Whence Conflict?

In previous posts, I’ve talked about a necessary ingredient in your novel (indeed, in all fiction): conflict. So what should the conflict be? Sometimes it’s obvious, for example your novel on star-crossed lovers. Other times it may not be.

When you think about your next novel, you start with a hazy picture in your mind. In fact, the conflict may be the first thing you see: a couple loses their only child because of a doctor’s (perceived) incompetence. With that you can construct characters. Clearly you need a man and a woman. And maybe a boy or girl. Oh, the doctor. Maybe a lawyer or two. Throw in a judge. Starting with the conflict opens up whole new vistas.

Ah, but perhaps you’re writing your next romance novel. The characters are standard: a (few) women and an irresistible man (or two). But hasn’t every possible romance novel been written? Hmph. You’re stumped for an appropriate conflict. After all, the whole point of a novel is to watch your characters interact as they deal with (and hopefully resolve) the conflict. Sometimes there are multiple levels of conflict. Perhaps the background setting is World War II—a gigantic conflict. Inside that might be a conflict between resistance groups in Vichy France. And so on. You can’t solve the WWII conundrum, but you can focus on your resistance fighters and (perhaps) keep them from killing each other (or worse, ratting them out to the Vichy government).

Here are a few ideas. As you read through these, think of more (and put them in a comment).

Between your character and him- or herself:

  • Cancer
  • A miscarriage
  • Overcoming debilitating shyness
  • …or a stutter
  • A deep look into the character’s past
  • Man vs Nature—plane crash or car wreck or sudden snowstorm while hiking, etc.
  • Sudden change in circumstances (house burns down, husband dies, swindled)
  • Finding religion
  • Losing religion
  • Mental illness (I know about this one: I’m bipolar)

Between two people:

  • Two decent, honorable people who misunderstand each other’s intentions (crotchety old farmer vs up and coming real estate agent)
  • Evading an assassin
  • Being the assassin
  • Stingy father vs vagrant son
  • The usual marital problems, although this has probably been worked over pretty thoroughly
  • Two middle-aged spinster sisters at each other because one thinks the other destroyed an opportunity for marriage
  • All sorts of gay and lesbian stuff, although this is perhaps a little too politically correct these days. You need a twist. Instead of a college student coming home and outing himself to his parents, have the father out himself to the children while his wife struggles to keep the love they’ve developed during 25 years of marriage
  • People operating on different information (the old proverbial blind men describing the elephant). Naturally, they have to work at cross purposes.
  • Busybodies and gossips
  • Ah, the root of all evil: the love of money! So wonderfully corrosive. Follow the relationship between a high-achieving father and his studious, contemplative son (or daughter).
  • Here’s a topical one: an honest mutual fund manager finds himself inexorably drawn into creating a Ponzi scheme. (Madoff, move over!)
  • A desperate government employee is driven to accept a bribe and someone blows the whistle

Mysteries (not my forte, but some possibilities):

  • Four rather nasty kids stand to inherit millions. Which one killed Dad?
  • An art theft (you’d better know your stuff for this one!)
  • Police procedural: finding a gang member’s killer when your hero cop thinks the killer did the world a favor
  • An old widow vs an identity thief

Now those above all deal pretty much with novels set in our time and day, but you can easily adapt them to fantasy:

  • The starship discovers a new planet full of hostile and well-armed crazies
  • The old witch casts an evil spell on the young prince
  • A mystery disease slowly turns people green
  • Suddenly no one on the planet can have a child and everyone grows too old to care for themselves
  • White supremacists succeed in taking over Idaho and keep the Federal forces at bay
  • A woman that our hero killed comes back as a ghost and taunts him into madness
  • War in the heavens: the angels revolt! (Check Revelations 12:7 for this one).
  • A child leads armored knights into battle and outwits the evil King Gruesome
  • The King wants his second son to have the throne and tries to kill his firstborn (and the firstborn is already scheming to off his brother and his old man)

It goes on, doesn’t it! Pick a few and jot down what characters you might need to make the conflict really sizzle.

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