When considering how to add complexity to the conflict in a story, it’s important to cast a wider net on what types of conflict you are considering. Don’t stop at old emotional wounds in romance, a lousy boss in a workplace drama, or fear or the future in a coming of age story.
The first thing to consider when adding or developing complexity to a story conflict is that the stakes have to continue to raise throughout the story or it will stagnate. This often entails multiple sources of conflict that arise as the story progresses.
Ways to increase the stakes in a story might include:
- Making the main goal become more desired or needed because of changes in circumstances, such as a desired promotion becoming absolutely essential when a character is threatened with losing their housing unless they can come up with additional funds
- Adding an external factor, such as an antagonist threatening harm if the character doesn’t back down from pursuing a goal
- Bring someone else’s well-being into the conflict, such as a family member falling ill and needing additional care or financial help
- Increase the reward or cost of failure, such as losing custody of a child if a character cannot stay sober and provide a for a child’s physical safety
Another avenue for adding complexity is to create a power struggle. This raises the stakes of the conflict by creating more desperation. It is not only the character who needs to achieve something in this situation. The character also has to stop the antagonist from achieving a goal in order for him or her to achieve theirs.
Types of power struggles might include clinging to something the character has power over or needs to gain power over, or a bid to escape oppression or danger. Power struggles are relatable for most readers and utilize high emotion that can forge a connection with readers.
Adding a time conflict to a situation adds complexity because the character is no longer free to work through a problem in their own time. He must race against a deadline to figure out a solution. This heightens emotion and stress, and reduces possible options for solving the problem. It also set a specific deadline for the reader to focus on, which can help form a deeper bond with the character.
Love and Romance
Adding elements of love and romance to a story whose main genre is not romance can heighten other areas of conflict. Emotional bonds can create interconnected barriers between goals and desires. In an office setting, a romance may complicate career progression or lead to hostility and drama. Personal growth-focused stories can be affected by romantic entanglements when the relationship hinders or complicates reaching personal goals.
Difficult situations in a work environment can complicate a character reaching her goals. Situations might include being asked to break personal morals in order to please a superior or client, stressing or breaking a relationship by taking unearned credit in order to secure a promotion or favor, bullying or sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment, etc. Such stressors at work then spill over and complicate other areas of the character’s life.
Perspectives that don’t line up stresses relationships, whether romantic, friendship, work-based, or familial. Pressure to change a perspective or do something that does not line up with a character’s perspective becomes a barrier in reaching goals or making desired changes. Consider how moral, religious, political, environmental, ethical, etc. perspectives might create internal and/or external conflict for a character.
Powerful Internal Conflicts
Complex characters do not always do the “right” thing or make good decisions. Making mistakes or poor choices helps add complexity to a story’s conflict. However, characters must come off as empathetic on some level.
Readers don’t have to like or agree with everything a character does or believes, but there should be at least one aspect of his or her personality that a reader can connect with. Harsh or unlikable actions should be based in an internal trauma or personal torment a reader can sympathize with and understand.
Without powerful internal conflicts, a difficult character will simply be unlikable. Such internal conflicts create obstacles for a character achieving his or her goals. If a reader can understand the reason behind the behavior or belief, he or she will still be able to root for the character to overcome the obstacle and succeed in reaching the goal.
Going Beyond the Main Storyline
Subplots are excellent opportunities to add these layers of complexity to a storyline. It allows different conflicts to be weaved together and cross-impact each other. Subplots can nudge characters into actions or choices that affect the main storyline and provide depth that would be difficult to achieve within only the main storyline.