My favorite part of writing is creating conflict. Well, my true favorite part of writing is angst but really good angst stems from really good conflict.
So what is conflict exactly? Conflict is basically what keeps a character from getting something that they want. Without it, the character would just go on living their life without anything happening. Think of it like a boulder in the middle of a road—you have to stop the car and figure out how to deal with that boulder before you can get to where you’re trying to go. And in a story, that boulder can be anything that stops your character and imposes a choice on them—an internal misbelief, a relationship dynamic, external plot events, or even the world itself. And until your character takes an action, the story cannot pivot or move forward. So let’s talk about a few ways in which you can add conflict into a story.
My brilliant friend Mara once told me: traits are something characters DO not what they are. That little distinction between DO and ARE is so important because the best (and most natural) conflict stems from characters getting themselves into trouble. A character can have a flaw or a misbelief about the world or themselves that they need to address over the course of the story, but that isn’t just a thing they believe in their head and think about passively—it’s going to affect how they act in a given situation.
For example, let’s look at a character who thinks “everyone always leaves me.” Maybe they’re really charismatic and use humor and charm to deflect every time someone tries to get too close. Or maybe they’re jaded and defensive, actively keeping others at a distance through snark. Or maybe they’re shy and reserved, enviously watching others form connections from afar. Whatever the case, the point is that the fundamental belief has manifested in a set of actions that has led them to where they are now—and those actions are going to have some kind of consequence that’s going to keep the character from their goal (forming a meaningful connection with someone else).
Character A is used to being the fun, popular kid at school—but they might discover that they’re not getting invited to social events anymore because they never get real about anything. Character B is a star student who refuses to let romance get in the way of their schoolwork—but then gets partnered with their crush for a project all semester. Character C is a hard worker who loves their job—but is passed over for a promotion that goes to someone more outgoing and sociable though they’re less qualified. And so now this consequence has made it clear that they have to take a different action or risk losing something they care about.
But sometimes it might not be clear what the consequence of a choice might be or it might feel a bit repetitive if the character makes the same bad choices that result in the same kind of conflict. And this is where an external plot device can be helpful.
This can’t be something totally random (like vampires show up and start attacking the city—unless maybe one of your characters is another vampire or perhaps a vampire hunter) but it will be something unexpected because it’s not a result of their choice but rather someone else’s. This can be a great way to showcase the effects of an antagonist’s actions and what they’re doing to stop the protagonist. This can also be a great tool in a multiple POV book where the choices one character makes can affect another and cause setbacks in surprising ways.
Let’s say character A is looking for a magical object that will help them destroy a plague sweeping their country. But when they finally find it, character B (who knows that this object is actually going to unleash a vengeful god that is far worse than the plague) is already there and is now destroying that object. A has failed in their goal as a result of B’s actions rather than something that A actually did. But this has still caused a big conflict in A’s storyline because they now have to find a different way to stop the plague.
Ultimately anything can create conflict for a character ranging from huge, life-altering events like aliens showing up to small, personal moments like losing a family heirloom. But the best conflict stems from the interaction of internal struggles and external consequences. The reader has to understand why that event matters to the character and how it keeps them from getting something they want. This is largely simplified but think of it like this: A character makes a choice as a result of their beliefs that results in a consequence that creates some kind of conflict keeping them from what they want and/or jeopardizes something the character cares about which then leads to a new choice. And then that repeats with increasing stakes until the character confronts their internal misbelief and makes a final set of choices that leads to the ending.
What are some of your favorite ways to add conflict to a story?