“A word is not the same with one writer as it is with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it from his overcoat pocket.”
– Charles Péguy
Think of the last novel you read. Now, really consider what conflict was represented throughout its plot, action and characters. Maybe a character’s parent died or the main character had their love interest ripped out of their hands. The character might have experienced a car accident, a tornado or a hurricane. Your character may be stuck in a dessert after their journey led them off the path. Maybe they had to fend off a wild animal–or even an artificial technology. They might’ve even had internal dialogue, which is where they fill their head with doubt or assurance.
Now, wipe out that conflict out of the novel. A pretty dull novel, isn’t it? Conflict is almost the air a novel breathes. In real life, we try to avoid conflict. But in the fiction world, readers thrive on it. This is because our characters are supposed to be larger than life. They’re supposed to rise up to any challenge we put in front of them, even if we send them to the desert to cling to life after they get lost hiking or camping. How boring would it be if they stuck to the trail? Conflict turns pages.
So having said that, let’s take a look at some. Keep in mind it’s necessary to include all of these in your novel but includes a large majority of them. Because, really, nobody likes a well-behaved character in any novel.
First, there is external conflict, which always happens with your main character and someone else in the story. Here are a few types to use in your story:
Man vs. Man. Your protagonist is up against the antagonist. This should happen frequently if you want to be a success. Examples of this conflict may be a heated argument or a physical fight. Yet, there are always two sides to the story. Your protagonist feels one way and your antagonist feels another. For example, it could be your character’s boss yelling at them at work. Or, it could be a member of their family demanding they change their ways. Your MC’s family might not like their love interest, for instance, because they’re not good enough for the MC’s family.
Man vs. Society. Your main character is in a bind. S/he might be in jail or have a series of court dates. But how do they react to it? Do they feel like what has come to them is justified? Man versus society means they are going up against laws and ordinances of their culture. They may believe the law is corrupt in some way and that they are being railroaded into guilt for something they didn’t do. Don’t let your main character take this lying down. Put a weapon in their hands, if they have access to it. Put them at the height of conflict and even include a police chase if that’s necessary. But never leave them in that jail cell unless you’re writing internal conflict.
Man vs. Nature. One of the examples I used in the intro was your MC being stuck in the desert. S/he is clinging to life because they took a wrong turn on a hiking trail or got lost camping. What if a wild bear or lion were to come out of nowhere? Would your character be able to defend themselves? It’s guaranteed that it would be a page-turner as long as that animal fits into your setting. You could also put your character in a wide variety of weather storms. For instance, what if they’re in a cabin when blizzard hits–and then their wife goes into labor? If you write there are 6-12 inches expected, your man character better know how to deliver a baby because emergency vehicles will be delayed.
This brings us to internal conflict. Most of us have it on a daily basis without even giving thought to it. It’s when we tear ourselves down or build ourselves up. It’s when we try to work through problems while stretching our brains to think of every best and worst scenario. And even then, there are scenarios stacked on top of those for layers and layers. Your characters should have an internal conflict too but don’t let it overpower your story.
In fiction, the only type of internal conflict is Man vs, Self. Here are some ways you can integrate it into your novel:
Give the character a dilemma. Let’s say your character wants to steal a car. The internal conflict would revolve around the right and wrong of the events. For example, they may consider a right to be that it would help them get away faster. On the contrary, they may consider a wrong as staying to face the consequences. (As a reader, this second option is boring. Have the police chase!) It’s important you let them struggle with two solutions until they automatically come to one. but don’t drag it on for too long.
The character has mixed emotions. They have just met their love interest but they have wild hair or acne, which bothers them. Other than that, their romantic interest is dreamy and really sets off fireworks every time they look at them. What does your character do? They either run away (which so will your readers), they play hard to get (this could work for a while) or they get up the nerve to ask the person out–even if they know they are going to fail. But the internal dialogue leading up to this has to follow through no matter what.
A character’s fear prevents them from achieving their goal. Let’s say your character’s goal was to move into a new house. They are now living with a family where they have the security of someone there each day. If they move away, will they have this? This fear may keep them in the house. This is where you have to rise up and make them face their fear. Throw something in their path that shakes them up, such as the death of a family member in your story. Or, give them a successful job to build up their confidence to get out.
A character feels guilt or shame. What has been done to them that feel this way? Or, what have they done to others they need to feel guilt over? These are two different questions that have two vastly different answers. But don’t leave your readers hanging. Don’t leave out details to the point where they’re confused. At least hint to why the guilt is there and they’ll pick up on the rest. For example, your character may have robbed a neighbor or they may have been attacked by someone at their workplace. There are so many examples to why your character would feel this way.
A character struggles with a bad habit. Does your main character smoke, gamble, drink too much or do drugs? Do they speed excessively on the highway or swear too much? These bad habits heighten a character’s personality. They also strengthen your character’s internal dialogue as they work through them to kick them. Let’s say your character is trying to addicted to gambling. What goes through his or her head when they gamble? Write what they think as internal dialogue, or as dialogue if they’re speaking to another character. This really speaks to who your character is within the novel.
Conflict isn’t easy but it’s so fun to write. Have your character be sitting at dinner when something falls on their car. Or, have them give birth to their baby at the worst possible moment. Remember, you want to keep your readers turning those pages. That’s how we sell books!