Conflict: Desire Meeting Resistance

In fiction, conflict is desire meeting resistance.

Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I learned this particular lesson when writing Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about various theories in the hope that the scene would seem more immediate, but since there was no compelling desire, just the relatively unimportant desire of the characters wanting to be heard, the dialogue came across as bickering rather than conflict. I kept the sections because they were a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and they did show the personalities of the characters in a fun and humorous way, but they didn’t have the immediacy true conflict would have brought to the piece.

In a novel, there are many conflicts. Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters want something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.

So, to ramp up the conflict in your novel, figure out what your characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it, show or tell the reader what is a stake (this is very important — if the reader doesn’t know what the characters want and doesn’t know what is at stake, then the conflict is muted) and then let the characters fight it out. It’s as simple as that.

An Excerpt From Light Bringer with Bickering Characters

They barely had time to exchange more than a few words when Philip heard a thundering knock.

“That’s Faye.” Emery went to let her in.

Faye strode into the living room with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant. “Who’s this?” she barked, fixing her gaze on Philip. “Oh, yes. Now I recall. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, disposable razors.”

Philip recoiled, wondering if this woman in the royal blue, turquoise, and orange dress was crazy, then he remembered she clerked at the grocery store where he’d purchased those very items. “Over-qualified for her job,” Emery had told him, “but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an ample woman in her fifties.”

He stepped forward. “I’m Philip.”

She grabbed his extended hand and pumped it as if trying to draw water. Or blood.

“Glad you could join us,” she said.

A brisk rap seemed to catch her attention. She dropped Philip’s hand and bellowed, “Go away, you gormless lummox. We don’t need your kind here.”

“Let me in, you draggle-tailed witch,” came a muffled voice from outside.

She opened the door and in walked a sharp-featured man wearing a yellow pullover shirt and plaid golfing pants.

“So how many widows and orphans did you fleece today?” she asked.

“Stupid ostrich! You know I’m retired.”

“Now you spend all your time trying to hit defenseless balls and hitting on show ghouls.”

He looked down his nose at her. “Show ghouls? That the best you can do? And anyway, Doreen is a sweet girl.”

She punched him on the arm.

An elderly, bow-legged man with a face the color and texture of walnut shells pushed past them.

“Gil isn’t coming,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Faye rolled her eyes. “Always so dramatic, Chester.”

Chester lowered his arms. “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“Oh, all right. Why?”

“He has a meeting with Santero. Santero’s selling his antique store.”

Faye hooted. “Antiques! Junk’s more like it. Broken rocking chairs, moldy patchwork quilts, and dusty canning jars. Who’d buy a place like that?”

“It’s a good location,” Emery said. “A downtown corner, not far from that monstrosity Luke’s remodeling into a bed and breakfast. Must be worth a bundle.”

Brian nodded. “The building’s in good condition, too — all new plumbing.”

“Well, anyway,” Faye said, “we don’t need Gil. Counting Philip there’s six of us.”

Philip held up his palms. “I’m not playing.”

“Nonsense.” She seized him by an arm and dragged him to the table.

He shot a beseeching look at Emery, who merely grinned.

“If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play, you overbearing hag,” the golfer said. By process of elimination, Philip decided he must be Scott, the ex-banker.

Faye stuck out her tongue at Scott. “Flush you.”

***

Want to read more? You can find the first chapter here, download the first 20% of Light Bringer here, or buy the book from  Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.

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Conflict Opens a Door and a Story Begins

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the dubiously good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that is run by major corporations, stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the two are always in conflict, so I prefer it when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or an employee of a corporation as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous than fate?

My heroes never bring on their fate. Perhaps my books would be more dramatic if they did, but I cannot sympathize with characters who cause their own problems. And why do they have to cause problems for themselves when other people or even life itself is always ready to cause problems for them?

When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

In my novel Light Bringer, “fate knocking at the door” is a one of the unintended themes. In the prologue, baby Rena is found at the door of a remote Colorado cabin. In the first chapter, fate comes with an actual knock when men proclaiming to be NSA agents show up at Philip Hansen’s door. Fate finds Jane Keeler when she shows up at her sister’s door and finds the house empty. Fate knocks even harder when she opens the door of a local coffee shop and meets the man of her dreams, and poor Jane’s fate is sealed when she is abducted and shoved through the door of car.

So many doors! Philip knocks on Rena’s door, and later the two are carried uncocnscious through the door to an underground facility, where Jane is also being held behind a locked door. Philip and Rena find out that between them they can open doors without a key, and when they do, they find secrets behind even more doors. And then there is the ghost cat Wisdom and the invisible watcher who seem to need no doors, but are more than willing to open them for Philip and Rena. Each time a character goes through a door, things change, and they find more conflict.

Fate doesn’t have to come with an actual knock, but it’s been said there are only two stories — a character goes on a trip and a stranger knocks on the door, so doors are an important symbol of conflict and change.

How do doors enter into your story?