Conflict is such a versatile storytelling element. Not only will obstacles, adversaries, and stressors keep tension high and readers focused, they also provide characters with valuable opportunities to prove themselves, chances to reexamine what they believe and want, and even failures that teach lessons and beget growth.
Every scene needs good, solid conflict. It might be something big and life-altering, or a smaller block, complication, or disruption the character must now navigate. No matter what form it takes, conflict should further the story and offer readers insight into the characters involved.
Conflict is a kaleidoscope, offering a million possibilities for fresh storytelling. But sometimes, too much choice is paralyzing, and we struggled to choose what happens next. Or we’re writing on a day when the ol’ imagination tank is empty. In these cases, knowing where to look for conflict can guide us to scenarios that help raise the stakes and mess up the protagonist’s plans.
The #1 Place to Find Conflict
Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—if they’re someone who will interact with your character, they’re a potential source for trouble. This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial.
Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
Chances are, your character is connected to a variety of people in the story. When you need conflict, poke at their relationships to see what problems shake loose.
MARRIAGE AND PARTNERSHIP: All romantic relationships have bumps – good ones, and bad ones. I’ve been married twenty-seven years and there are days…well, you know. Life can be full of unknowns, including whom each person will become, how beliefs, goals, and needs may change, and if the partners will grow mostly in the same direction or not. People can also cope very differently when it comes to life’s challenges, and this can lead to resentment, frustration, friction, and fallout.
FAMILY: The people closest to your character may know things others do not…including the bad stuff. Past mistakes, shortcomings, and failures may be part of a relative’s mental Rolodex. Will they reference a “favor owed” when they want something, lay a guilt-trip, or spill a secret to others when they’ve had too much to drink? Strings tend to be attached in family relationships, so responsibilities, duties, expectations, and demands might also be a source of friction. And let’s not forget family dysfunction! Disagreements, arguments, sibling rivalries, or a family feud might help you hit your character’s soft spots.
HISTORY: Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point in the past. Did your character wrong someone, or did betrayal end a friendship? What will happen if a ghost from the past shows up at a time when your character needs to really focus on the present?
Or maybe your character did something they aren’t proud of. If the partner from a one-night affair appears at the family barbecue as a cousin’s +1, will the past stay buried?
ACTIVATORS: Some people like to press buttons to get a reaction, or they press them unknowingly by being clueless, annoying, or entitled. Keeping emotions in check around these people is a challenge. Who might irritate your character by what they say, do, or believe? Will your character stay in control or explode? And if an emotional outburst happens, is everyone watching…and judging? Maybe your character was trying to impress someone and just blew it, or their actions cost them an opportunity.
ADVERSARIES: Other people (antagonists, villains, invaders, etc.) might have goals that clash with your character’s, creating sizzling levels of conflict. But adversaries can also want the same thing. Rivals or competitors will try to beat your character to the finish line, meddlers may try to take over, and haters can become saboteurs when envy or jealousy pushes them to try and take your character down a peg.
OPPOSITES: In the real world, there are always people we try to avoid because we don’t get along, and to supply realism, this should be the case in the fictional world, too. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept? Then—you guessed it—build characters with those traits, biases, histories, or habits into the story. Maybe your by-the-book character is paired with an unethical co-worker, or a prickly, animal-hating new neighbor moves in next door to your dog-loving protagonist. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise.
What if my character is a lone wolf?
Some stories feature characters who rarely interact with other people, or perhaps not at all. Chances are, though, they still have relationships you can exploit for conflict. In I Am Legend, Robert Neville had his dog, and plenty of conflict arose when Sam followed his doggy instincts by barreling into dangerous situations. And Chuck Noland had Wilson, a volleyball, in Cast Away, whom he ultimately had to leave behind, causing immeasurable grief.
Even if your character has more transactional interactions with others (paying a bill, ordering food at the tavern, etc.), think of what can go wrong to disrupt that transaction. Or maybe your character is pulled into something unexpected or dangerous by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnessing something they shouldn’t, or overhearing a stranger share information that shakes up the world.
People are complicated, so bring that complication into the story. The best part? Readers relate to people problems because this type of conflict is something they experience, too!
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