Conflict & Characters

Recently, I began reading Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict by Cheryl St. John. It’s part reference and part textbook for learning the techniques needed to craft an expressive and compelling novel. Her first chapter launches with the concept of conflict.

What exactly is conflict? You know it when you see it. I like to think of it as that disruption in the main characters’ lives that prevents them from pursuing a goal. Fairly simplistic but bear with me.

What makes conflict work? We have to care about the characters. The conflict can be border on realism—an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—or totally fictional—a zombie apocalypse starts when a man is stung by a strange bug, but if we don’t care about anyone in the story the conflict doesn’t matter. It doesn’t exist.

Case in point. Back during my reviewer days, I was reading a fantasy story with characters that were being chased. I made it to the third chapter. They were still being chased. I didn’t know who was doing the pursuit or even why. Needless to say, that was a book on my (very short) did-not-finish list. Maybe the author gave us a better idea past chapter three. Sadly, I didn’t make it to that point.

So, how do you make your potential readers care about your characters and their situation?

We have to care about them. We need to see the characters in their normal lives. You also have to build in the emotion to make it worthwhile.

I love writing flash fiction stories (well, my alter ego does). You only get so many words to express everything and keep the reader interested. Let’s say the story is about two characters on the run (yes, I’m borrowing here, but I’m going to make it work). It’s set on a distant planet in another solar system. The story opens with the male MC at his job—he’s a security officer guarding the state’s treasury. He hates this position—long hours, too much solitude, and he never gets to meet anyone special. His dream? To settle down on an asteroid with a beautiful female and maybe have a few kids. Suddenly, a blur crosses his path. He’s wondering what the frack was that. As he adjusts his ocular implant, he can see that it’s a woman. A beautiful woman, and she’s carrying a briefcase. Our MC was recently disciplined for falling asleep on the job. If that female took something out of the vault, his livelihood is at risk, and he had no desire to spend the rest of his days on the satellite prison. Leaving his post could be a bad decision, but not leaving would steal his freedom.

That story idea gave you a small glimpse into the MC’s normal world—a boring job—and a reason to care about him. He wants that happily ever after with a gorgeous woman. He also doesn’t want to go to prison for leaving his post. The thief is part of the conflict. Will he go after her? Will he catch her? Better yet, what did she steal? Is it worth jeopardizing his job over?

Sure, that story needs a lot of fleshing out to be viable, but you get the point. If the reader never learns anything about the male MC, why do we care that he pursues the thief?

Be sure to build in a reason for readers to care when you plan conflict in your story. It’ll keep people from putting your book down, no matter how far-fetched the premise might be.

Next time, I’ll discuss a fundamental component of well-crafted conflict—the character’s goal.

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