance in the company and the progressive actions Mel Gibson’s character takes as he becomes more desperate to win despite having fallen for the female main character.

Planning Progression of Conflict

When planning the progression of conflict, first consider what the character wants (their main goal) and what major actions he or she needs to take to achieve that goal. Aim for 3 to 5 major actions, depending on the length of the story. Then consider how these actions might be thwarted, go wrong, or have unintended consequences.

Next, comes up with possible reactions to an action not working out as expected. Consider several options before settling on one and ask a few questions. Is the reaction realistic or contrived to support the writer’s goal or ideal progression? Is the reaction true to the character? Does the reaction provide opportunity for character growth and story progression?

If you aren’t sure about the answer to any of these questions, write several scenes using the different options and have a friend or beta reader read them and give honest feedback. It’s easy to push a story in a particular direction based off what you want to happen or how you want the story to move, but that can lead to forced, illogical, or weak reactions to conflict.

Characters may be fictional, and the author may be the creator of the universe, but conflict must move through and interact with a story and its characters in a way that makes sense and feels realistic.

Writing Compelling Conflict: The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict drives a story. Lack of conflict or weak conflict makes a story drag and languish. Unrealistic conflict drives readers away.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces. In fiction, a character struggles against another force, such as another character, the environment, him/her-self, etc. There can also be multiple forces the character is at struggle with. In fact, there generally should be multiple forces. Usually this is accomplished through subplots and competing needs or desires.

Conflict can be broken into two categories: Internal and external.

Internal conflict arises when a character experiences opposing emotions, ideas, or desires. The conflict causes emotion or mental anguish and often manifests in external struggles in relationships, professions, or meetings goals.

External conflict arises when the character gets involved in a situation where he/she struggles against an outside force which stunts his or her progress toward a goal. This is typically marked by action of some kind. The type of action depends on the storyline and goals.

The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict is what keeps readers reading…until it doesn’t. Conflict keeps the story moving forward by pushing characters to make decisions, take action, and engage with the story world. If there is no action or the action isn’t compelling enough, that progress stops or slows to a point that readers may lose interest.

Developing deep, rich conflict will keep readers engaged and interested. Change in the story and character push the reader to keep asking questions, such as what will happen next or will the hero accomplish her goal. Wanting answers to those questions are a big part of what keeps a reader’s attention.

Conflict also helps a storyline feel more realistic. When everything works out too easily, readers get bored and move on because they know that in real life things rarely go so easily. Readers want there to be struggles in a story. They relate to the character’s experiences because they struggle to accomplish goals in their own lives.

The deeper and more realistic the conflict is, the more the reader will be drawn into the story and become invested in the outcome. Conflict helps the reader see his or her self in the story. Believing that the character will succeed or meet a goal helps gives hope that the reader will eventually have a similar outcome.

Having said that, conflict should make the reader doubt that everything will work out happily. If it is too obvious or certain that the character will get everything he or she wants despite facing challenges, it can cause the reader to lose interest. Remember that questions and the need for answers to those question compel the reader to keep reading. If those questions are too easily answered, interest flags.

Even in romances, where a Happily Ever After ending is often required, how and to what level the characters end up happy should not be obvious to the reader in order to maintain a questioning experience.

That doubt keeps readers engaged with the storyline.