Compelling Conflict Between Characters

Meaningless drama isn't fun in real life and neither in fiction. Let's take a look at what creates compelling conflict instead. As always, there's opinions ahead.

What is conflict, anyway?

Before we tackle this complex topic, we should perhaps make sure we're on the same page when talking about it. In its essence, a conflict in a story happens when Character A wants something but doesn't get it. The way in which the character's desire is denied depends on the genre of the story. To name only a few examples, the character can be in conflict with other characters, divine powers, nature, or even themself. In this article, I want to focus on Character VS Character conflicts.

Of Antagonists And Villains

A common misconception in the writing world, especially among beginners, is that antagonist is synonymous with villain. This couldn't be farther from the truth! In the context of a conflict, an antagonist is simply the force that opposes or denies the protagonist's desire. Of course the antagonist can be a villain. And most of the time, villains will be antagonists. But these two terms mean different things and shouldn't be confused or conflated with each other.   If that sounds abstract, just think of the last time you had an argument with a family member or friend. Chances are you like them before it, could get it sorted out, and you still liked them afterwards. Would you earnestly describe your best friend as a villain because you had a disagreement about your schedules? If they were truly a "villain", you wouldn't be their friend - because by definition, villains directly stand in contrast with the protagonist's beliefs and morals. They don't get along and they're not meant to get along.

Highly Concentrated Conflict Stew

So, keeping the above paragraphs in mind, we can understand that conflict can arise in pretty much any situation where two characters interact, no matter the characters' relationship to each other. It will frequently arise between enemies/rivals, but can just as likely arise between friends/family members and even total strangers.   But how does it arise? I could obviously go on and list many examples of interpersonal conflict to give you an idea. But I'd rather save the words and just boil conflicts down to their shared anatomy:
A conflict between two characters happens when Character A approaches Character B about something that Character A cares about, or Character A does something because of their motivations and convictions that concerns Character B, and Character B reacts in a manner that is unexpected and/or unpleasant for Character A. At least at first, Character B's reaction means that Character A is denied whatever they were trying to get/achieve through their actions.
Phew, that was a rather chunky paragraph! Could you follow? If this instantly clicked for you, awesome. If not (and that's okay!), maybe it will become clearer as you read the rest of the article. If it still doesn't make any sense to you afterwards, feel free to leave a comment and I'll add an in-depth explanation to this section.

The Vital Role Of Stakes

If you read the quotebox explaining the condensed conflict anatomy above, you probably noticed these two important parts: "something that Character A cares about" and "does something because of their motivations and convictions". I made sure to repeat and emphasize them in this section because they play a significant role in the kind of conflict we want to create.   The way that the human brain works makes it hard for us to put effort into anything that doesn't matter to us in some way. And even less we are willing to get into arguments or even physical fights about something we don't actually care about. Sometimes, of course, it's not immediately obvious what particular aspect of a topic gets us so riled up that we are stepping out of our comfort zone in order to resolve these feelings. When you had a bad day at work, you might get home and start arguing with your daughter about something you normally wouldn't be bothered by enough to snap at her. But on this day, yes, the fact that she left her shoes on the stairs instead of in the drip tray is a big issue. In this example, the argument still matters to you, even if it matters on a different level than what is apparent on the surface of the conflict.   Therefore, we can confidently say that personal stakes play a big role in Character VS Character conflicts. The people involved in the conflict are acting the way they do because not acting that way would bother them greatly. In the same vein, they will only pursue and continue the conflict if they care about the outcome.  

What does this mean for writing?

Simply put, if your characters don't actually have a reason to care about the conflict or the outcome of the conflict that you're trying to make happen between them, it will come across to the reader as meaningless, avoidable, and insignificant. The same happens if you are unable to priorly lay out the characters' motives in relation to the conflict that is happening. The readers won't be able to understand what all the fuss is about. Your characters will seem like they are getting upset for no reason - and depending on the severity and frequency of the conflicts this might be misunderstood as a part of their characterization. And unless you are actively trying to portray a choleric, cantankerous character, you should avoid this.

Two Sides To Every Story

Since we are writing about a conflict between at least two characters, it's important that not only one of them has personal stakes. The tricky part about making the conflict meaningful and compelling is figuring out not only what Character A wants to achieve and why it matters to them, but also why Character B takes issue with this. If Character B has no reason to deny Character A their desire, you don't have a conflict - or at the very least, not a believable one.   To put the parties of your conflict on a collision course, it's not necessary for them to have any previous direct relationship. They simply need to have desires and goals that are mutually exclusive. Although, if the conflict is supposed to be more significant than just a random annoyance to Character A's day, there should either be a pre-established relationship between the parties or the relationship should be formed through a series of related conflicts.   Examples of significant conflicts that completely lack a relationship between the involved characters/parties would be:  
  • Monster Of The Week: The protagonist fights a major antagonist that basically came out of nowhere and will fade into obscurity again afterwards
  • Going Postal: The protagonist, for whatever reason, ends up in a major confrontation with characters/parties they have no direct connection to and no relationship will be formed
  Unless these examples are part of the story you are writing, it's going to be extremely helpful for you in coming up with potential conflicts if you flesh out your characters first. If you plan your cast, you can either discover coincidental sources of conflict in already established characters or simply design your characters to have contrasting beliefs, morals, opinions, etc. from the get-go. And planning out your cast is another big topic that is better discussed in its own article!
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