“No, we certainly cannot! If we do, what the hell will our readers read?”
Conflict drives so many elements of your story, and this is why it’s important to be exceptional at developing it in your characters and plot. Conflict takes your characters, those beloved people you’ve taken so much time to get to know, then molds them into something new. You, meanwhile, are along for the ride as they are shaped. So make sure you have a good handle on how to create dynamic and interesting conflict in your novels.
To first begin understanding this aspect of your story, it’s imperative that you understand what conflict is and what it is not. Conflict is not the dagger in a character’s side, or the fist in their face; conflict is everything that led up to that reaction. Conflict, in its purest form, is as simple as this: want/need vs. opposing want/need. Four words. That’s it, and that simplicity is important to pay attention to.
Conflict takes several forms and shapes, and these are certainly open to interpretation. I believe there exists three types, no more and no less; the first is external, the second is internal, and the third is conflict with reality.
Internal conflict brews when something within a character clashes with something else within that character. When a character has the urge to murder his enemies for wronging him, but his internal sense of morality and justice causes a struggle from within to act on those impulses, he or she is internally conflicted. This type of conflict is what ties your reader to the characters; without it, the readers won’t care about what befalls them. People relate to these types of conflicts, which makes them even more important when writing in a supernatural, sci-fi, or fantasy setting where the external conflicts are not so relatable.
External conflict should arise and resolve naturally. Characters should have some kind of need/want that directly interferes with another’s where they refuse to compromise and then tension rises and relaxes with interactions. Without this element, there is not much of a story; this is the element of your story that creates pages and keeps your readers turning. They want to go where your character goes, and feel the things your character feels. External conflict is how you get your readers sitting on the edge of their seat, eager to discover the actions your characters take and what fate dishes out to them.
Reality is completely subjective; yours is different from mine, like your character’s is different from other characters’. This is closely related to internal struggle, but I find a difference in them primarily in the way in which we go about resolving them. The other two types can normally be resolved by a single event/action. This type, however, normally cannot be fixed with anything but time and acceptance. Conflicts with reality are those that others cannot sympathize with. For example, a character returning from a warzone to a civilized world where he or she feels like they do not belong, is both internally conflicted and cannot reconcile his reality with what he expects/experiences.
Regardless of the type of conflict you create as a writer, you need to make sure you show, don’t tell. Readers do not need to be told that a character is sad because his or her dog has died, they need to be there, holding the animal as it passes, and they will understand the internal conflict that arises from this event. Internal conflict will make your readers truly care about your characters, external conflict will draw them into the story and events, while conflicts with realty may show your characters’ flaws and make them more human and relatable.
Conflict, at its core, needs to be simple. You need to be able to explain to someone what your book is about in a few sentences without being confusing. Game of Gods, a novel I wrote, for example, is about a group of individuals blessed with divine powers and controlled by the gods breaking free of that control and then hunting the gods to save the cosmos. A simple conflict that becomes far more complicated as the book unfolds. Take your simple conflicts, the things your readers can easily understand, and spiral them to a point that is almost out of control, sucking your reader into a maze that they cannot extricate themselves from and I promise you will have career-long readers.
In closing, I’d like to recommend a few authors who achieve amazing conflicts in their works, such as Paul S. Kemp, Chris Wooding, and Robert E. Howard. There are many more, but these are some of the authors whose work I use as examples when giving presentations on how to develop conflict in fiction. And don’t take this article as a call to fill your work with nonstop conflict. It’ll make the novel far too heavy, in a sense. Cutting into this heavy element with comic relief is also a great tactic to keep readers excited about what will come next, rather than constantly nervous or morose.
Now, go develop amazing conflicts in your work that advances the plot and changes your characters. It’ll capture your readers without a doubt, and your work will shine.