Excerpted from The Secrets of Writing
All stories arise from conflict. As we stated earlier, the hero wants something. He goes on a quest to obtain the object of desire. What makes it a story is the conflict that stands between the hero and his goal. That is the crux of your story. Conflict keeps stories moving. Lose the conflict and you lose your audience.
Conflict is not action. Many writers mistakenly confuse the two, and thus end up with stories full of meaningless action scenes. Conflict is the reason most action occurs. Conflict is when two forces are in opposition to each other. These forces can be emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, sociological, or elemental.
We begin to understand a character through their response to conflict. How each person reacts to any given situation defines their character. We respond to how characters deal with conflict because we can relate to it. Conflict is in our face every single day in one form or another. And when it’s not, we’re bored.
How a character deals with their conflicts helps us gain perspective on our own lives. It can either serve to validate or repudiate our own choices. If we really disagree with the choices a character makes when dealing with his conflict, we form negative opinions about that character. If we love the choice they make, we love the character more. It’s that simple.
So how your characters deal with conflict will have a lot to do with how your audience is going to feel about your work. Remember one crucial thing, however. Conflict is not action. They are two completely different things. We’ll discuss the nature of action in a later chapter.
Types of Conflict
Conflict comes in several forms. You have to choose the type that best serves your story. Every form of conflict has implications on the level it affects. They are:
INTERNAL: The conflict a person has with themselves. Inner turmoil. Moral dilemmas. Overcoming trauma. Psychological problems. This conflict is not with other characters, though it can affect other characters in the story. The Internal Conflict is best showcased in the novel, where the Audience feels they are in the mind of the character, because they are visualizing based on the chosen words of the writer. Comics can also handle the internal conflict effectively through use of captions. The art work can show the struggle of the character in many different ways. But the film and theater mediums are much less effective dealing with this form of conflict which is why so many novels don’t translate well to film. Novels that deal mainly with external conflicts always translate better than those which deal with internal ones. The internal conflict is about what personal demons or pain stands in the way of them achieving their story goals. Whether they realize it or not. Many people are not honest with themselves about their pain or inner conflicts, and that holds them back. By having a character achieve some sort of break through, an inner conflict is the way for them to move forward and achieve their goal. Failure to do that will result in failure to overcome their obstacle, which may be themselves, or an addiction of some kind.
PERSONAL: This is between the Hero and his friends and lovers. It’s about inter-personal relations between individuals. It does not involve larger issues like peer pressure or the rules of society, but rather, the problems people have relating one on one. This is the conflict best showcased in the theater. Though comics handle it well.
EXTERNAL: External conflict is the conflict that’s happening to the character, from outside forces. Such as society or culture. The external conflict is concerned with how it stands in the way of our characters goals. Everyone wants something. But we can’t have everything we want because something stands in the way. Lack of money, access to something, other people, the law. Your character is faced with this dilemma and dealing with this conflict will be a large part of your story.
ELEMENTAL: Between man and the environment, between the hero and a force of nature. The hero deals with an elemental force which has no persona. It could be anything from a giant meteor heading toward earth or a pack of rabid Chihuahuas.
The Nature of Conflict
By itself, conflict is impersonal. Even it you’re dealing with a war. People understand the concept of a war, but they don’t see what it has to do with them unless you apply the exercise of conscious will on it, through your main characters. Then it becomes tangible.
If I said two guys were fighting down the street, they’d be faceless individuals in your mind and meaningless to you on a personal level. You don’t know who they are or why they’re fighting. But if I said your best friend is fighting your worst enemy, all of a sudden the idea draws you in because it now has personal meaning.
That’s how you involve the Audience in the conflict. By making the characters people they can identify with as they deal with the conflict. You do this by showing their dynamic will in action.
The story of a guy who just wants to have a decent life isn’t very exciting. It’s a very passive, run-of-the mill desire. There’s nothing special about it. Nothing to make the character’s struggle interesting.
But…when you show that he will fight the most incredible odds to secure that peaceful life, then it becomes interesting, and so does the Hero. You transform the conflict by showing his dynamic will in action against it.
When you’re writing a story about personal and/or social conflicts, you are really pitting the will of your characters against each other. And through that use of will, we learn who they are and what they’re made of.
In an internal conflict, the character uses their will against their own innate nature. They may have a phobia about fire. To get out of a building they’re trapped in, they have to walk through a fire filled room. They must force themselves to do something they are afraid to do. They’re battling their own desires for a better good.
Lack of internal conflict limits a character’s dimension. Single minded individuals are only common in bad fiction. Not in life. Everyone has inner demons of some kind. We’re conflicted individuals. According to scientists, reason and emotion are completely intertwined. When someone suffers brain damage to the emotion centers of the brain, they lose the ability to make logical decisions.
This is because we learn by our mistakes. If we no longer fear negative repercussions, we would do anything without thought. So you need to be aware of a characters fears, needs and desires. Their emotional hot buttons.
It will have a big impact on the character’s choices.
REMEMBER: All stories arise from conflict. Conflict is transformed by dynamic will.