My childhood world was painted with the enchantment of books, a gift I owe to my ever-inspiring mother.
The worlds and characters that came to life on the pages of my favourite fantasy novels (I particularly remember Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara) transported me to places beyond my imagination.
I remember those winter evenings, under the warm covers of my bed when I passionately lived the adventures of elves, gnomes, and trolls in the woods and castles.
My passion for reading has never abandoned me, and inspired by these stories, as a boy, I had a burning desire to become a writer myself. However, I soon realized that creating compelling stories was no easy task.
So, I approached the study of dramaturgy, and it was only when I understood the concept of characters’ conflict that I truly understood what makes stories really work.
In this article, we will explore the different types of conflicts in a story, the role of conflict in driving storytelling, and how conflict enhances character development.
The role of conflict in driving storytelling
Conflict is the driving force behind a story.
Without conflict, we don’t have a story.
Conflict creates tension, raises stakes, and keeps readers engaged by presenting challenges the characters must overcome to change the condition of things.
Every story is the story of a change in the condition of things and of the evolution of characters during this process.
There are two main types of conflicts:
- external conflict, which occurs when a character faces an obstacle or antagonist outside of themselves.
- internal conflict, which takes place within a character’s mind and emotions. It involves the character’s struggles with their own desires, fears, or moral dilemmas.
Exploring the different types of external conflict
Let’s examine some examples of external conflict and their impact on storytelling.
Character vs. Character Conflict
This occurs when two or more characters have opposing goals or beliefs that directly clash with one another. The clash of personalities and motivations creates tension and drives the plot forward.
In Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, the protagonist must confront an antagonist who seeks to unleash dark forces upon the world. The conflict between these two characters fuels the narrative, as the protagonist must find a way to overcome their adversary and save the world from destruction.
Character vs. Society Conflict
This conflict occurs when a character’s desires or beliefs are at odds with the norms and expectations of the society in which they live. The character must navigate the challenges and obstacles presented by societal norms, often facing resistance and opposition.
In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, Tom, a mischievous young boy, rebels against the rules and expectations of his small town. His desire for freedom and adventure clashes with the structured society he finds himself in, leading to numerous conflicts throughout the story.
Character vs. Nature Conflict
Character vs. nature conflict arises when a character must battle against the elements, natural disasters, or the harsh realities of the natural world. This form of conflict highlights the character’s vulnerability and struggle to survive and overcome the forces of nature.
In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the protagonist faces the brutal cold of the Alaskan wilderness. The struggle against the freezing temperatures and treacherous conditions becomes a central conflict, highlighting the fragility of human existence in the face of nature’s power.
Exploring the different types of internal conflict
Internal conflicts are as crucial as the external battles characters face. Let’s explore various types of internal conflicts.
Character vs. Self Conflict
This type of conflict occurs when a character is at odds with themselves. It may involve doubts, insecurities, or personal issues that challenge the character. This conflict often explores the deeper facets of the protagonist, leading to personal growth and self-discovery.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, Jay Gatsby finds himself entwined in a ceaseless wrestle with his shadowy past, a consuming passion for Daisy Buchanan, and the elaborate façade he has meticulously crafted to assimilate into the upper echelons of high society.
Character’s Fear vs. Ambition Conflict
This conflict involves the contrast between a character’s fear or uncertainty and their ambition or goals. In the crucible of this inner turmoil, the character is compelled to confront the shadows of their own apprehensions while steadfastly pursuing their dreams and aspirations.
In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, Harry, faced with the omnipresent dread of the evil Lord Voldemort, must summon his unwavering courage and resilience, all the while relentlessly pursuing his noble ambition to defeat the dark wizard and safeguard the wizarding world.
Character’s Guilt vs. Redemption Conflict
This type of conflict delves into the character’s feelings of guilt and their quest for redemption through corrective or altruistic actions. The character’s conscience becomes a battleground, tormented by the weight of remorse yet driven by a desire to atone for their past actions.
In Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”, Sydney Carton is entwined with the theme of redemption. Consumed by the guilt stemming from his dissolute past, he is compelled to seek redemption through a singular, selfless act that will alter the course of his life and the lives of those around him.
Character’s Love vs. Ambition Conflict
This conflict revolves around the intricate interplay between personal love or relationships and the pursuit of ambition, success, or revenge. The character is trapped in the conflicting currents of their heart’s desires and overarching personal goals.
In Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”, Heathcliff grapples with the relentless tempest within his soul, torn between the all-encompassing love he harbours for Catherine Earnshaw and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance against those who have inflicted deep wounds upon his spirit.
Character’s Self-Identity Crisis Conflict
In this type of conflict, the character grapples with an identity crisis, embroiled in a profound struggle to fathom their true essence. This internal turmoil is frequently marked by the presence of duality or intricate layers within the character’s identity.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Dr. Jekyll confronts an identity crisis that directly results from his transformation into Mr. Hyde. This metamorphosis plunges him into an inner conflict and serves as a thought-provoking examination of the dual nature within us all.
Character vs. Moral Conflict
Moral conflict is a compelling form of internal conflict that explores the clash between a character’s sense of right and wrong. This conflict arises when a character faces ethical dilemmas or must make difficult choices that challenge their values and beliefs.
In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare presents a character vs. moral conflict as the star-crossed lovers navigate their forbidden love. The conflict between their intense passion for one another and the feuding families they belong to creates a moral dilemma that drives the play’s tragic events.
How conflict enhances character development
When characters face challenges and conflicts, they are forced to confront their fears, weaknesses, and flaws. This process of self-discovery and growth adds depth and complexity to the characters, making them more relatable and compelling to readers.
Conflict reveals a character’s true nature. In times of crisis, characters are pushed to their limits, and their actions and choices define who they really are. For example, a character who faces a moral dilemma may reveal their values and principles through their choices.
Furthermore, conflict allows characters to transform. As they navigate through challenges and overcome obstacles, characters evolve and change. They learn from their mistakes, acquire new skills, and develop resilience. This transformation adds depth to the characters and gives readers a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.
Creating compelling conflicts in your writing
As a writer, to create compelling conflicts, consider the following techniques.
- Establish clear goals and motivations. Each character should have clear goals and motivations that conflict with those of other characters. These conflicting goals create tension and drive the plot.
- Raise the stakes. Make the consequences of failure high for your characters. The higher the stakes, the more invested your readers will be in the outcome of the conflict.
- Create complex characters. Characters should have strengths, weaknesses, and flaws that can lead to conflicts. Develop well-rounded characters with conflicting traits to generate internal conflicts. To create complex characters, you can use writing software specifically designed for character development, such as bibisco, which allows you to get to know your characters thoroughly in a fun way — by interviewing them.
- Introduce unexpected twists: Surprise your readers with unexpected turns of events that create new conflicts or escalate existing ones. This keeps the story unpredictable and exciting.
- Allow for growth and change: Conflict should lead to character growth and transformation. Characters should learn from their conflicts and evolve throughout the story.
Techniques for resolving conflicts in a story
While conflict drives storytelling, resolving conflicts effectively to provide a satisfying conclusion is also important. Here are some techniques.
- Character growth and change. Conflict should lead to character growth and change. Characters should learn from their conflicts and evolve throughout the story, meaningfully allowing them to resolve conflicts.
- Compromise and negotiation. Characters can resolve conflicts through compromise and negotiation, finding common ground and working towards a mutually beneficial solution.
- Redemption and forgiveness. Conflict resolution can also involve redemption and forgiveness. Characters may reconcile their differences and find forgiveness, leading to the resolution of conflicts.
- External intervention. Sometimes, conflicts require external intervention, such as the involvement of a third party or the discovery of new information that changes the dynamics of the conflict.
- Sacrifice and selflessness. In some cases, conflicts may be resolved through sacrifice and selflessness. Characters may put aside their desires and interests for the greater good, leading to the resolution of conflicts.
Conflict is crucial to keep readers engaged and invested in a story. It creates tension, suspense, and excitement, making readers eager to know how the conflict will be resolved.
Conflict also allows readers to connect with the characters on an emotional level as they witness their struggles, growth, and triumphs.
Moreover, conflict provides readers with a sense of catharsis. As they witness characters facing and overcoming challenges, readers experience various emotions, from fear and anxiety to relief and satisfaction.
This emotional journey adds depth and richness to the reading experience, making the story more memorable and impactful.