by Linda Rodriguez
We’re surrounded by conflict. The airwaves and internet are full of reports of heated and often violent conflicts in our own neighborhoods, country, and in countries around the world. In our own lives, more often than we’d wish, we, too, are faced with conflict. So it may be a natural impulse on a writer’s part to avoid conflict on the page, part of a learned response. However, it’s almost always a mistake.
Conflict is the beating heart of story. It’s the engine for our narratives. When we make things easy and peaceful for our characters, we make the book boring for our readers. Boring means they close the book and put it down, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever pick it up again, nor will they buy or check out another of our books. Conflict is what drives our characters and our narratives forward and keeps our readers turning the pages.
As writers, we can make our background setting come to life on the page and write beautifully crafted sentences about interesting people, but if nothing is happening, the book goes nowhere. Our dialogue can be excellent and realistic, but if our people never disagree about anything or never have any subtext contradicting the literal words they’re saying, we’ll lose the reader’s interest.
I would extend what I said about the futility of well-crafted background setting, style, and dialogue without conflict to the writing of realistic characters that also come alive on the page, but if our characters were truly well-realized, we’d have conflict in our book to make the whole thing come alive. Conflict, along with story, arises from character. More precisely, it arises from the rubbing of characters against each other, this one’s need or desire clashing with that one’s fear or obsession.
Story and conflict are inextricably linked. Someone wants or needs something, and someone (or something) else doesn’t want her to have it or wants the same thing for himself instead. The first person takes steps to obtain what she wants, and at each turn, her opponent or someone (or something) else makes it impossible for her to succeed. But she keeps trying, even when it begins to look impossible. In the end, she wins through and obtains her desire (perhaps only to realize it wasn’t worth what she did to win it), or she fails through some fatal flaw in her or in the system, or she comes to realize that she’s been blind and she really wanted and needed something else all the time.
Without those conflicts, those obstacles the protagonist had to overcome, there would have been no story. If she wants a promotion and the boss gives it to her right away, if she wants the hero and he asks her to marry him right away, if she wants to find out who murdered her friend and bring that murderer to justice and he confesses and is arrested right away, there’s no reason for us to keep reading her story.
The rougher we make it for our characters, the better our readers like it. Not because they’re sadists or they don’t like our characters, but because they want to see that conflict—they want to see our characters struggle and overcome the odds. So pile on the troubles. Make sure every toss of the dice goes against your protagonist. Never make it easy for him. Your readers will love you for it. Save your pacifism and gentleness and nonconfrontational behavior and conflict resolution training for your own life. You need it. Your characters don’t.