When it comes to story conflict, there are so many options to choose from. Power struggles, physical threats, moral dilemmas, failures, ticking clocks—they’re all great for ratcheting up tension, building reader empathy, and strengthening our plotlines. But the conflict we face most often as human beings—the kind that hits closest to home for our characters—is relationship friction. It happens on the daily and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes:
- Condescending co-workers
- Passive-aggressive neighbors
- Inconsiderate shoppers at the grocery store
- Relatives with strong political views
- A rivalry with a romantic competitor
- Peer pressure
Relationship conflict is great for your story because it’s such a natural part of the human experience; chosen thoughtfully, these scenarios will fit seamlessly into your character’s world. And while a lot of conflict can be ignored or pushed aside, relationship friction just screams to be resolved because it’s personal and in the character’s face—especially when it involves someone who can’t or won’t be avoided.
But this creates another problem, because we know that strong stories need tension, and the only way you get that is with conflict. So you don’t want your character handling their people problems too efficiently. Not that they shouldn’t try … it’s just best for the story if they fail.
How do you ensure your protagonist doesn’t succeed in their attempts at reconciliation?
Here are a few disruptors you can employ to keep the conflict going.
How many times have you gotten to the other side of a problem with a friend or loved one before realizing that a simple misunderstanding was to blame? And how much easier would it have been if both parties had been concise and clear to begin with? Misunderstandings and imprecise communication are the cause of a lot of conflict. So if your character is trying to work through an issue with an opponent, manufacture a misunderstanding. Ambiguous language could result in one person interpreting the meaning of something differently than it was intended, and assumptions can take your character down the wrong track.
An Unwillingness to Accept Responsibility
When conflict arises, most characters will focus on how it impacted them and how they were wronged. But each party will typically bear some responsibility for the situation. Even when one person carries more guilt than the other, for a breach to be mended, both parties need to take a breath and acknowledge how they could have responded differently, been more considerate, or tried harder. If either person is unwilling to go that far, peace talks can stall.
A New Issue Cropping Up
Perhaps your characters are doing everything right to fix their issue. They’re being clear in their communication and have analyzed and admitted responsibility for the part they played. Things are going swimmingly—until something happens that creates a new issue.
This is done beautifully in a scene from A Few Good Men. Daniel Kaffee and his legal team go to Guantanamo Bay to meet with some high-level, high-ego officers. These are powerful men who aren’t happy with the case, but their cooperation is vital, so Kaffee needs to smooth things over. He makes it through lunch and is almost in the clear when he asks for a document Jessup doesn’t want to provide. And it all hits the fan. They’re right back to where they started.
One benefit of this technique is that it allows your character to almost defuse the original conflict. The tension, which was high, starts shifting downward, and then—bam! It’s elevated again. Give your character a win, then hit them again from an unexpected quarter to heighten the stress and keep readers guessing.
People are unique, with their own styles of communicating, behaving, and interacting. But not all personalities get along. One person’s teasing to lighten the mood might cause another’s prickly nature to emerge, or a reserved character’s quiet response may come across as passive or uncooperative to someone else. When opposites don’t attract, they’re likely to rub each other wrong, lessening the chance of the original conflict being resolved.
Biases and Personal History
The more history your character has with the other person, the more complicated the situation will be. They have this recent snag to work through, but past experiences and their own feelings will cloud the issue.
Encourage this scenario by setting the stage for readers. Make them aware of a significant blow-up in the past or that conflict with this person is an ongoing thing. Use your character’s internal dialogue to show their judgment or bias about the other party. Then, when the two run into each other and attempt to make up, their preconceptions and history will tank the effort before it gets off the ground.
A realistic response to conflict is the half-hearted one because, honestly, characters don’t always want to fix things. Maybe they’re being bullied into reconciliation by a third party or they they’re making the attempt because they know they should (but they don’t really want to resolve the issue). In these situations, the character will make a perfunctory attempt that’s sure to fail—prolonging the tension but also providing a confrontation that will generate more problems.
When it comes to dragging out conflict, this is the most obvious choice. Most people hate confrontation and put it off as long as possible. And we know what happens when problems aren’t dealt with: they fester, and complications multiply, making things worse.
The act of avoidance itself can generate conflict as the character goes to great lengths to keep from facing the issue. This technique gets high points for both authenticity and its tendency to create more issues, so if avoidance fits your character’s personality, take advantage of it.
In short, once you’ve written your character into a confrontation with a loved one, co-worker, friend, or teammate, don’t let them off the hook. Use any means necessary to prolong the agony. A great way to do this is to mine your own experience. Think back to altercations you’ve had that dragged on longer than they should have. What actions or omissions (your own or the other party’s) kept the situation from resolving? Add those missteps to this list and you’ll have many options for increasing your character’s relationship turmoil.
Want to take your conflict further?
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.