If the title made you start humming Eye of the Tiger, I tell you this: put on your boxing gloves, or turn about now.
Conflict! That is the name of the game today fair fellows. So often conflict drives to the heart of our own personal lives—a multitude of conflicting ambitions, needs, and uncertainties. From the epic struggle of man vs. toaster on a late morning wake-up sprint, to the classic struggle of two for the heart of one (THE HEART WANTS WHAT IT WANTS), conflict is, honestly, what makes the world half as interesting (and vexing) as it is.
It should come as no surprise, then, that conflict is key to literature. While it could come in the form of some heavily armored fellow stomping down the lines with mace-in-hand (hello Sauron), it could also be a character’s struggle for acceptance, a war for the heart or information, from internal to external and all the delicious blends in between. Conflict keeps us interested. Conflict gives us something to worry about—something to stir hope against. We want to see how others can overcome because, more often than not, we don’t always have the luxury in real life.
We like to see people that don’t have to sit there and take it.
And what’s more along those lines: as in real life, conflict seems to exist to build character. Is your novel about the characters in it (if you tell me no, I refer you again to the boxing gloves of GTFO)? Then there should be conflict to spur them on.
As much fun as it would be to watch a character sit back on his farm and milk a cow for 900 pages, detailing how content he is with the cow (the cow is a lie), that scenario brings no change. It brings no growth. Nothing develops. Conflict is experience, and experience is what shapes us—we need it to add that dose of spice to existence. Likewise, by the end of a book (series, etc.) we should be able to compare character A from before the madness, to post madness, and see a notable change of figure.
Why? Because we want to have been along with them for the ride. We want to have seen the change that shaped them into the characters we know and love (or hate—this applies to bad guys too).
In my own novel, The Hollow March, we might take the character of Rurik, for example. Kind of a putz of a youth in the beginning, he is, willfully self-deceiving and heedless in his pursuit of what he thinks is best. It’s not healthy. It’s not good. He’ll theoretically have two more books over which to make his changes, but even by the end of this first outing, he is a changed character. We have seen him confront his fears head-on, walked with him through war and a very unfortunate few cases of drinking, and watched in the same horror as he to see the results of many of his actions—actions he threw himself into with the best of hopes, of intentions, only to see worse outcomes for the doing.
Will conflict always end pretty? No. It certainly doesn’t for Rurik, or Essa, or most of the other characters in The Hollow March, but then it wouldn’t be real to us if struggles didn’t lead to more struggles, and there weren’t a little pain before the breaking of the dawn.
Change will not always be for the better, but it must be.
As I said: struggle builds the character. I would say, no pain no gain, but this isn’t a sports movie, I’m not the inspirational coach, and you’re not about to win the championship game. Unless you are. Then I have to ask why you’re taking the time to read this. Bad sports person, bad.
But to do conflict well, there are also a few things we need to remember. Keep the list and hold it tight:
- What does your character want?
- What stands between them and that goal?
- Do any other characters want the same thing…and how will they clash in the achieving?
- How must they change themselves to overcome?
- What, in turn, will be the results of that change?
Stay loose, and look for all the angles. People are layered, intricate monstrosities. You have your posers and your hangers-on, but in the end, no two people’s goals will be the exact same—and neither will the way they hope to achieve it. We all react differently to the strife in between, and rarely will all of us take the smart path. Hell, that conflict may stretch on a long while for no reason other than our own bungling. Things, as they say, have a way of getting worse before they get better.
Growth. Change. Humanization. Associate those three words with your conflicts, and you will be a better writer for it.