A conflict isn't created by your character going after what she wants. Conflict is created when someone or something pushes back to stop her. The push back can even come from inside herself.
A conflict needs three things:
- There must be at least two sides. (Both sides can be inside one person!)
- Both sides must care deeply enough to defend what they have or want.
- Conflict begins once there's a reaction in opposition to the other side's action.
Here are a few simple tests for conflict:
- If a character does or says something, is there a negative* reaction?
- Is your character's initial emotion or thought followed by a "But ..."?
- Does your character want two things, but choosing one means losing the other?
(* Opposing is a more accurate word but negative's easier to picture. Pulling back. Pushing in the opposite direction. Repulsing. Not supporting.)
The counter reaction to an event might be INTERNAL, two incompatible feelings swirling around inside her. If her initial feeling is positive it may be followed by feeling fearful, guilty, angry, revolted, hesitant, horrified, shameful, anxious, envious, worried, embarrassed, insulted, indignant, inadequate, trapped, humiliated, controlled, inferior, manipulated, defensive, dissatisfied, distrustful, resentful, skeptical, uneasy, challenged ...
The counter reaction might be EXTERNAL. It could be immediate. A punch in the face. A competitive, "Game's on!" Weeping. An alarm tripped. A condescending laugh. Everyone aiming crossbows. A tense silence. A horrified look. A bomb triggered. Defensive posturing. An arrest. A sneer. An argument. A plea to stop. A worried ringing of hands. A threat of bodily harm. A cold shoulder.
The reaction could be delayed if the opposition wants to remain hidden. A poisoned drink. A threatening call in the night. A rock through the window. A slashed tire.
The reaction might not seem like a reaction if the opposition wants to keep the conflict secret, perhaps by steering the character away before she uncovers what's hidden. A stop for speeding. A loan falling through. Power cut off. On old love suddenly showing up.
Any reaction that isn't a sincere, "I agree! Great idea!" is conflict in action. As Calvin shows above, even apathy can begin conflict if your character depended on the Scoobies to rally around her grand idea.
If your character reacts to a push back by giving up, it worked! (as far as the opposition is concerned) and the conflict is over. If your character reacts with renewed energy by pushing onward or pushing back, the conflict is still on. The conflict is on until one side stops pushing back (they die, they get what they wanted, they give up, they join the other side).
What keeps both sides pushing? The risk to what they care about if they stop. They each have something they fear losing, endangering or not getting.
While conflict complicates your character fulfilling her desire by pushing, pulling and sidetracking, it also serves a better purpose. When well chosen, conflict forces your character to deal with issues she's shoved to the side, locked in boxes and generally arranged her life so she doesn't have to deal with them. External conflict will force internal conflict.
There's a good short Definition of Conflict at Literary Devices.
Not until someone objects!
(Though there is TENSION because
someone always objects to Calvin's goals.)
You might stumble across conflict defined loosely as anything your character struggles with. But that doesn't help at all in creating compelling conflict. You can pack a story with struggles: alcoholic ex, bad mess hall food, once-loving now-dementia-stricken father, sick cat, powerlessly trapped in a soul-sucking life with no shiny beacon of hopeful betterness on the horizon ... and still end up with a boring story.
If, instead, conflict is defined as a push back in reaction to your character's action, then it's much easier to come up with compelling ideas.
To create some external conflict all you need do is ask,
"Who feels what they care about is threatened by my character, by what he believes, by what he wants, by what he did, by what he said? What does someone want my character to do instead?"
Threats are massively energizing. But any emotion that rouses someone to get in your character's way can be the seed of conflict.
The threat felt needn't be physical or be to something physical. Dreams can be threatened. The future can be threatened. Tevye feels the tradition he's a part of is threatened by his daughters' choices of husbands in Fiddler on the Roof. Toula's father feels the same threat from his daughter's desire to go to college in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
The Story of Conflict
When the story begins your character will have something missing from her life. Shortly an opportunity to get something she cares about appears. The path won't be easy. People and feelings will get in her way.
Determinedly she makes a course correction on her life path, steering towards what she wants. And ...
What she finds on the path stirs fears, challenges to her beliefs, doubts as she struggles towards her goal. "I want it but don't want it." Internal conflict has begun. And ...
Someone or something finds her entrance into his sphere threatening. Her presence, her desire, her beliefs puts something he cares about at risk. He needs to protect what he has or what he wants. He puts an obstacle in her path to stop, delay, or sidetrack her. External conflict has begun.
"What does my character want that threatens something else she cares about? What choices that draw her, what voices from her past threaten who she sees herself as, what or who she cares about, her inner peace, her security, her imagined future, her beliefs about what is right and true?"
If Spock believes deeply that being Vulcan is the same as being the person he wants to be, then has he lost his identity if an emotional choice leads towards being the person he wants to be and the logical choice moves away? If Chon Wang in Shanghai Noon cares deeply about the princess and about his identity as someone loyal to the emperor, who does he become if he must betray his loyalty in order to save the princess?
If your character's actions upset someone enough to try to stop her, that's conflict. If your character's desires or ghosts from her past upset her enough to prevent her from choosing, that's conflict.
Capturing Conflict Exercise 1
Keep a notebook of conflicts. As you watch shows or read, look for any reaction to a character that's other than cooperation. Anger, "No," disagreement, fear, upsetness, suspicion, distrust ...
Hint. Since conflicts can erupt quickly on shows, to make it easier don't hobble yourself searching for the perfectly nuanced emotional word. As a first pass happy, sad, angry, afraid will work as placeholders.
Then capture the essence of the conflict. Skip the fussy details. Keep some sense of the relationship -- who has power over who -- but then shoot for wording that might be dropped into any story. Once you've got the conflict -- and there's a lull in further conflicts breaking out on the show! -- then go back and adjust the emotion.
- Happily her mother revealed the truth and the lie she had used to manipulate her daughter into doing as she wanted.
- Angrily her daughter banned her mother from ever stepping foot in her home again.
Capturing Conflict Exercise 2
Internal conflicts, especially in visual media, may show up in dialog or caught between two other characters who personify the two ideas she's wrestling with.
Frame what she's conflicted about with OR between the two statements. (Joining them with AND can fog up the conflict. "And" can join two ideas that don't oppose each other.)
- The one she loves OR the one who loves her.
- The prince who holds rocky power today OR the prince who may or may not gain favor.
- Remain quiet and keep the peace OR speak up against a wrongness and risk ostracism.
To dig deeper into what's energizing the conflict, briefly note what each choice puts at risk.
- Not choosing the one she loves risks losing him to someone else.
- Not choosing the one who loves her risks losing someone who truly cares for her.
- Choosing the one she loves risks a happy future if he never loves her as much as she loves him.
- Choosing the one who loves her risks a happy future if her love never matches his.
WHAT CONFLICT IS NOT
In some explanations of conflict you'll see other story devices -- obstacles, goals, desires, and others -- swept under the "conflict" umbrella as though conflict were the only worthwhile device to energize a story.
In order to add conflict to your story, it helps to see the distinctions between the devices. And for conflict to jealously guard its unique identity! The other devices are eminently useful. Their importance doesn't need shored up by being called conflict.
An obstacle is not a conflict.
An obstacle blocks your character's way forward. But the obstacle doesn't feel a threat when your character pushes past it. It's not going to renew the conflict once your character moves on!
In a conflict the opposition will put obstacles in your character's path. And the opposition can even turn himself into an obstacle if he points a loaded wand at your character.
If the conflict is internal, the obstacle can be a feeling, an objection, created by the opposing idea to stop your character from going over to the dark (or light) side's point of view.
Obstacles can come out of nowhere, dropped by life. A lost communicator. A broken transporter. An ion storm. Cheryl St. John in Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict calls obstacles (that aren't created by the opposition) delays. Use these sparingly. Readers read not for realism but for enhanced realism where the boring parts of real life are cut out.
Delays do have their uses. A random life event at the beginning of a story can force characters into a situation they wouldn't choose. Would Brad and Janet have entered Frank N. Furter's castle in Rocky Horror Picture Show if not for the flat tire? The core of what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong comedies are random life events. One side in a conflict can exploit random life events when he deliberately chooses a dangerous environment like turning onto the pothole-laden road hoping his opponent gets a flat tire (before he does!)
But beyond that readers will grow annoyed and bored with a story that promises escape but uses ordinary life as an antagonist to throw obstacles at your character.
A problem is not a conflict.
A problem is a more complex obstacle that needs solved to get past it. But complexity, not even with multiple intriguing steps that takes the whole book to work through, is not conflict.
A caper movie has one big problem, usually to rob something. The thieves break the problem down into smaller problems which they spend the whole story working on. But the thieves and the problem aren't the two sides pushing at each other. The conflict is between the evil casino owner who wants to keep his cash and the vengeful thieves who want to take it from him. The TDX-4040 security system and IronClad 7001 safe are the obstacles the casino owner puts between his cash and the thieves.
Yes, it can be argued that obstacles push back until a character gets past them. But make it easier on yourself and don't make that argument! ;-) Save the word conflict for two who are actively working against each other. Save the words problem and obstacle for things that get in the way but don't have a grudge against what your character's trying to do.
A desire is not a conflict.
Desire keeps both sides in a conflict pushing no matter how hard the other side pushes back.
But desire needs a direction -- a goal. Without a goal the character just yearns, his engine idling with no where to go.
A goal is not a conflict.
A goal gives desire a direction to push and pull your character in.
Both sides in a conflict will have desires driving them towards goals. When the goals are opposite or only one can have the goal, that insures the sides keep pushing against each other to remain in conflict.
Tension is not a conflict.
Tension can come from the threat of conflict -- a set jaw, a No Trespassing sign -- and from anticipating the next push back in a conflict. It can come from the threat of lots of other dangerous things. Iffy bridges. Walls closing in a trash compactor. Someone who isn't responding to repeated attempts to contact.
A struggle is not (necessarily) a conflict.
In a conflict your character will push forward while someone or something pushes back creating a struggle. But unless your character is moving towards something, a struggle is just floundering.
Obligations. A hated job. Restrictive traditions. Physical handicaps. Those can all create struggles for your characters. But if your character isn't struggling towards something, if he's just struggling to keep his sucky life from being suckier, then the struggle you've created is torment and torture not born of conflict.
Conflict doesn't drive a plot.
Conflict doesn't set a story in motion.
Conflict emotionally energizes a story. Conflict makes the story more interesting.
But it's confusing to cast conflict in the role of moving and driving. The purpose of adding conflict to a story is stop your character! To get in his way and test his resolve.
Motion and drive come from Desire PLUS Goal, that is, the opportunity to fulfill the desire.
Capturing Conflict Exercise 4
In your notebook, as you watch shows and read, write the character's goal in a single short (!) sentence. Then keep track of the obstacles she encounters. Make note of which are delays and which are organic, that is, created because of who she is (her flaw) and by what she does.
(From Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict by Cheryl St. John.)
TYPES OF CONFLICT
There are two: internal and external.
Typically your character will wrestle internally and externally with big conflicts made up of lots of little conflicts. An internal conflict will pull him between two ideas, desires or emotions. An external conflict will be with someone or something who pushes him back away from his goal. And all along -- in every scene! -- there will be mini conflicts as he wrestles with emotions and people who want him to give up.
The external types of conflict are usually divided into, just to be confusing, two to seven different types. The shifting number isn't nearly as confusing as most explanations of what each are!
What's the difference between a T. Rex trying to eat your character (Nature), a vampire seeking to drain his blood (Supernatural), an android trying to execute him (Machine), Zeus throwing lightning bolts at him (god)?
In terms of conflict, nothing. The conflict for each is "Do I live life?" or "Do I give up life?" The plots -- the series of events and the motivations behind the choices made -- can be wildly different, but it doesn't make sense to let the outer wrappings of the two opponents define conflict. A struggle with someone who wants to kill your character isn't unique just because he can be seen through or pop fangs from his gums. All the above conflicts are a person going head to head against a powerful but defeatable opponent. There's no story reason to put them in separate types.
But what about: Your character is lost in the mountains as a blizzard rolls in (Nature)? Otherworldly forces force your character to face the sins of his past (Supernatural)? The God he's held faith in for fifty years has let an earthquake wipe out his home and family (God)?
Those definitely feel like very different conflicts. So rather than dump every robot story into Person vs. Machine and every shark story into Person vs. Nature, look for what unique questions you can force your character to struggle with by pitting them against a machine, God, fate, nature or society. Let the type of conflict be defined by what issues the two sides wrestle with.
Also see External conflict vs. Internal conflict, for a good clear explanation of the two.
Individual vs. Self
This is an emotionally-charged internal struggle between two choices.
- Loyalty to King or God? -- Becket
- Loyalty to family or love? -- Romeo and Juliet
- Justice or revenge? -- Batman
- A cloistered life or a secular life? Preserving your home or preserving your family's lives? -- Maria in Sound of Music
- "To be, or not to be ...?" -- Hamlet
- Logic or emotion? -- Spock
- "Should I stay or should I go?" -- The Clash
Sometimes it can be simplified as, I know I'm right. But, wait, my way made it worse. I need to try my way harder. But I'm making it even worse. That other way may work for some but that other way isn't me. How can I still be me if I have to be not me?
Both choices will have their upsides and downsides. Both mean losing something your character values. Both involve pain, fear, loss of identity, betrayal of others or of own values. And a potential host of other bad feelings your character doesn't want to feel. One thing your character is certain of, she can't have both! (Note: A story may resolve with her discovering a clever way she can have both, but the conflict -- and tension! -- throughout the story will come from her certainty that she can't.)
Remember, conflict isn't a struggle with a situation. Conflict is a struggle between two choices. There must be at least two (emotionally tearing) sides pulling in incompatible directions to have a conflict.
Picture shoulder angels. If both angels have convincing arguments, you've got a conflict. If you can frame the internal conflict with an OR between the two options, you've got a conflict. If both choices involve pain then you've got a compelling conflict.
As the story progresses, your character will learn more about both sides. Her feelings will grow and the balance will tip. But to keep the internal conflict compelling, keep the pain. A choice between a great love or the now-bitchy family has lost its internal conflict. But a choice between a great love (hated by the family) or a beloved sister (who will be cut off with the family) maintains the emotional, opposing pulls.
There's more at Paper Wings, Man Vs. Self: How To Create Heroes With Heart. (If you register at their site, Creating Conflict, the PDF download, has all of their articles on conflict.)
Individual vs. Individual
Individual vs. person, ghost, tiger, vampire, self-aware computer, Romulan, android, (little g) god ... Anyone or anything who feels your character threatens what they care about and directs energy to stop your character. Pretty self-explanatory!
Except that not all conflicts within a story are between the good guy and the bad guy. Some stories don't even have a bad guy. Quite often the most interesting conflicts are between allies, friends, loved ones, love interests.
Examples of conflicts that aren't all just good guy versus bad guy. Often the external conflict with an ally will reflect an internal conflict your character struggles with. (I listed one conflict for each pair but those certainly aren't the only issues they conflict over.)
- Buffy vs. Giles, Physical or Mental -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- For that matter, at various times, anyone vs. anyone else, My way or Their way -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Woody vs. Buzz, Caution or Impulse (among many others!) -- Toy Story
- Kirk vs. Spock, Action or Thought -- Star Trek
- Half a future couple vs. the other half of a future couple -- any love story
- Clarice Starling vs. Hannibal Lecter, Facts or Passion -- The Silence of the Lambs
- Spider-Man vs. Peter Parker, Responsibility or Self -- Spider-Man
- Nicholas Angel vs. Danny Butterman, Law or Good -- Hot Fuzz
- Felix Unger vs. Oscar Madison, Neat or Sloppy -- The Odd Couple
- Toula Portokalos vs. her father, New or Tradition -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding
- Light Yagami/Kira vs. L, Justice or Law -- Death Note
- James Bond vs. Q, Winging it or Planning -- James Bond films
- Individual who wants to live vs. Individual who wants to eat them, Live life or Feed life.
|Calvin as a Force of Nature|
In Creating Conflict and at TV Tropes a good distinction is suggest between person and Nature. A person can be defeated where as Nature can't. Nature can only be survived or (in some cases) changed.
Storm, avalanche, supernova, forest, desert island, cave or mine, plague, earthquake, fire, drought, arctic freeze, heat wave. And, depending on the context, a pack of starving wolves, swarm of bees, zombies, alien invasion, Godzilla. Anything your character is certain is Death Incontestable.
Which means conflicts with animals -- unless the character and reader are convinced they can't be defeated -- are usually Individual vs. Individual. Moby Dick, that's often cited as a conflict with Nature, isn't even that. The whale wasn't in conflict with Ahab. The conflict between them was all in Ahab's head so it is a conflict with self. As Starbuck says to Ahab, "Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"
Ayn Rand argued that "man against nature" is not a conflict because Nature has no free will and thus can make no choices.
In Creating Conflict (the chapter is linked below) the argument is that in most stories Nature is an obstacle. Nature creates an internal conflict when it's used to force your character to confront the certainty of her death. A flooded basement is an obstacle. A forty foot wall of tsunami rushing at your character is unstoppable. She might be able to get out of its path or find cover but she can't stop the wave.
Whether Nature can be in conflict with a person or not, nature stories can be compelling because of what's at risk. The deadly external danger makes every choice an internal conflict between life OR death: Do I choose this less difficult path that is more dangerous OR this more difficult path that may up my chances of survival? Do I stay here where it's less safe OR brave the danger of travel to a safer location? And since Nature is unpredictable, even the safer choice is never safe.
- Chuck Nolan vs. the island -- Cast Away
- The Poseidon survivors vs. the ocean -- The Poseidon Adventure
- The population of Pompeii vs. the volcano -- Pompeii
- humanity vs. the Andromeda Strain -- The Andromeda Strain
- The scientists vs. the dinosaurs -- Jurassic Park
- Living people vs. zombies -- The Walking Dead (among many others)
Individual vs. Society (ideology, religion, tradition, culture)
Individual vs. rules, laws, customs, cultural norms, beliefs, attitudes. Society can be the society of a country, a town, a clan, a religious group, a family maintaining years of tradition.
I like what Lora Innes at Paper Wings says about conflicts with society. "Your hero is part of the group he is either working to change or rebelling against. And by being a member of the thing he seeks to change, he first must change himself."
If your character has already separated herself from the society she objects to (and doesn't want back in), then it's her against a pervasive faceless storm of people. In other words a conflict with Nature.
Fighting society while remaining a part of it is what separates this conflict from the others. Ask what is the "cost to relationships, cost to reputation, cost to future, cost of failure" if your character takes on this battle? (The link below goes into more and better detail than I can.)
- Mr. Banks vs. narrow expectations of Edwardian business -- Mary Poppins
- Light Yagami/Kira vs. Japan's justice system -- Death Note
- The Parr Family vs. Superhero Protection Program -- The Incredibles
- Atticus Finch vs. racial prejudice -- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Ferris Bueller vs. the school system -- Ferris Beuller's Day Off
- Calvin vs. modern society -- Calvin and Hobbes
- Joseph Merrick vs. Victorian society prejudice -- The Elephant Man
- Erin Brockovich vs. the power company -- Erin Brockovich
Individual vs. Machines and Technology
It's a rare conflict with a machine in a story that rises above a physical struggle between individuals, one who just happens to not be biological.
The true conflict comes from the internal conflicts the encounters stir up so, like Nature, Machines and Technology are catalysts for internal conflict.
- If humans create a machine that's indistinguishable from a human is the machine a human? How would the machine answer that question?
- If a human is enhanced with mechanical parts, at what point does he become machine and not human?
- Machines are our creations and we their Creators. What if the creations decide their Creators aren't worthy enough to serve?
- How will our view of ourselves as creators of machines change when the machines create machines to help them?
- David Bowman vs. HAL 9000 -- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Deckard vs. the replicants -- Blade Runner
- The Connors vs. T-1000 -- Terminator 2: Judgement Day
- Neo vs. the Matrix -- The Matrix
- humans vs. a host of machines -- Battlestar Galactica
- Data vs. himself -- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- various crews vs. the Borg -- several Star Trek series
- Buffy vs. Adam -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- WALL·E vs. pretty much everything -- WALL·E
- The crew vs. Bishop -- Alien
- The Iron Giant vs. those who saw him as the weapon they created him to be -- The Iron Giant
And a BBC article about the conflict looking at movies and reality, Why do we love the drama of Man versus Machine?
Individual vs. Fate, Destiny or The Truth
The unique aspect of a conflict with Fate is the character believes the conflict is external. He thinks the conflict is, "The future I choose" vs. "The future Fate has chosen for me." But in reality "The future Fate has chosen" doesn't offer options. The true options are an internal conflict: accepting the Fated future or being miserable with the Fated future.
Fate can be the inevitable or the truth like death, aging, change. Or being The Chosen One. Most time travel stories either blatantly ignore or wrestle with the question of whether fate and time are fixed.
A conflict with Fate involves accepting death. It's the death of a life that was imagined, the death of a dream, the death of your character's identity, the death of free choice, the death of his view of reality.
The fives stages of grief might be helpful as your character works from denial through to acceptance or whatever stage he stops at.
- Harry Potter vs. the prophecy.
- Scott Calvin vs. the Santa Clause that must turn him into Santa -- The Santa Clause
- Luke Skywalker vs. his destiny to bring balance to the Force.
- Julius Ceasar vs. the soothsayer's warning against the Ides of March.
- The Connors vs. the Judgement Day that the Terminator has already experienced in the future.
- George Lass vs. fated deaths -- Dead Like Me series
- Phil Connors vs. his (repeating) life -- Groundhog Day
If God is a superhuman being, conflicts could fall into Individual vs. Individual. Just an individual with kick-ass powers.
If God can't be defeated, conflicts could fall into Individual vs. Unstoppable force.
Could if you don't exploit some unique aspect of the relationship. One unique quality is the element of faith in a being who can't be proven to exist. If events suggest God has betrayed the character's trust and faith, that sets up an internal conflict that can't easily be sparked any other way.
What if God were proven to exist? Does that make faith meaningless? Should God then be brought up on charges of negligence for standing by allowing bad things to happen to good people?
The Christian -- or the secular Christian -- version of God offers some unique conflicts. A God who commands his followers to love him but who can squash them like bugs creates a version of love that is intertwined with fear. Is obedience love and love obedience? Is free will really free will if choosing from column B gets you a trip to Hell? Might there be a reflection of the parent/child relationship?
- Steambath, a play (available on DVD) by Bruce Jay Friedman, explores the after-lives of several characters who pause in the steam bath before passing on. God is the steam bath attendant, though most of them don't realize this.
- In Joan of Arcadia, God appears in different human forms, interacting with Joan.
- Supernatural series, from the 4th season on deals with a God that even the angels have never seen.
Another page, though parts of it are heavy going, is Existence of God. It covers the history of proving and disproving both the Christian and Hindu creators.
Individual vs. the Supernatural
Quite often in modern fiction the supernatural is usually either Individual vs. Individual or Individual vs. Unstoppable force. Again. In most TV shows the supernatural is just natural but hidden from ordinary people. In fantasies what's supernatural to the reader is just natural to the characters.
What questions can you manipulate your character into struggling with that can only be done with a supernatural opponent?
It used to be that ghosts and other supernatural entities were used for psychological assaults, in some cases turning an internal conflict into an external conflict or forcing a character to face something internal that they'd suppressed.
Poe's tell-tale heart was, it's suggested, the narrator's guilt over a murder he had committed. The spirits forced Scrooge to face a past, present and possible future he was refusing to look at. Banquo's ghost is MacBeth's murderous choices taking form.
At one time the supernatural could be used to force characters to question their understanding of reality. That's harder to pull off now! That story has been told so many times, readers are anxious to move past the "Is this real?" to get to something fresh. Though a person of faith facing an entity that causes him to question what he believes, and his struggle to reconcile the new and old knowledge hasn't been exhausted. And how does an atheist reconcile holy water, holy ground and crosses if they can ward off supernatural beings?
- Everyone vs. the birds -- The Birds
- Benjamin Button vs. his reverse aging -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Scott Calvin vs. his old life -- The Santa Clause
- humanity vs. Death who's off the clock, Death vs. life as a human -- Death Takes a Holiday
- Alice and logic vs. Wonderland -- Alice in Wonderland
Joyce Fetteroll ©2014