September 6, 2022
To be clear, conflict is any challenges your main characters face. Nothing should be easy for your main character, not even conversations. Your main character should be challenged, and often. How they overcome these challenges truly defines their character. Kinda like life, right?
As every author knows, conflict is central to the writing process. People writing a book for the first time may not understand exactly what is meant when they hear about conflict in their novel.
When I first started learning the craft of writing, I kept seeing the word, conflict, everywhere. Conflict, conflict, conflict. The definition of conflict is a serious disagreement or argument. My mind is very literal, so I started looking for characters to put in my book for my main character to have arguments with. Not quite the idea, although not quite wrong either. Your main character needs to have debates, arguments, and differences of opinions with other characters. But the literary world doesn’t take the term conflict literally. Ironic, right?
In the literary world your main character’s conflicts are the challenges they face. All of them. From the irritated and disrespectful cashier at the gas station to the raging current of a river that your main character must battle against. It could be another person, the environment, or their emotions. Conflict can be internal or external. And don’t just focus on one large, central conflict. Conflicts should be many, and often.
Life throws crap at us every day. Mirror that reality in your book, but ramp it up. Keep your readers wondering “how are they going to get out of this one?” With everything life throws at us, we always make it through. But we all do it in different ways. How your character overcomes these conflicts will be unique to them.
One of my favorite characters is Jack Reacher. I’ve read many mysteries and thrillers, but when I came across Reacher I was enthralled by the way he handled things. It was unique and it stuck in my memory. Another great example is Tyrion Lannister from A Game Of Thrones. His status as a little person and the fact that he was despised for it was an immediate and central conflict to his story. But instead of fighting it, he wore it like a suit of armor and found another way to deal with situations. These are only two examples of characters that are polar opposites of each other, and as such deal with conflict in unique ways that define their character.
A story should have at least one central, overarching conflict. That could be the back and forth between a perp and detective. But there could also be multiple central conflicts. Take Reece in The Terminal List. Not only is there conflict with the people responsible for his family’s death, he’s also dealing with an unreliable memory, PTSD, and a brain tumor. Both of those conflicts are central to the story.
When writing your book you must also consider the small conflicts. Small conflicts would be differing views in conversations, needing to be somewhere on time but your main character has to deal with traffic and a pesky traffic signal that just won’t turn green, or the boss who keeps expecting you to work miracles.
Imagine reading a book with no conflict, a book where the main character doesn’t face any challenges. It would be hard to relate. Struggles aren’t bound by culture or geography. Hunger is hunger, no matter what local idioms you use.
In romance novels you can sometimes see conflict in why one of the characters absolutely cannot date their suitor. In fantasy it can be with an object, like Frodo’s struggle to resist the power of the ring. In urban fiction the conflict can be with the pull of the street life in the quest for fast money. Conflict can manifest in many ways. Which is great for us authors because it allows us broad freedom when creating conflict for our characters. So get creative. And sadistic.
I get a lot of inspiration from life. Living in a prison environment means living in a very small community that’s full of conflict. Sure, there’s the conflict you would expect, but there are a lot of internal and emotional struggles that you can’t help but witness in such a small community. I may not directly use those experiences, but I definitely take inspiration from them.
To sum it all up: throw everything you have at your main character. Make their life, or at least this chapter in it, a living hell that they must fight through. I mean, throw the kitchen sink at them. A few kitchen knives, too. And don’t forget that dull butter knife. It may not be deadly, but your main character definitely doesn’t want to get hit by it. Especially if it’s not expected.
This article is part of a series detailing elements of writing fiction. Various elements will be discussed, such as character development and plotting. Follow for more. You can sign up to my newsletter at http://www.authorkevin.com and if you’re an author like me, you’ll find my Plot Book For Writers useful. Check it out https://amzn.to/3eEL4az or you can buy my books at https://amzn.to/3DhE65z or shop with me https://authorkevinmacklin.myspreadshop.com/
-Author Kevin Macklin
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© 2022 Author Kevin Macklin