Conflict in Fiction

Conflict is defined as the opposition between two forces. In fiction, that conflict shapes or motivates the action of the plot, by separating the character from obtaining his goal.  Only by introducing conflict can the character change and grow.

 Types of Conflict:

  • Man vs Self (Protagonist’s will, confusion, fear)
  • Man vs Man (Antagonist)
  • Man vs Nature (Physical world including all natural phenomena and living things)
  • Man vs Society (Structured community bound together by similar traditions, institutions, or nationality)
  • Man vs Fate (The force or principle believed to predetermine events)
  • Man vs God (The being believed in monotheistic religions to be the all-powerful all-knowing creator of the universe, worshiped as the only God
  • Man vs god (one of a group of supernatural male beings in other religions, each of which is worshiped as the personification or controller of some aspect of the universe)
  • Man vs Technology (machines, equipment, and systems considered as a unit)
  • Man vs Supernatural (phenomena that cannot be explained by natural laws)

Your part as a writer is to make your character’s deep yearning (Desire) strong enough so that they stand up to the conflicts separating them from their goal, leaving the reader rooting for the success of the protagonist (could be failure, too).  The idea is to get the reader to invest in your story and to do that you need conflict. According to Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, the “primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death grab us.”

Example:

Daphne (Protagonist), who’s leery about sailing because she got caught up in the ropes as a child (backstory and what she needs to change to grow), watches her sister’s sailboat competition from the shoreline. Her sister, Selena, is winning and it looks like they won’t lose the deed to their estate to bank owner Beck Larson (Antagonist and Man vs Man). Suddenly Selena’s sailboat mast snaps in half, tossing her into the sea (Man vs Technology). Normally, Daphne wouldn’t be worried. Selena is a good swimmer and wearing her life vest. Only this time, none of the other competitors have noticed Selena’s sailboat is without a captain, and they’re heading straight for her (Man vs Society). Daphne jumps onto a watercraft and jets after her sister. Daphne’s not wearing a life vest and isn’t as good a swimmer (Man vs Self), but Selena’s barely past the reef. Unfortunately, Daphne’s watercraft sputters—she’s picked the vessel without fuel, leaving her drifting further from her sister (Man vs Fate). Seeing she still has time before the other sailboats reach her sister, Daphne grabs the red flag from the watercraft and dives into the water, but the current is stronger than she’s realized (Man vs Nature). Fear floods her and, for a moment, she stops swimming, fearing she won’t reach her sister in time (Man vs Self). Finally, she swims faster than she’s ever swum and reaches her sister. Only she’s too weak to lift the flag and her sister’s life vest won’t keep them both afloat for long.

Story Question:  Will Daphne save her sister?

 Story Answer: Nope. Not until the resolution at the end of the book, because this is fiction.

As a romance, the story might go/end like this:

Beck (Antagonist)  is standing on the shoreline watching the drama. He’s inspired by Daphne’s courage and rescues them both. Then (after 300 more pages of conflict between the Beck and Daphne that you as a writer must develop) during the climax Daphne finally saves her sister from another race disaster by joining as a crew member, now that she’s taken sailing lessons and understands sailing (changed). They win the race. Daphne delivers the winnings (money) to the bank expecting to see Beck at the front desk, but discovers he no longer works for the company but had paid off  the sisters’ bank deed when he’d left.  Confronting Beck, Daphne learns that his grandparents died during the depression because of a company like the one he’d left, leaving his mother homeless. He won’t see another family destroyed (protection of loved ones) by a ruthless company (Society). They go on their first date.

By giving your protagonist a primal desire and adding conflict to keep your protagonist from obtaining their goal, you’ll be able to force your protagonist to grow and change, until they obtain their true goal in the resolution.  And keep your readers turning pages and begging for more.

Happy Writing, Cyndi Faria

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2 thoughts on “Conflict in Fiction

  1. Nothing defines a character, or a story, quite like the conflict driving it. So many unique struggles can be achieved under the interweaving and overarching categories of conflict given above – it’s a beauty to see done well.

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