- Conflict must be defined
- Conflict must be significant
- Conflict must be pressing
- Conflict must be personal
Monday, November 24, 2014
Four Steps to Create Gripping, Character-Centered Conflict
A story without conflict is not a story.
Frodo must inherit the ring and take it to Mordor. Simba must overcome his guilt and return to Pride Rock to defeat his evil uncle. Dr. Frankenstein must escape from and destroy the monster that he has brought to life. Eren must join the Survey Corps and fight the titans that killed his mother. Link must vanquish the evil threatening the land of Hyrule. The list goes on.
But merely having a conflict does not a good story make. To fully engage the reader, conflicts must latch onto the reader, engaging them as much as the character doing battle with the conflict itself. In today’s article on writing advice, I’m going to discuss the four integral steps to creating a conflict that quickly grips your reader’s attention:
1. Conflict must be defined.
This first step may seem painfully obvious, but it is none-the-less the cornerstone that lays the foundation for the rest of the conflict development. If the problem is not defined, or described, to your reader, then there is no conflict. In defining the conflict, the writer brings it into existence. Definition is the initial “breath of life.”
By “define,” I do not mean that you should plainly state the conflict to the reader. Don’t say, “Frodo had to run away from the Ring Wraiths or else they would capture him and take the ring and he would later face a painful death at the hands of the Dark Lord who wants his ring back.” That is poor story writing at its finest. Nobody wants to read all of that.
Instead, work the “definition” into the story through the character and plot. The age-old adage “show don’t tell” is important here. If you’ve done your job well, readers will already know that the Ring Wraiths are after the ring and that Frodo is in big trouble. You should never have to outright state this fact to the reader. The reader will feel that you are “hand-holding,” and that’s very off-putting to them.
If the conflict is something physical, then it may need defining. Using our example from Lord of the Rings, the readers will need to know exactly what a Ring Wraith is. What do they look like? What defines them? Where do they come from? Who do they serve? How do they speak and act? If the conflict is something more readily comprehensible, like a bear or an earthquake, then little defining should be necessary on the writer’s part.
The problem is that many amateur writers curtail their conflict at this stage; however, simply stating what the conflict is and that it exists does not a gripping conflict make. To be taken seriously, the conflict must engage. We’ll discuss this concept over the next three points.
2. Conflict must be significant.
You’ve defined what your conflict is: an earthquake, a bear, a titan, a Ring Wraith, a monster, a depression, a feeling of inadequacy, etc. Your reader has a strong visual or psychological understanding of what the “dictionary’s definition” of the conflict is. The next step is to explain its significance.
Think of significance as why the conflict should be considered a conflict in the first place. If your conflict is a bear, then, for all your reader knows, it could be a koala or a cute, fuzzy cub. In order to have your bear taken seriously, it needs to have significance. Your bear is a conflict because it is 10 feet tall (when it stands on its hind legs), has enormous fangs, is an angry mamma bear looking for her cubs, and hasn’t eaten in 24 hours. Once you’ve given your conflict a certain amount of problematic value, your readers will begin to take it seriously.
Less physical conflicts, like depression or feelings of inadequacy, also require significance. Simply saying, “Elsa was feeling depressed” does not automatically give her conflict significance. While those who suffer from depression themselves may automatically sympathize with the character, those who have never had these feelings will need to understand their significance. Qualifying is integral. As the writer, you should detail why Elsa’s depression qualifies as a conflict. It keeps her isolated from everyone else, it gives her insomnia, it steals her appetite and interest in things she once enjoyed, it causes her to miss time with friends and family, and it makes her feel inferior, for example. These are all serious elements of significance that will help your readers accept the conflict gravely.
3. Conflict must be pressing.
Conflict should be kinetic—meaning it should be “on the move.” Put your conflict into motion and let it gradually escalate as a threat. If the conflict simply sits within your character’s comfort zone, then it is never a threat. Bring the conflict front-and-center by having it act, thereby forcing your character to react.
A great example of this occurs in the first episode/volume of Attack on Titan. The viewers/readers are introduced to the titans early on. Readers/viewers are aware that titans are enormous giants (definition) who eat and kill humans mindlessly if they catch them (significance). However, as a conflict, the titans do not become a serious threat to the main character, Eren, until they break through the outer walls protecting him and begin flooding into his hometown. At this point, the titans have become a pressing conflict. They are now a tangible threat. They have acted in a way that is going to force the character, Eren, to react in some way.
Let’s go back to Elsa from Frozen. Her fears about her powers act as her own inner conflict throughout the movie. We know that Elsa is afraid of her ice powers (definition) because they have the power to hurt others and because revealing her powers will isolate her from society (significance). When her parents die at sea and the entire city comes to the castle to watch her coronation, Elsa’s conflict becomes pressing, even more-so because her powers manifest themselves when she is nervous or afraid. At this point, Elsa’s conflict can no longer be ignored. It has come to the forefront in a way that is forcing her to react to it in some way—by wearing gloves for the duration of the coronation, by refusing her sister’s fiancé-to-be, and by trying to cancel the ceremony early into the night in order to rid herself of prying eyes.
Once you’ve defined your conflict and “given it fangs,” then let it bear those fangs. Allow your conflict to make the first move; then, allow your character to react accordingly.
4. Conflict must be personal.
Let me qualify this by saying that not all conflicts must be deeply personal… but the most gripping and significant ones certainly are.
When a conflict is personal, it deliberately engages the character in some personal way that endangers their self-image, property, life, or something that they hold inherently dear. It’s fine to have a conflict that threatens the character on a broader scale, for example: a dark lord vows to destroy the character’s entire homeland, but narrower threats are usually more powerful. Perhaps the dark lord has vowed to destroy the character’s entire homeland, but then minions of the dark lord also kidnap the character’s little sister. At this point, the conflict has escalated to personal because it has endangered something integral and important to the character.
In Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, the main character, Ike, and his band of mercenaries find themselves at war with the Daein army after Ike and his mercenaries shelter the princess of Crimea. At this point, the conflict is a very pressing matter; however, things don’t get personal until Daein’s most powerful warrior, known as the Black Knight, kills Ike’s father.
Frankenstein, the classical story of monster VS man, features a plot-long conflict that is very personal to the main character, Victor Frankenstein. His own creation comes to life and begins terrorizing the countryside; however, things get very personal when the monster comes after Frankenstein’s family and, later, Frankenstein himself.
Take a look at any best-selling story and you’ll notice a pattern of deep-seated conflict that is not only pressing and significant, but is also very personal. The character engages the conflict because the conflict demands action… and also because the conflict is a threat to something that the character holds dear—be that their status, family, identity, life, belongings, or something else of significant value.
Tying It All Together
As we close, let’s examine a few examples of gripping, character-centered conflicts in popular media:
Remember this if you remember nothing else: a conflict is not a threat until it invades your character’s space.
Merely mentioning the bear and its monstrous size and its craving for human flesh is not enough. Send that bear to your character’s house. Have it claw at the door as it tries to make its way inside. Let your character be the only one capable of combating the bear because they’re the only adult in the house, left there to babysit the kids for the evening. At this point, the conflict demands a response from the character because it has made a move (trying to break into the character’s house) and is threatening something the character holds dear (the character’s life, as well as the lives of the kids).
Remember also that, when resolving a conflict, you should look beyond the mere “win or lose” mentality. This leads to reader predictability and dissatisfaction. There are more outcomes available than “kill or be killed.” Your character can shoot the bear with a shotgun, or be eaten by the bear instead, but don’t let those be your only two options. If it’s a talking bear, consider settling the matter over a reasonable game of chess. If the bear is stupid and violent, have your character lure it outside and use it to decimate the zombie hoard in his backyard. If the bear is less fantastical, your character could set up an escape route to get himself/herself and the kids out of the house safely. Perhaps your character could even toss some meat to the bear and gradually earn its trust, befriending it.
The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Be thorough, be creative, and, above all, be personal. Conflicts are only as strong as the personal spaces that they invade and the important ties that they threaten to sever.
For more information, check out Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.