Conflict is a key story ingredient, one we need a lot of, but this doesn’t mean quantity is better than quality. Fiction isn’t a video game; waves of bad guys with guns won’t keep readers tuned in for long. They expect to see a variety of conflict, including meaningful problems that deepen the story, raise the stakes, advance the plot, and provide opportunities for character development.
This last one is especially important, as it’s how a beloved character responds to adversity that really draws readers in.
The best way to reveal characterization and development is to use conflict to target our character’s soft spots. When we take aim at the things our character cares most about, trigger their fears or insecurities, or smack them right in the ego, they’ll react in a way that reveals their true selves, and that’s the person readers will connect to.
So, how do we find the right problems and challenges that will produce the response we’re looking for?
It’s true, there is no end to the ways you can challenge your character. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes having too much choice can be paralyzing.
Something Becca and I did to help with this was to create categories for conflict by looking at the theme that a clash would produce.
We covered some of these categories (and the scenarios that go with each), in The Conflict Thesaurus, Volume 1:
And the remainder of these categories are in The Conflict Thesaurus Volume 2.
Let’s look at each category’s superpowers so you can better decide what type of conflict serves your story and will challenge characters in the way you need most.
Dangers and Threats
This is a versatile form of conflict: a hazard or menace that represents direct harm to the character or the people they care about (and may be responsible for). Introducing a danger or threat can mess with your character’s mental state, pulling up their deepest fears and even leading to panic if others they love are at risk.
Danger can originate from other people, the environment, a location, or even from within the character themselves. For someone struggling with an addiction, an inability to gauge risk or seek help could lead to a hospitalization or death. A person consumed with guilt over past mistakes might become self-destructive, taking on an adversary or challenge far beyond their abilities because they believe that only self-punishment or self-sacrifice can balance the scales.
Another terrific place to find danger is in the setting. Look at where your character is, and the natural dangers lurking in the area: will the rain-soaked ground where your adventurers are hiding give way, or will a poisonous centipede skitter into a character’s sleeping bag on a camping trip? Will that neighbor show up before your character has time to clean up a murder scene? Depending on what you need for the story, threats or dangers can inconvenience, create delays, ruin carefully laid plans, or worse.
In the real world, people tend to shy away from situations where they could be embarrassed because they worry about what others think and don’t like to be judged. Insecurities magnify mistakes in their minds, especially if their egos have been hurt by criticism or similar blunders in the past.
Because well-built characters will have similar psychological drivers, they’ll struggle with some insecurities, too. Being excluded, discredited, blamed, or minimized will hurt them, even if they strive not to show it.
Ego-related challenges stir up internal conflict and trigger sensitivities that are hard to hide, so the character may respond by pulling back and isolating themselves, exploding with anger, or replying with barbed honesty that only makes things worse.
Consider Fiona, our protagonist who has not visited her hometown in quite a while. Things are becoming serious with her boyfriend, however, so she books a flight. She’s nervous, because her parents have some odd ideas about the world, but she knows Drew is the one, and it’s time to introduce him to her family.
Fiona and Drew arrive as her parents are having an after-dinner glass of port. At first, everything goes as expected. They’re overjoyed at the surprise visit and they fawn over Drew, asking about his job, family, interests—basically ticking all the boxes. But as one glass of port turns into several, Fiona’s dad begins to rant a bit about world events until, in a pin-drop moment, he floats a full-on, dark net alien conspiracy theory.
Imagine Fiona’s embarrassment and how she might try to salvage the evening. Maybe she laughs it off, pretending it’s a joke. Or she tells Drew that her dad’s teasing him to see how he’ll react. But the more Fiona tries to minimize the damage, the louder and more verbal her father gets. Soon he’s targeting Fiona, criticizing her for being naive, living in a dream world, and not acknowledging the indisputable evidence that an alien force is pulling the puppet strings of the human race. As her father rages, humiliation washes over her. The love of her life is bearing witness to this lunacy. What must Drew think of her parents…and her?
Ego-related conflict–such as suffering a humiliation like Fiona–strikes deep. It will hurt and lead to internal struggles regarding self-esteem, so if your character is traversing a change arc, depending on how they handle the situation, it can help them move forward, or set them back.
A Loss of Control
In the real world, the need to control outcomes control steers decision-making. We may invest in a university degree to secure a higher-paying job, or buy a house in a school district that ensures our children get a quality education. We put fuel in the car so we don’t run out, clean scraped knees so they don’t get infected, and choose politeness over honesty to avoid drama. In other words, we live according to the rules of cause and effect.
But does life give two crab apples about cause and effect? Nope. While we’re playing the odds, it stands up and says, “Hold my beer.” It’s indisputable and somewhat horrifying: control is only an illusion. At any moment, something unexpected can happen that undoes all our careful planning.
A loss of control in the real world can be devastating because we think we should have seen what was coming—anticipated it and had an escape plan ready, so when we hit a character with a complication they can’t stop or prevent, it messes them up, too.
Conflicts that dispel the myth of control will reveal characterization in the protagonist’s lowest moment. Imagine a character whose spouse succumbs to a heart attack while camping. In the days that follow, does our grieving character angrily push people away, causing cracks to surface in those relationships? Does he sink into the quicksand of denial and refuse to acknowledge what happened? Or will he set aside his pain to help his children and other family members cope with their heartbreaking loss?
A loss of control will also give your readers a queasy-familiar sensation because they too have experienced moments where they thought they had a handle on things but didn’t. So if you want pull readers in or create empathy for a character, this is a great way to do it.
Losing an Advantage
One of the worst things we can do to a character is cause them to lose hope. After all, conflict’s sharp sword has already jabbed them relentlessly throughout the story. They’ve fought, sacrificed, and clawed their way forward, and then finally, their hard work starts to pay off. They gain something they need, the world starts to support them, or they pull ahead of the competition.
So naturally, because we’re evil, we take their hard-won advantage away.
Losing an advantage is a versatile type of conflict that can be especially helpful at specific times, so it should be wielded strategically. For example, not every character rushes out the door when the trumpet of adventure sounds. Instead, they cling to their favorite saggy, cat-clawed chair, because even if the living room of life isn’t great right now, it’s what they know, and that makes it safe. It’s in their comfort zone.
But if we let our characters stay where they are, the story is as good as dead. Taking away something they deem vital, like a position of authority, a trusted ally, or cherished relationship, can convince them to stumble through that first story door.
This type of conflict can also test a character’s commitment. What happens when they lose the one thing that’s been motivating them to continue? If their lead witness in a trial is murdered, or their benefactor withdraws support, or an adoption falls through, will they forge ahead or throw in the towel?
If there’s one thing we know about our characters, it’s that at some point, they’re going to clash. And why is no mystery. Each member of our story’s cast has their own goals, agendas, needs, and beliefs, and those don’t always play nicely with the goals, agendas, needs, and beliefs of others. When there’s too much friction, a power struggle ensues.
This often happens in relationships where characters don’t have equal status, such as a police officer and suspect, boss and employee, or teacher and student. It can occur when the person with less power tries to level the playing field or unseat the other party. Conflict will also arise when it’s perceived that one person is using their position unfairly. If your character is on the receiving end of a power play—say, they’ve been frivolously sued by a disgruntled customer, falsely accused by a rival, or passed over for promotion because of nepotism—it will trigger their moral sense of right and wrong, leading to a battle royale.
One of the best places to highlight a power struggle is within a dialogue exchange between characters with different goals. If one party wants information the other doesn’t want to share, a beautiful tug-of-war can unfold, complete with verbal jabs, veiled threats, and insults.
Conflict is multifaceted, and like most things in life, not every scenario can be filed neatly into a particular box. If you’re searching for conflict that provides a unique challenge for your character or complicates their situation in ways you might not have considered, this is the category for you. Maybe your character is in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have been mistaken for someone else, or a dire circumstance forces them to blindly trust a stranger. Oh, the possibilities!
Want to see the conflict scenarios listed in each category? Find them here.
When conflict is thoughtfully chosen, everything clicks into place. Problems, challenges, and blockers raise the stakes, intensify the plot, and force the character to confront their own inner demons and shortcomings because only through growth, the ability to adapt, and hard work will they stay ahead of disaster.
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 2) is packed with great scenarios so you have lots of ideas on how to keep the pressure on while writing a story premise that’s fresh. We hope you’ll check it out.
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.