Conflict is what drives a story. You might have heard it said a story should begin in the middle of the action, which is often misunderstood to mean literal action, like a car chase or a fight scene. What it really refers to is conflict.
Most writers recognize very early-on that conflict is required – the protagonist needs a villain to fight, or a mystery to solve. But conflict goes beyond this. It’s not enough to have this over-arching external conflict. A character needs internal and external conflicts, and there needs to be multiple conflicts. Ideally, the resolution of each successive conflict should up the stakes and increase the pressure on the protagonist – push them towards an untenable situation or impossible decision, force them to act in ways they never would have previously considered. It’s almost impossible to create this kind of situation without having both an internal and external conflict.
So what is the difference between internal and external conflicts?
An external conflict is fairly readily understood – these are physical obstacles to the character attaining their goals. It could be another person (Die Hard), a force of nature (The Day After Tomorrow), a beast (The Ghost and the Darkness), society or cultural restraints (Romeo & Juliet), technology (Terminator), or fate itself. You need to have at least one of these. You could have many more, or you could have multiple conflicts of the same kind. Man vs man is easily the most common. If you only have one external conflict (one, total, not one type), your story may be overly-simplistic.
In my novel, Deathhawk’s Betrayal, the key external conflict is man vs man (or woman vs man in this case), but there are easily five of these types of conflicts, each consisting of the protagonist, Astarl, against another person, each of whom have different reasons and goals for opposing her. She also has an external conflict with society.
Internal conflict is more complex. Internal conflict is man vs himself, and consists of any kind of mental or emotional impediment to what he wants. Think of Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, which he must overcome to attain his goal – that’s an internal conflict. Internal conflicts can also arise from cultural, ethical or religious beliefs. If those beliefs dictate the character behave in a certain way, and those beliefs are challenged, or the character encounters someone with different beliefs, an internal conflict arises.
Internal conflict forces a character to grow and change throughout the course of the book. These are the conflicts that truly challenge a character as a person.
This is why it’s important for your character to have flaws. A perfect character won’t have any internal conflicts. A perfect character won’t be challenged to grow. Back story is what gives your character flaws and internal conflicts.
How can you identify your conflicts?
Some writers can do this intuitively, but for others there are a variety of tools. The one I like to use is a simple Goal Motivation Conflict (GMC) chart. This is a simple grid matrix used to identify, for each of your characters, their goals (what they want), their motivation (why they want it), and the conflict (what’s preventing them from getting it). Don’t assume each character only has one goal – there may be one primary goal, or a first goal, but additional goals may develop along the way. For example, Astarl wants to heal her father – that’s her initial and primary goal throughout the book. That latter changes, and she has additional goals – she wants to help a friend, she wants a romantic relationship with a man she can’t have, she wants to find the man trying to kill her, and there are ‘sub-goals’ – things she must achieve to get closer to achieving her ultimate goal.
Each goal for each character must have a motivation. This isn’t essential so much to conflict, but to creating believable characters. If there is no reason for that character to have that goal, then their actions won’t ring true. If you find a character’s goal lacks motivation, you had better find one quick! Motivations may breed conflict where two characters’ motivations clash.
Once you’ve got the goals for each character, and the motivation for each goal, you need to identify what’s preventing the character from attaining that goal. If the answer is ‘nothing’, you have a big problem. Anywhere you find nothing preventing the character reaching the goal, you need to create an obstacle. Why? Because without an obstacle, there is no story! If Astarl healing her father was as simple as asking a duke for a loan of his magic item, and he said yes, none of the subsequent events in the book would have happened.
Some obstacles are generated by other character goals e.g. Astarl wants a magic artifact, but so do at least two other people, each of whom is trying to prevent the others getting it. This is a classic man vs man external conflict. Some conflicts will be created by the character’s own feelings and beliefs. So, Astarl is prevented from a happy relationship with her lover by her own fear of men. At the same time, he is also sabotaging their relationship, because of his own internal conflicts arising from a sense of duty and obligation.
A GMC chart can help you to build a workable plot by assisting you to work out where you have conflict or a lack of it. Not enough conflict? Pile more obstacles in the way of your protagonist.
All the conflicts need to drive your character towards the ‘Black Moment’, where all seems lost.
The ultimate conflict is to force your character to choose between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable, or to put your character in a situation where he is forced to do something contrary to his nature.
Ciara Ballintyne is an Australian writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the newly-released Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.