The Sources of Conflict


Last time we spoke at length about conflict, but it seemed to me that the topic cannot end without a discussion on the various possible sources of conflict in fiction. Too often authors constrain themselves into thinking of conflict in a single layer and write stories that are too flat. By being aware of the different sources from which conflict can arise and by using them in the right proportions within your stories, you can make them ebb and flow to your will, and your readers will (hopefully) have a constant feeling of being on the edge.

   1. Conflict from other characters
This is the most common form of conflict in fiction, and one that is most readily understood. You want to go to a movie, your mother wants you to stay home and clean your room. Conflict. Raavan wants Sita to want him. Sita wants to see him and his kingdom destroyed. Conflict. Duryodhan wants to be king. So does Yudhishtir. There can only be one king. Conflict.

You get the idea. Everyone in your story wants something or the other but can’t have it for some or the other reason. By setting it up such that A desires the exact opposite of what B desires, and by making them both equally determined to achieve what they want, you set up conflict. A vs B is the simplest form of this type of conflict, but you can add as many characters as you want to the mix. The more the merrier, but make sure your story can do justice to them all.

   2. Conflict from the place
This is the kind of conflict most visibly missing from the work of people just starting out, and the reason for that is we don’t readily think of the place we live in as a being out to thwart us. And yet if we stop and think of it for a moment, our lives are severely constrained by the places we live in. The way I dress, the languages I speak, the vehicles I drive, my moods, my thoughts – these are all heavily controlled by my country, my city, my suburb, my apartment complex…my surroundings.

We don’t often think of it because we’re conditioned to accept it, and therefore we expect our characters to do the same. The setting in our fiction, then, becomes just a stage which never interacts or influences. But if you choose your setting carefully, and set out listing the things in which it constrains the characters and forces them out of their comfort zones, you will add another dimension to your story. Your characters must now not only battle one another, but also the world in which they live.

   3. Conflict from within
We are all bundles of contradictions. We want that cheesecake but we also want to watch our weight. We want to splurge on shopping today but we also want to save up for that expensive holiday at the end of the year. We want to earn a lot of money but we also want to give a lot to charity. We envy politicians and their wealth but detest their (perceived) dishonesty. We want to be beautiful and be admired by many for our looks, but we also want to believe that beauty is only skin-deep.

I could go on, but you get the bottom line: we want the best of all possible worlds. The idea that you have to give up something for everything you gain is simply unpalatable for us, which is why we’re always at loggerheads with ourselves. Do I save up for a car or give away money to the blind? Do I buy heels and add an inch to my height or go with flats and eliminate the risk of twisting my ankle? Do I do this or do I do that?

The people in your stories will be similar. Make sure that you pay attention to their internal voices, to the arguments they have with themselves all day long about what they want and how badly they want it. Listen to them crib and fuss over the choices they have to make, and if you listen closely enough, you will build enough internal conflict for each character.

The more pedantic among you may argue that 1 and 2 are really the same thing. It is true; some people make the distinction at a higher level and call it ‘internal conflict’ and ‘external conflict’. If that works better for you, fine. I find it more useful to split external conflict into ‘people conflict’ and ‘place conflict’. It’s just a matter of semantics and the granularity with which you’re comfortable. If you’re just starting out as an author, I would suggest make a conscious distinction between the two. Once you get to a stage where you naturally think of setting as just another character, you can club them both together. Whatever works.

What do you think?

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