- In literature, conflict is a literary element that involves a struggle between two opposing forces, usually a protagonist and an antagonist.
As I’m writing my first novel I’m hitting speed bumps I didn’t even think about when first deciding I wanted to write, the biggest of these being how on earth do I write conflict?
For example, as of right now I’m writing each chapter to switch Points of View (POV) between my two main characters, Manon and Beau. So, I think I need to decide on a main overall conflict in the story, then smaller conflicts for each of them throughout the story.
So, after a lot of Pinterest and blog research, as well as a lot of personal workshopping to figure out what worked for me the best, I narrowed my process down quite a bit.
Though this post is framed as an informational, educational piece, I would like to remind you that I myself am still learning the basics of novel writing. I only want to share with you what I’ve learned and what has worked best for me in hopes that it might aid you in your own process somehow.
1.What would break this character?
For example, Beau. I might think about the following:
- Who’s most important to him? (ex: His younger sisters, his co-workers, his flatmate)
- What’s most important to him?
- What can he not live without?
- Who does he hate?
- What does he love?
- What does he believe?
- + Any other questions you may have!
And then, once those questions are answered I asked myself, how can I challenge that? How much can I take from him before he hits his limit? What moment would be the final straw for him? Why would that specific thing break him?
Then, once I’ve decided on some concrete answers, I fit them together to work in the story, decide which points would be interesting to explore (for both myself and my readers, if I’m not interested in my writing no one else will be!) and which points fit together the best to create a cohesive story.
2.What flaw does this character have that will eventually trip them up?
Beau has a major avoidance trait, to him the best way to handle bad things in life is to avoid them, don’t interact. This has cause a major rift between him and his father, after his mother died and his father became the biggest Bad Thing in his life.
So, Beau’s avoidance flaw becomes a major causation in the biggest conflict of his story.
This goes hand in hand with character design, as when you’re designing your characters things like a character’s hamartia can be planned from the beginning (though it’s often likely you’ll discover new things about your character as you write).
3.What role do I want this character to play in the overall story? To the other characters?
Since Beau is the MC this may not be as relevant for him, so let’s look at another of my characters, Manon, for this question. Though we’ll see through Manon’s point of view just as often as Beau’s, she takes a backseat in the main plot, taking more of Nick Caraway role to Beau’s figurative Gatsby (If I’m being honest that wasn’t my original plan, it just seems to be how the characters are fitting themselves together as I write).
Manon also takes the role of a love interest, as well as being there to help propel the main plot, as she encourages Beau into a life-changing decision.
Another related question is: How would my character react in this situation? I almost made this question it’s own section, but I feel the answer to this answers the question above as well.
This question gets a bit into character design itself, so when it comes to this I’d say the best way to decide how your character fits into your story is to familiarize yourself with character archetypes and how those character types would react to your given situation. Knowing how your character would react gives you a chance to let the character decide where the story goes next.
After doing some research, I found the 12 most common Archetypes to be:
(This list can be found on a variety of websites)
Your characters don’t have to fit these generalizations, but chances are they probably will end up in one or more of these categories.
It’s important to know your characters well enough to be able to foresee their next reaction correctly, when your character begins behaving OOC (Out Of Character), you begin to lose your readers, and your character loses their likability and / or believability as a real person.
I’ve also seen people use the Myers-Briggs types to define their characters. (Beau: ENFP – T, Manon: ISTJ – A, as found by taking the test as if they themselves were answering the questions, a little time consuming, but still fun to see!). After finding your character’s type the website (linked above) gives you and extremely detailed explanation of the personality, which is super helpful for building a character realistically.
4.What do I want the end result of the conflict to be?
Sometimes it’s easier to just think of the last scene in your book, if you’ve already come up with an ending you like, and figure out how you want to get there. Basically, this question causes you to work backwards through the story.
For example, in a romantic plot / subplot: Do you want two characters to end up together? Awesome! How do they end up that way? What trials do they go through trying to get there?
This is something I’ve been think through, as I’d like to involve a romantic subplot (I’m a sucker for a good romance), not only do I have to figure out conflict to keep the characters apart, I also need to think about establishing chemistry, so it makes sense when (if?) they finally do fall for each other.
Do you want a happy ending where everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow for your protagonist? Maybe your writing a series, in that case, which loose ends should you leave untied to solve next time? Will you leave any at all? And finally, do you want to leave nothing solved at all, for a more realistic / pessimistic ending?
4.What do I want my writing to do / say?
Depending on why your writing a novel, this has the potential to be your easiest decision or your hardest.
For instance, if you’re writing your novel because of a personal conviction, a need to spread a message, or a desire to prove a point, you’ll probably have an easier time writing, since you know why you’re doing it.
If you’ve come into this novel thing with just a general desire to write and maybe a plot / character idea in your head, you may have a harder time coming up with a conviction.
Every piece of writing has a purpose and a message, even if that isn’t realized by the authors themselves. For example, some writing teaches, some entertains (though I’d argue that even writing meant only to entertain must have a deeper purpose / message), and some writing argues a point or challenges its readers.
And past what you want your writing to do, it will always say something to the reader, whether you’re intentional about what it says or not, so I recommend a pre-meditated message within your text.
Articles to Consider:
I recommend doing some research on conflict itself before going into your novel writing experience, so you don’t flounder a bit like I have. Here are some articles that have helped me learn (linked throughout the text as well, for context):
- I love this article by K.M. Weiland called “4 Places to Find Your Best Story Conflict” in which the author uses examples from The Avengers to outline different types of conflict.
- This article, by H. Duke, titled “Ask Your Characters: How To Develop Character-Driven Plot Points” In which the author outlines a similar process to my own. This is one of the articles that helped shape my process!
- And this article: “How to Create Conflict in Your Story: 12 Questions to Consider” that lists some more broad questions in assuring you have a well rounded conflict.
- “Writing a Secondary Character Like Inigo Montoya” from R’s Loft gives great pointers on writing secondary characters, and how they can effect your MC’s goals in their own way.
- For more info on Character Archetypes: “Top 12 Character Archetypes” by Chazda Hill.
Now I’ve finished my research, but I’ve still got Miles to Go! �ݿ�r