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What is conflict?
First, let's talk about what isn't conflict, and maybe
thatll help explain why so many authors have
a problem getting a firm grasp on it.
Conflict is not simple misunderstandings that could be
resolved if the characters would simply have an adult
conversation to clear things up. It's not convoluted
circumstances inserted for convenience. It's not anything
that isn't of consequence to the characters.
There are two types of conflict, and both should be
present in your novel.
Internal conflict is the dilemma facing the character
inside and its impact on that character. Writers
typically choose internal conflicts that arouse a
universal emotion in people.
External conflict is the depicted events the character
encounters as obstacles during the course of the novel.
The best "author tip" on handling conflict I
know: Find the main character's Achilles' heel (the root
source of his/her internal conflict) and stomp it (external
See, the characters have holes in their lives. Some
experience that they have endured has left them scarred.
(IMHO, no one reaches puberty without being emotionally
scarred in some way.) That's their vulnerability, and
it's their vulnerability that they must confront as a
direct result of what happens to them in the novel. The
resolution to that confrontationconstructive,
destructive, successful or notis the venue of
showing character growth.
Character growth is essential. If nothing in the story
forces the character to see something in a new light, to
confront their worst fear or greatest personal
challenges, then there is no conflict and no character
growth. The character is the same person at the end of
the novel as at the beginning. If the character remains
the same, why tell the story? The reader is robbed of
An example from All Due Respect:
The male protagonist was a victim of abuse.
At four, whenever his father started on his mother, the
boy was charged with the responsibility of getting out of
the house and calling the police.
At six, he couldn't get out--couldn't find the key to the
deadbolt lock, and his mother died.
He carries that guilt as an adult. He didn't commit the
abuse, but he failed in his responsibility to save his
mother. His father was imprisoned, and the boy was put
into foster care. Twenty homes in twelve years. He
learned not to need anyone. Not to depend on anyone. He
became self-sufficient, self-contained. He became
isolated and distant. That's the root source of his
In the external conflict he can't do what needs to be
done alone. If he tries and fails, millions of innocents
will die. He needs help from another scientist he'd give
anything to avoid because she threatens his self-sufficiency.
So the external conflict mirrors the internal conflict.
We understand the decisions he makes overtly in the novel
understand the complexity of his internal conflict. Both
drive the story. What he hates most, fears most, is
exactly what he must face. He has to confront his darkest
demons. The catalyst that most helps him isnt the
other scientist, it's a six-year-old boy, who has
suffered abuse and yet opens his heart to love this man.
From the child's courage, the man grows, because he comes
to understand that what he needs is what he's been so
adamantly denying in his life: freedom to live and love.
That in denying love a place in his life and heart, he is
denying the value of one of life's greatest treasures.
He's denying life respect.
Now, some writers don't use internal and external
conflicts that mirror or echo each other. They use
disassociated challenges. They'll select conflicts that
bring out different aspects of that character. But even
then, there is a correlation. One impacts the other,
drives the character to behave in specific ways, to
respond to events in a certain manner. While I've seen
this successfully done, I have to say that it doesn't
work as well for me. I think the reason is that I'm an
extremely subjective writer. This disassociates method of
handling conflict works best for extremely objective
In subjective writing, the author has to be inside the
character's mind, heart, and soul. In objective writing,
the author is more distanced, does more relating with
less of the writer's opinions, thoughts, and desires
manifesting in the work. If looking for specific genres,
you'd be more apt to find objective writing in mysteries
and true crime. Subjective in romance, inspirational, and
many psychological thrillers/ suspense novels.
Every writer should determine whether they are subjective
or objective, because when you're one and you write in
the other, you're usually violating your author theme,
and that creates challenges for you.
As mentioned often, conflict is the spine of the novel.
It has to be strong enough to sustain. Gary Provost, whom
I greatly admire for his work on craft, used the analogy
of a character having a hole or flaw in his/her character.
Breaking down the novel, it would look something like
In the beginning, the character has a hole in them (an
emptiness or a flaw) caused by a bad experience. (A fear,
lack of fulfillment, a broken spirit
In the novel, the character fights the demons created in
experience, faces obstacles created that impact that
that grow greater and more difficult to overcome (raised
stakes) as the novel
By story's end, the conflicts are all resolvedfirst
the smaller conflicts, which lead the character to
address the inner conflict (and see it in a new way, find
a constructive solution) that corrects the flaw or fills
Then, equipped with new knowledge, strength, gained by
the resolution of the inner conflict, the character is
then able to resolve the largest conflict.
It's important to note that a character typically has
multiple conflicts to resolve. Goals change during the
course of the novel. New information or insight alters
motivations and goals and lead to new conflicts and new
Let's say a mentor is guiding the protagonist. But during
the course of the novel, the protagonist learns that the
mentor has not been honest. That something the mentor
told the protagonist to motivate him to act decisivelyand
to act right nowproves untrue. This changes the
protagonist's view of the challenge. It alters his or her
perspective and changes the goal from A to B. It also
injects additional conflict. Betrayed by a trusted
friend, the mentor, the protagonist must discover what
motivated that betrayal.
I'm mentioning this because what drives a character
changes as the character changes, and that usually
happens throughout the novel, not in one scene, or with
one incident. Cause and effect, action and reaction play
key roles in fostering change and in facilitating
Remember the three essentials in conflict: no
misunderstandings, no convoluted logic for convenience
sake, and no insignificant roots.
Conflict at its best is strong. Its complex to that
specific character, logical and motivated, and of
Copyright 2003 Vicki Hinze
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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