How to create conflict

Conflict TESTS your character – their flaws, their strengths; their values; their personality. Conflict also shapes your character and makes them into who they are by the end of the book (hopefully someone better!) It also creates that all-important emotional bond between character and reader.

  1. Choose your conflict(s)
  2. Create conflicting characters. If all your characters are the same, there will be no conflict. Even the closest of friends need to have moments of conflict.
  3. Establish character MOTIVATION and GOALS then place obstacles in their way. 
  4. Create conflict within your character: do they have conflicting motivations or goals? Do their flaws conflict with their strengths?
  5. Create a strong adversary.
  6. Maintain the conflict throughout the story by introducing new characters/obstacles/subplots that challenge your character, and turn the volume up during the climatic scenes. Prolong conflict lasts almost until the end of the novel  to create suspense and keep your reader asking the question Will they overcome the conflict?
  7. Raise the stakes. 
Image credits: Tamara Gak [Source: Unsplash]

CONFLICT is always tied in with CHARACTER. It’s people who create the most enthralling conflict (just like in real life…) Your conflict also reveals things about your character. Conflict brings interesting and unexpected characteristics to the surface – like in real life, people can surprise us by how they respond to crisis. Conflict can reveal someone’s truth – their flaws, but also their strengths.

TASK: Write down your character’s goal and/or where you want the story to end e.g. Alice saves the world or George stops the local council shutting down the library. Sit down for five minutes and write as many obstacles as you can possibly think of leading up to this goal being fulfilled – don’t stop! Put your character through hell – no obstacle is too big! You don’t need to include all these obstacles in your story, but it will help you generate ideas.

Conflict is most effective when it can be countered or confronted i.e. it’s not just a case of bad luck.

Conflict can be found in EVERYDAY LIFE. Even these mundane obstacles can flesh out the characters and the plot.

TASK: Think back on your day/week/month/year. List some key moments of conflict – MAJOR and MINOR. These could serve as inspiration for your character’s own conflict.

Conflict rule of three: there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the successful attempt. 

Conflict should RISE and FALL. Pace your conflict to build and release suspense. Give space for your reader (and character!) to breathe between suspenseful/conflicting situations. BUT even in the ebbs of your conflict, continue to raise questions for your reader, particularly at the end of chapters.

Vorhaus details three types of conflict: Global (impersonal: nature, government, society, etc); local (friends, enemies, family, lovers, children etc); and inner (emotional and psychological). 

What’s the character’s goal?

What’s at stake?

After each chapter/scene

How has your character changed?

Key ways to create conflict: 

  • Strong antagonist
  • Give your character something to fear
  • Give your character a flaw
  • Put your protagonist at a disadvantage 
  • Increase the pressure
  • Make the odds impossible
  • Give your protagonist impossible decisions
  • Give your protagonist a terrible secret
  • Prevent your protagonist from achieving their goals (until the end…)
  • Make your protagonist’s small successes lead to greater disasters
  • Create pre-existing problems between characters
  • Make your character blind to their flaws
  • Make your character hopeless at some aspects
  • Create an obsession in your character
  • Take away something your character loves
  • Hurt your hero
  • Undermine your hero’s core beliefs/values
  • Create misunderstandings 
  • Make your protagonist make disastrous decisions
  • Make it personal

How to create conflict

  • Reveal aspect of character, strengths and flaws.
  • Change our character as they have to adapt to each obstacle.
  • Create tension/suspense/uncertainty. 
  • Move plot along as each obstacle creates additional events. 
  • Create setbacks that increase stakes. 
  • Force character to make hard choices. 

DO NOT make the obstacles too easy. If they’re too easy, the story is boring and the victory is overcoming the obstacles is meaningless. There will be no satisfaction for the reader – no yessss! reaction. It’s like someone being given a prize for doing nothing. Make your character earn their victory by making them struggle through their obstacles. 

How do you make an obstacle difficult?

Remove the obvious solution to the problem. This is why technology as a solution can be boring – it’s too easy. Why have you character Google ‘how to pick a lock’ when they have to work it out themselves?

Develop and establish a character who will find this obstacle difficult – do their morals conflict with the solution? Do they find it physically or mentally challenging? A completely perfect character will never find obstacles difficult – so make them flawed in some way, creating moral dilemmas and moments of human weakness. 

Make your character succeed with a cost – the more dire, the better. This is where impossible choices come in. 

Your character could even fail at an obstacle at first, and come across a similar obstacle later on in the story – they’re ready now to overcome it, but there is still the question ‘will they?’

Of course you have to seed the possibility that they’ll succeed throughout the book. Write in moments where your character has smaller victories, learning moments, or develops somehow. They don’t even have to be responsible for every failure. Otherwise, if they constantly fail throughout the book, then their final success at the end will look like a deus ex machina.

One step forward, two steps back might be a good phrase to keep in mind when balancing failures and successes. 

Remember: the first obstacle in your story is the inciting incident that moves your character from their normal into their new circumstances and triggers the plot. 

How do you make sure conflict isn’t just for the sake of conflict?

Writing your character into hurricane will be dramatic and create many obstacles, but if there are no clear goals in the story (and this hurricane isn’t preventing your character from achieving their goal) then this is conflict for the sake of conflict. The obstacle also needs to force your character to make a significant decision (not just to sit inside a house and wait out the hurricane) and/or make them learn and grow as a character.

TASK: Answer the following questions:

What could go wrong during the story?

Who could be a good obstacle?

When is the worse time for things to go wrong?

Where is the worse place for things to go wrong?

How could they specifically go wrong?

How can you foreshadow the obstacle to make it more severe and impactful?  

How can this obstacle lead onto the next, perhaps creating new ones and goals?

An obstacle has to be logical but not necessarily predictable. 

Writing antagonists 

Your antagonist is your protagonist’s biggest obstacle. In the final showdown, that is who they’ll ultimately face to get their happy ending.

A common mistake with writing stories is the protagonist is fully fleshed out, while the antagonist is a cliched villain with no inner depth. 

Creating an antagonist should take just as much time and thought the protagonist. Create an antagonist that your reader will love to hate.

Inner depth in your antagonist will create that conflict with the protagonist – conflicting goals, motivations, personalities etc.

Writing mirroring protagonist and antagonists also creates conflict – and interest. For example, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty are almost identical people. They’re both highly intelligent, highly obsessive, and involved in the criminal underworld. However, the only difference between them is that Sherlock Holmes is fighting crime, while Moriarty himself is the criminal. This creates a lot more interest when the two come up against one another – and also creates the interesting moral question – what really is the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, human and monstrous? Is there a very fine line – circumstance perhaps? Past decisions? The antagonist is what the protagonist could be if they gave into their ‘dark side’.

In some way or another, a more effective story is one where the antagonist is some way connected to the protagonist, so the conflict is more personal and with higher stakes.

Could your villain have been a hero if they had only made different decisions or had a different upbringing/background/set of circumstances?

Image credits: Jose Martinez [Source: Unsplash]

An antagonist also needs a FLAW or an INNER INJURY or a WEAKNESS – this will make them sympathetic. Were they betrayed when they were younger? Did someone close to them die? Or is there someone out there that they still love, that gives them a slither of good? An inner injury creates reasons behind their badness, and a WEAKNESS makes them more human.

Antagonist are actually central to the plot – they give a primary reason for the protagonist to act. So give them the character development they deserve.

At the start, the antagonist needs to be more powerful than the protagonist so the stakes are high and the protagonist can learn and grow over the course of the plot to conquer the antagonist. Ultimately, the protagonist wins because the antagonist cannot learn and grow – they are blind to their own flaws and weaknesses, and are not willing to make the same sacrifices. Protagonist changes, antagonist doesn’t. 

The best stories are the ones were the antagonist has a personal role in the protagonist’s life – at least, if they’re a real person, and not just a force of nature of a mysterious government group.

Antagonist also needs MOTIVATIONS and GOALS that conflict with those of your protagonist.

TASK: To really get into your antagonist’s head, write a part of your story from their point of view. A great antagonist thinks his motivations and goals and actions are justified. An antagonist is never the antagonist in his or hers own story. Think of the story of Wicked, where the Wicked Witch doesn’t agree with Dorothy’s version of events. Try and capture their voice, their personality, and also garner some sympathy for them and some understanding for their motives.

TASK: Write a scene where your antagonist is doing something completely normal. Cooking dinner for their family? Taking their pet to the vet? Is there anyway you can make them seem more likeable through this scene?

Do you love your antagonist? Is their bad side JUSTIFIABLE and RELATABLE and BELIEVABLE? 

Make sure your antagonist has PRESENCE in the story and doesn’t just lurk in the background, only coming to life at the climax. Even if they’re not physically present, their presence should be felt – on the protagonist, on other characters, and on the world around them.

Your antagonist needs ambitions and specific, actionable goals – even better, an obsession with fulfilling these goals.