Friday, September 12, 2008

Conflict: Part I: What is Conflict?

Conflict is an intricate part of any novel. It’s multifaceted, dynamic, and draws the reader in with its hooks and power to relate to every person’s life struggles. Conflict stems from a crisis that falls across the path of the character on his journey.

Conflict is not bickering or arguments. It is a battle of power and determination for something vitally important to the character. It’s deep-seeded and is based on the goals and needs of each major character. These goals move the story forward and conflict is what creates tension and keeps the character from reaching his goal.

Conflicts only work when the character has a strong opponent at least equal in power to the character, otherwise you can’t create a worthy struggle. This opponent can be a person, a group, nature, belief or value, God, or himself. To obtain what he needs, he must fight against those things holding him back. If he must cheat to gain his need, then his opponent might be his belief that doing wrong will cause him to fall in the end. If he believes he is unworthy, yet struggles to gain the woman he loves, he undermines his own attempts for happiness.

Remember that while creating backstory, you should search for needs of the major characters resulting from problems in their past—weaknesses, flaws, experiences, difficulties, birth order and family disjunctions. No one is perfect and each person has a nemesis of some kind. Say your hero grew up in a home plagued by poverty. He watched his family struggle for food and clothing, perhaps ate at soup kitchens, dug food from the trash bins at the grocery stores. Now let’s say the hero has grabbed himself by the collar and fashioned a good life for himself, but he does not forget his past. His need might be to help the poor, to work in soup kitchens, and to show kindness to others. Where’s the conflict?

There could be many. First he may not want people to know the reason for his kindness. He’s living in a new environment and he’s cut out a new life for him and his family. If he’s a single man and he falls in love with a woman from an affluent family, he might worry if found out, the woman’s father would think less of him. Worse, the woman would think less of him. Perhaps when he was poor, he stole some money to help his family. He was caught and put on probation but the stigma has remained. Now he’s in a position of trust. Knowledge of this information could be devastating to him.

Backstory is where you set up conflicts. Characters can have more than one need, in the scenario above, the man wants to help others, but he also wants to keep his new status of success. He is not willing to fail and might become a workaholic, fearing that if he lets go for one minute, his world will crumble back. If anyone threatens his position, this creates a new need and a new dynamic in his life. Perhaps his devotion to his job threatens his marriage or love relationship. The woman feels he love his work more than her. She wants his time. He needs to work for his own sense of security and safety. This creates another and even deeper conflict.

Conflict then:
• builds in multiple degrees of strength — each conflict becomes stronger and more serious
• creates tension that builds as the conflicts build
• poses a loss factor for the character — one winner and one loser. Which will he be?


Kim H Peres said...

Conflict in itself creates tension but also the question of whether a character will achieve a goal is a way to create tension.

It's important to note that the more difficult the goal they want to achieve and the more a character is willing to sacrifice the more it says about a character.

Likewise if the character quits a fight for something it doesn't mean as much and hence might not be important enough to fill a novel or any other work of significant length.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kim - Thanks for your additions. I have about 6 parts to the conflict blogs so I will probably hit on some of these in the other blogs. Conflict and tension go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other for the reader. How a character handles conflict brings the characterization to life - and adds to the deep POV that writers want to achieve.

Nice to hear from you.