This post, by author Valerie Storey, originally appeared on her Writing at Dava Books blog on 7/28/09.
Conflict. If you’re anything like me, the very word conjures up argument, avoidance, ‘peace at any cost.’ In real life, conflict is rarely fun or something I go looking for. But leave it out of our writing, and we can have some serious conflict with editors and readers.
The first step toward understanding conflict is to know what genuine artistic conflict is not. Compelling conflict rarely stems from:
* Slammed doors.
* Slapped faces.
* Misunderstood fragment of overheard dialogue.
* A spilled drink.
* Romance characters tormenting each other with “fake” lovers.
* Characters complaining they are never understood because men and women can’t communicate.
You get the picture. All of the above are actions and events; things that can certainly be the result of conflict and that can make characters angry, but conflict is much more than anger. Authentic conflict often begins long before your story opens and is the motivating spur behind every decision and action your characters will make. In order to uncover as many levels of conflict possible (and to make life near-impossible for your characters) it can be helpful to explore the following seven areas.
1) The World or Society at Large. This is the world your story characters inhabit. It can be as simple as a barren desert or as elaborate as a feudal realm set in the distant future. Whatever it is, it contains problems; problems that can disadvantage and hold your characters back from their goals in significant ways. For instance, a world at war can be set anywhere from ancient times to the present day, from Middle Earth to outer space, but no matter the weaponry used, war always involves great suffering.
At the opposite end, a peaceful, apparently beautiful society can be filled with social injustice or a devastating class structure. Characters caught up in a perfect life may be the most discontent of all. Consider the poor heroine who is engaged to the perfect man, has the perfect job, eats perfect dinners with her loving, supportive parents every Friday night. On the surface she seems happy, but she may be ready to strangle them all.
Including a backdrop of social turmoil to your work will provide your characters with either past negative experience to overcome, or an ongoing situation that creates constant hardship. “High society” with all its rules and traditions, vices and hypocrisies can be a terribly low place filled with dark secrets and psychoses.
2) The Immediate Professional Environment or Workplace. No matter the times they are born into, your characters all have to do something to make a living. Even if your heroine’s sole purpose in life is to be married off to a peer of the realm, this is still her “occupation.” No matter if your characters are nannies or rock stars, advertising executives or harried FBI agents; they will at some stage encounter the monster boss, rival co-worker(s), ruthless or incompetent employees. Sometimes the workplace itself harbors corruption and is a great source of conflict, such as an unethical law firm or a company cutting corners on its products.