Conflict Analysis: The Key to Strong Plots and Believable Characters

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A good novel will always have a good conflict-the kind that will make you cheer for the protagonist (the good guy) and want to boo the antagonist (the enemy, bad guy). It needs to be balanced enough to create a true struggle where both opponents are equally or within a hair of being equally powerful and capable of defeating each other so it builds wonderment, fear, and suspense for the reader, fear that the hero will not overcome, and tension to keep the reader turning the page to find out what will happen.

Types of Conflict

If we think back to our high school English classes, we probably remember being taught about the different kinds of conflict. Here they are as a refresher with a few examples:

  • Man vs. Man: Achilles vs. Hector in the “Iliad”; Jean Valjean vs. Javert in “Les Miserables”; King Arthur vs. Mordred in the Arthurian legend.
  • Man vs. Society: This is usually the individual versus city hall, or the person who speaks up against an unjust rule. In Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” it is the capitalists versus those who are trying to create a socialist world. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the lawyer must defend a man in court against a racist society.
  • Man vs. the Supernatural: Van Helsing & Co. fighting Dracula. Humanity fighting aliens in “War of the Worlds.”
  • Man vs. Nature: Most Jack London stories-man has to survive in winter or in the wilderness while alone and only able to rely upon his own wits. Tarzan vs. the Lion.
  • Man vs. Himself: Man faces his own demons or weaknesses; he may have to overcome his fear of heights to rescue the girl; he may have to overcome his alcoholism to save his family from falling apart. He may have to find the courage to reject his overprotective mother for the girl he loves, in which case we also have man vs. man (his mother). Sometimes the conflict is subtle, such as the heroine simply “finding herself” as in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”

Elements of Conflict

Beyond deciding on what the form of conflict will be (and good fiction will often have more than one kind of conflict), the conflict has to be strong enough to keep the reader interested. It must be relevant to the story, believable, further the plot, and develop the main character.

  • Relevance to the Plot and Resolution: Good conflict must be relevant to the plot of the novel. If the character must rescue the princess from the dragon, obviously there is man vs. the supernatural (the dragon). However, other conflicts might exist such as man vs. society-if the man is a lowly goatherd, the king may not want him to marry the princess because he’s not of royal blood. The man might also be a coward, so he has to overcome his own fears (man vs. himself) so he is brave enough to stand up to both the king and the dragon. Each of these forms of conflict is relevant to the overall plot and resolution to allow the goatherd to marry the princess. However, it would not be relevant to throw in a story about the man having to rescue his goat from a wolf, although that would also be conflict, unless you can connect it to the main plot-maybe the wolf is the minion of the dragon and sent to steal the goat to distract the man from discovering where the dragon is holding the princess as its prisoner.
  • Believability: The conflict must be believable. If the reader does not feel the conflict is believable, the story will fail, will become laughable, or will result in boredom. For example, man vs. bunny rabbit is not going to be an effective form of conflict because man can easily defeat bunny rabbit. However, bunny rabbit vs. bunny rabbit can result in a powerful fantasy story like “Watership Down” where there is a war between the rabbits that also serves as a metaphor for human society. David and Goliath is another example of an unbelievable conflict, but this time with a twist. David could not physically conquer Goliath based on strength alone, but with wit and skill and his faith in God, he succeeds in killing Goliath with his slingshot.
  • Further the Plot: The conflict must always further the plot. If the main character is on a quest to rescue the princess, it makes no sense for him to meet a pirate and fight him unless that conflict can be tied to the greater goal. If the goatherd can engage the pirate in swordplay and defeat him, and then spare the pirate’s life in exchange that the pirate and his men will go with him to help him rescue the princess (something that may seem impossible for the hero on his own) then the conflict between the pirate and the hero can be used to further the plot.
  • Develop the Character: The conflict has to be relevant to who the character is. If your hero is a marathon winner and he has to race a pygmy to the top of a mountain to achieve his goal, it’s not going to be much conflict (unless you’re going for comedy). But if the hero must battle snakes and the thing he fears most in the world is snakes, then the character becomes dynamic, having to pull upon his courage to face the conflict. Often the conflict may appear to be something like battling an outside force, only for the character to realize he is facing an internal test-a need to reconfirm his goodness, to justify his past actions, to overcome his internal demons, and he only succeeds in winning the conflict when he comes to a place of peace within himself.

When you sit down to write your novel, you might start with the idea for a character such as a beautiful princess, or a plot such as regaining the throne for the rightful king, but the next question is to ask yourself what the conflict will be: What stands in the way of the king regaining his throne? The evil wizard who wants complete power. What does the princess want most-true love? What stands in the way of her achieving true love? Her father will only let her marry a prince but she loves the goatherd. That’s where the conflict comes in, the problem that must be overcome, and the crux around which the plot revolves to drive the book on to its resolution. From there, you figure out a way for the goatherd to overcome the king’s objections, and you figure out what powers the wizard has and how those powers might be overcome to create the conflict. Then you’ll have good conflict. And without conflict, there is no story.

write by Drusilla

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