Writing Conflict

Years ago, a friend years ago gave me the manuscript of her paranormal romance novel to read. The writing was good, but the main character did not change from the beginning to the end. She was also suspiciously similar to my friend (this is a “Mary Sue” which is an idealized character based on the author’s life─usually she’s way too good to be true to life). When I mentioned that a character in a novel needs to progress through conflict for a story to be interesting, my friend explained that the character was already perfect and so she didn’t need to change. Needless to say, she never published it. I think writing it gave her all the satisfaction she was seeking.

Looking back, it was an easy problem to spot in someone else’s writing, but the issue of how much conflict is enough has plagued me as a writer. I have a tendency to get attached to my characters, and have to force myself to put them in difficult situations.  This is a personality defect, I realize, one that I am working hard at correcting.

In one story, it occurred to me that the main male character had to go through a public humiliation in order to make sense of what he does later. My first thought was, how can I do that to him? My next thought was, if I don’t, I’m going to be sorry. I did humiliate him. It worked. He survived. So did I.

Now, whenever I finish a draft, I go back and look at it from the perspective of rising conflict. Yes, every writing book in the world talks about it. It isn’t a terribly complex idea, but it’s one of the lessons you must learn and learn well. For literary or genre fiction, the main difference is degree and the proportion of internal/external conflict. But conflict there must be; otherwise, no matter how beautiful your prose, people may find your work (gasp!) boring.

Conflict is akin to plot, but it’s also integral to character. No one is excited about a character who knows exactly what’s happening at every moment, or who is in perfect control, unless that control is going to be her downfall. We enjoy characters who are troubled, confused, in denial, uncertain, and sometimes plain scared stiff. One easy place to look for conflict in your stories is to see if you’ve put the internal conflicts your character is facing on the page. Not in your head. On the page.

You can think of a story as about some need your main character has and what she does to satisfy it. Is the need fulfilled or thwarted? What happens if it is thwarted? If it is, what other need comes into play?

Many stories are about an emotional journey, and in that case, the problem needs to be stated early on. Not explicitly, of course, but the reader needs to know that the story will be exploring the character’s loneliness, for example, or need to belong. Whatever is posited at the beginning of the story must be fulfilled by the end. The middle details all the obstacles, inner and outer, that the character faces on her journey. And that is the conflict!


Funds for Writers, a newsletter published by  Hope Clark is a great resource for publishing opportunities, grants, fellowships, agents, and other links for writers. She is the author of The Shy Writer Reborn, which I found very helpful.  http://www.fundsforwriters.com/

Sparks Creative Anthology is running a contest, Monsters and Marvels.  The theme for this contest invites open interpretation: are monsters physical manifestations of evil, or the internal demons that plague us all? Marvels: fantastic bestiary creatures, or the resilience of human spirit?  Go to http://sparkanthology.org/contests/seven/  for the details.  Deadline is October 1.

Critters is an excellent online critique site for fantasy, science fiction and horror writers. If you analyze at least one ms every week, you can get critiques from 10-15 other writers on your short story or novel. I’ve used them for years and found them very helpful.  http://critters.org/