As much as characters are the very heart and soul of fiction, none of them really matter unless they come across conflict. After all, without conflict there is no story, you would just be reading about people’s everyday lives. And why would you want to read that unless there were significant moments explored where these people took up the challenge of overcoming insurmountable challenges?
Whenever we experience a story, we put ourselves in a voluntary state of tension. It may sound a little masochistic at first, but when you really stop and think about it, you really are taking on the emotions of the characters. This of course allows us to empathize with them because we may have been in similar situations or have feared being in them, and getting to watch or read characters overcome obstacles inspires the hope that we can one day do the same.
Here is how you can inject meaningful conflict in you writing:
1. Opposing Opinions
Give your characters strong opinions about something, and then pit them against characters who are in the absolute opposite spectrum of the same thing. For instance, if you have a character who believes in animal rights and wants to stop the distribution of meat, their logical antagonist could be a butcher shop owner. One wants to end animal cruelty, while the other’s entire livelihood depends on this job they actually genuinely love.
2. Personal Philosophies
Now that you’ve got opinions established, it’s time to give these characters some motivations behind their opinions, along with names while we’re at it. Let’s call the animal rights activist Wendy, and the butcher shop owner Joe. Now it could be pretty easy to paint Joe as a horrible guy and make him the clear cut bad guy of this story, but I think if you gave him some redeeming and empathetic qualities, his conflict with Wendy could be more meaningful and insightful to your audience.
Perhaps Wendy wants to stop animal cruelty because she lived on a farm and she witnessed the slaughter of cows and chickens she grew fond of. Then on the other spectrum we got Joe who is just fascinated with the whole process of butchering animals, and serving them to happy customers in order to provide food for his children, and a roof over their heads.
In this story, Wendy’s goal would be to put Joe out of business possibly because her vegan restaurant is losing business due to Butcher Joe’s higher customer rate. And couple that of course with her moral stance on animal cruelty, you got yourself some grade A tension!
Point is: give characters believable and empathetic reasons for their beliefs so that you can understand them all, but make them so contrary to each other that it creates conflict due to those opposing opinions.
Harboring dark secrets could also create tension in a story, especially if you reveal them after you’ve spent a good amount of time endearing the audience to your characters. There’s a weird feeling I personally get when I come to admire a character, only to find out about a secret of theirs that almost feel like a betrayal. Though it is a reminder that nobody is perfect and we’ve all got skeletons in the closet.
Secrets, and the threat of them being revealed, create tension the closer and close other characters come to discover them.
Maybe Wendy once ate her childhood pets and feels guilty for enjoying how they tasted, all despite the love she had for them when they were alive. If people found out about that, her activism in animal rights could be compromised and she’d be seen as a hypocrite!
Then maybe Joe, despite being a good family man and salesman to his customers, could secretly be an animal abuser. His endearing personality can make it forgivable to a degree that he cuts up animals for a living, but if it’s revealed that he takes a dark seated pleasure in murdering animals, rather than being stoic about it for the sake of the job, this could skew his public persona.
And maybe even in this case, the pleasure he gets is his way of coping with a traumatic event in his childhood where a dog attacked him. Who knows? I certainly don’t, I’m just making all this up as I go along!
4. Limited Choices
And lastly, to create some serious tension in a story, you could limit the choices available to characters. Situations where characters are forced to sacrifice their dignity or act against their own moral principles–sometimes for the sake of a greater good, other times with no clear benefit other than mere survival–these are the situations where we get to learn what truly matters to these characters.
We’ve all been in situations where we had to make tough choices and it wasn’t clear which one was the right one. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, rather there only exists the most sensible choice over the others where we lose the least of what we have. So then…
What if Joe and Wendy, amidst this public battle to reign supreme as the hot shot business of a sub-urban plaza, actually begin to fall in love with each other?
Yeah this just got weird, but bear with me here.
If there’s a turf war between a vegan restaurant and a butcher shop, there would obviously be customers who rally behind each respective business getting caught up in the crossfire.
Wendy ends up with the choices of either continuing the attempt to shut down Joe’s business, or give it up so that she can marry him and be the new mother to his kids because they’ve taken a liking to her.
Joe would then have to give up his life long passion and his stable income if he really wants to be with Wendy. Or he could just reject her, leave his kids without a mother figure, but at least keep his business going.
Alright, so thank you for dealing with my craziness in this post. I hope you can forgive that and glean the value I’m trying to provide in exploring how you can amplify the conflict in your story, to not only make your story more entertaining, but also more meaningful and thought provoking.
If you have other tips of your own on how to amplify the conflict in fiction, feel free to leave a comment below!
Otherwise any other questions and feedback on this post are also welcome!