Updated: Jul 7, 2022
For February, the Back to Basics skills course is conflict.
Why is conflict so important to a story? Conflicts are what drive characters to act. Characters can find themselves in conflict with themselves or outside forces like the world or other characters. As MasterClass puts it, conflict both provides purpose and helps with character development. To build conflict, try considering something that your character wants and create an obstacle standing in their way.
John Doe wants to bake cookies, but he doesn’t have any of the ingredients.
Here, we have established what John wants as well as the obstacle standing in his way. Obstacles are great because they complicate things for characters. If every character got what they wanted right away, the story would be uninteresting. You would also risk detaching readers from the story since they wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. If you make your characters’ desires harder to obtain, it gives them a mission that they need to complete. This helps the readers stay interested in the story and want to see where the character goes next.
Another way to really understand conflict is to figure out whether the conflict is internal or external. With an internal conflict, your character is struggling with something on the inside.
John Doe wants to attend a certain university, but is afraid he isn’t smart enough to get in.
Here, the internal conflict is John’s fear that he isn’t smart enough. Internal conflict is also often referred to as Character vs Self. Character vs Self stories can be incredibly compelling because of how personal and relatable the story can be. Character vs Self stories serve as opportunities to delve deep into the psyche of a character and their backstory. Hannah Yang of ProWritingAid says, “The best internal conflicts grow out of events in the protagonist’s backstory. Readers will root for a selfish, snobby, or cynical character as long as they understand why that character is selfish, snobby, or cynical.”
John Doe wants to attend a certain university, but is afraid he isn’t smart enough to get in since he was held back a year in high school.
By adding in that John was held back for a year in school, it makes it much easier for a reader to sympathize with John and want to see him succeed.
It’s worth noting that different types of conflict lend themselves to different genres. A Character vs Self story may work great for a psychological thriller, but it might not be a good fit for a fast-paced intergalactic epic. If internal conflicts are not your style, try an external conflict. For external conflicts, your character has to struggle with some sort of outside force. Outside forces can either be in the form of another character (Character vs Society), or in the form of the world itself (Character vs Nature). Let’s look at an example of Character vs Nature.
John Doe wants to go home after work but is caught in the middle of a horrible snow storm.
Here, the snow storm serves as the outside force preventing John from getting home. Using outside forces like nature are also interesting because you then have the opportunity to personify them. The snow storm John is stuck in could be described as violent and ill-tempered; this makes the storm feel like its own character.
So far we’ve covered the different types of conflict (internal and external), but these are broad categories. NYBookEditors covers a total of seven different types of conflict in their article “How To Create Conflict In Your Novel”. As we talked about above, a great way to build conflict is by introducing an obstacle to what your character wants. The article also provides tips on how to perpetuate conflict within your story by raising the stakes.
John Doe wants to bake cookies, but he doesn’t have any ingredients. If John isn’t able to bake cookies, then the world will explode.
[want] John Doe wants to bake cookies, [obstacle] but he doesn’t have any ingredients. If John isn’t able to bake cookies, [stakes] then the world will explode.
Here the stakes are admittedly a bit comically exaggerated, but you can see the goal. Now there’s an added reason why it’s so important that John Doe bake those cookie and the obstacle becomes more important in turn.
Another suggestion from the article is to give the character a hard choice to make. The article states that you should: “Give them an impossible choice (like choosing between two children). Not only is it an external conflict but it’s also an internal conflict. Tough choices give you a lot to explore.” It’s a great idea because you can create some interesting scenarios and exciting character dynamics to play with.
Now that you know a little more about the basics of conflict, here’s this month’s challenge.
Choose one of these conflict types and write a short story in less than 1,000 words:
Character vs Self (Internal Conflict)
Character vs Nature (External Conflict)
Character vs Society (External Conflict)
Remember to establish something that your character wants, give them an obstacle, and then raise the stakes!
Thanks for joining us for this Back to Basics course. If you tried this month’s challenge, you can share it on our forum or on social media using #WWB2B. Better Writer subscribers can submit their challenge for feedback as soon as possible. Find past Back 2 Basics courses here.
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About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.