What elevates a story from good to great? CONFLICT.
A car breakdown in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. A jealous ex who is interfering with the hero’s new relationship. A loss of power when the heroine needs it most. Big or small, conflict creates problems for our characters, tests their motivation, and forces them to prove just how much they want to achieve their goals.
Conflict is the writer’s sacred tool, a kaleidoscope of temptation, pain, and strife that makes the character’s journey more challenging. It comes into play at turning points, pinch points, and whenever we feel like cranking up the heat because we’re evil.
Naturally, Becca and I wanted to explore the many faces of conflict, specifically by zeroing in on psychological categories that can be applied to any genre:
Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks
Failures and Mistakes
Duty and Responsibilities
Moral Dilemmas and Temptations
Losing an Advantage
A Loss of Control
Dangers & Threats
Here’s the breakdown of what each entry will include:
Minor Complications will look at how an event or scenario will mess up your character’s day, leading to missed opportunities, complications, and painful consequences.
But conflict is all about making things worse, so we’ll also explore how heightened emotional reactions, bad timing, and other factors may lead to Potentially Disastrous Results. Oh, the possibilities for tightening the noose on our characters!
In order to get more mileage from conflict we might want fallout to cascade to others, so we will identify the People who Could Be Negatively Affected in each situation. Including unforeseen consequences for others will make the protagonist even more determined to undo this new problem, especially if their own actions are to partially to blame.
When our characters are faced with adversity, showing their emotions in the moment is critical to ensuring readers are invested in the outcome. Our list of Resulting Emotions will help as you brainstorm actions and responses that are believable and drive their choices.
Speaking of behavior, how a character deals with a challenge depends on their personality. Traits can harm or help, but because we never want characters to solve problems too easily, a list of possible Flaws that Could Make the Situation Worse is something we’ll include in each entry. This way, when your character’s less desirable qualities get him into bigger trouble, he will start to see how he is part of the problem. This puzzle piece will help him realize how he must change if he wishes to achieve his story goal (character arc growth!).
The character’s mindset, beliefs, and values also are a big factor when dealing with obstacles. Before a character responds it’s not uncommon for an internal tug of war to take place: what they feel and what they think are at odds. Not only do they have to weigh different needs and desires, they are often forced to examine the values and morals they live by. Will they stay true to what they believe in or sacrifice their identity for something else? These Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict) make decision-making even more difficult for the character and reading much more intense for our audience.
Finally, we will look at the upside of conflict. Sure, the character would probably prefer to not be challenged on the path to their goal but obstacles offer the potential for growth. So we’ll look at Positive Outcomes like healthier habits and behaviors, how a character might become more open-minded and socially aware, and how a better perspective may change the way they view the world and themselves.
We hope this thesaurus will mean you get a bigger bang from your conflict buck, especially when weaving external conflict with internal reflection. As much as possible we want to force that look within and cause a struggle inside of the character. This way, the actions that result are always an extension of who they are.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.