Conflict is Essential

Don and Sally met, fell in love at first sight, married, and lived happily ever after. Their children were tall, smart, bronzed, and talented. They all married happily. And their children….

How boring. So what?

It’s human nature that we don’t learn from good times. We learn from the bad. If you have bad times as a youth, you’re irresponsible. If you have bad times as an adult, you are “down on your luck.”

Today the Montrose County School Board announced that on average, the pupils in their charge are average. The dropout rate was exactly as expected. The Wilson brat, Johnny, whom nobody has ever liked and who has been arrested 15 times for everything from drug dealing to car theft, turned himself around in his senior year with straight A’s, 95-th percentile on his SAT, voted the “Friendliest Senior,” and is headed to Harvard on a full scholarship.

Now how much of that last paragraph do you really want to hear about? You want to hear about the exceptions to the norm. The norm is the old, boring norm and is the same every day. No news there. But what about that Wilson kid? Johnny??? Everyone knew he was a loser. How did he turn himself around? What dragged him out of the gutter and made him stand tall? Y’know, there might be a story in that, because a very flawed young man changed unexpectedly. What, you ask, led to the change?

If everyone did what they were supposed to do, we’d have no news. No car crashes. No unemployment. Zero crime. And technology would grind to a halt because no one would invent anything new. Yes, by definition, those who change things are non-conformists. They’re weird. They think differently. And they create conflict. Conflict between their ideas for change and everyone else who is quite happy doing things the same old way.

So, here’s my thesis: there is no progress without conflict. So, if you’re going to write a novel, it has to be about something newsworthy. Further, something has to change. Got it? Two ingredients: conflict and change. Conflict without change is stasis: the conflict remains forever. (How sad, but no news there.) So the change in your novel must (at least partially) resolve the conflict. Something changes: the situation or the people, usually the latter.

There are multiple types of conflict. Here are some ideas:

  • Person against person. (Man vs woman. Man vs man. Crusading District Attorney against organized crime. A woman escaping the white slave trade.)
  • Person against nature. (Lost in the woods. Overcoming a handicap. Scientific breakthrough.)
  • Person against him- or herself. (Conflicting loyalties. Overcoming alcoholism. Rooting out the evil demons that keeps her from accepting love. Overcoming post-traumatic stress syndrome. Living with bipolar illness. (That last one is me.))

Now we’re all acquainted with those series novels in which the key actor never changes. Hercule Poirot. Perry Mason. Nancy Drew. But if you look more carefully, there’s a character or two (or many) who are in dire conflict and who will change as the conflict is resolved.

My Broomstick books have a narrator (me) who ostensibly never changes. Yet if you look one level deeper, you’ll see that the narrator changes without admitting to it. And, especially in Broom 2 and Broom 3, what appear to be secondary characters end up being the real focus in the conflict and are the ones who change.

So your characters have to change for the better, right? It is true that Americans like happy endings. Bill overcomes his alcoholism and discovers what it means to be a dad. Joyce and Larry finally get married after working through some difficult economic times.

But do all your characters have to change for the better? I experiment with one character in Broom 3, to be released in 2009, who changes for the worse.

What makes conflict? Like I said earlier, if everyone were perfect, there’d be no conflict. So conflict arises when people are not perfect. In other words, your characters, whatever their other redeeming qualities, must have flaws. Jimmy wants to marry Betty but he’s such a tightwad he won’t buy her a ring. Tim wants to run for public office, but there’s that drunk driving conviction in his past he hopes no one will uncover. Mary and John are headed for divorce because both are stuck in a power struggle. So, look to the seven deadly sins and assign at least some to each of your characters. Jim fights to save his marriage but his wife learns of an affair he had ten years prior. Johnny’s father is abusive and Johnny thinks the conflict all his own fault, not his father’s.

Now, think about conflict resolution. Again, we just aren’t interested in flawed people who don’t change. They may not be perfect at the end of the story, but a flaw needs to be fixed. Using the examples from the paragraph above, Jimmy learns that his miserly ways are hurting others. Tim confesses his past deeds at a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and points to five years of freedom from alcohol. Mary and John learn that humility and respect travel far. (Or perhaps John realizes he’s dying emotionally and gets a divorce, finds himself to be a good man, and courts someone very different from Mary.) Jim carefully confesses his past adultery and his wife learns to forgive. (Or maybe she murders him and escapes to the Amazon jungle.) Johnny comes to realize he’s a pretty good kid and finds ways to get help for his father. (Or he runs away. Or he learns to stand up to his father. Or he kills him.) The possibilities are endless.

So, if you want conflict, create flawed characters, then put them in a situation that creates conflict. Characters: three greedy siblings. Situation: Mom dies, leaving a $10M estate (sadly worth about half that in 2009) without clear instructions in her will. Character: Jimmy, a city kid hooked on the Internet and fast food. Situation: Jimmy is orphaned, sent to live with distant relatives who live on the most remote farm in the entire state of Wyoming. Character: Sgt Bill Mulligan. Situation: After weeks of daily gunfights in Iraq, he loses a leg and a hand.

The possibilities are endless. But before you start your novel, know who your characters are (after all, you can design them to be anything) and know the situation that will cause conflict. Then sit back and watch them duke it out!

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