How to Be Mean to Your Characters: Understanding Narrative Conflict
It ain’t easy being mean. You’ve spent a lot of time developing a character your readers will care about, and you’ve grown fond of that character, too. But, in the name of good fiction, you’re going to have to make her suffer. That’s narrative conflict.
Storytelling is about conflict. If your character isn’t struggling, you’re not telling a story so much as sharing an anecdote. (Did you know that the term anecdote, which refers to a short, often amusing narrative about an incident, comes from the Greek anekdota? It means “things unpublished.” Hmm!)
Telling a story and developing a narrative arc means you’re going to have to put your character’s in difficult situations. Let’s look at a few ways to do that.
Four Types of Narrative Conflict (Plus Three More)
Your character wants something. Narrative conflict is the thing that keeps us wondering, until the story is resolved, whether he’ll reach his goal. There are four classic types of conflict.
Person Against Person
Jane wants to star as Eponine in the local production of Les Miserables. She’s been rehearsing constantly with her vocal coach, and she’s able to sing On My Own in a way that’ll rend your heart in two. The problem is, Carla, the diva who stole all the starring roles from her in high school productions 5 years earlier, is in the running for the part. She’ll do anything to get it, including sabotaging Jane. Will Jane ever get to show the world her amazing vocal skills?
This narrative pits Jane (the protagonist) against Carla (the antagonist.) It’s a classic Person Against Person conflict scenario.
Person Against Self
Bill, who runs ticket sales for the circus, dreams of being a trapeze artist. Problem is, he’s got a crippling fear of heights. Will he be able to overcome his anxiety so he can get out of the ticket booth and into the act?
Conflict doesn’t have to be external. In other words, your story doesn’t necessarily have to have a classic villain preventing your character from getting what he wants. The battle can take place in his mind, too. Fear, doubt, addiction, past experiences … all those types of things can cause a character to face an internal struggle.
Person Against Nature
Alice has set herself up for the adventure of a lifetime. She’s going to test her mariner skills by sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Alone. She encounters a playful humpback whale who almost overturns her small craft. And then a major Pacific storm blows up. Will she make it?
There are lots of examples of Person Against Nature in literature, and some are epic. Think The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Martian by Andy Weir, or Jaws by Peter Benchley.
Person Against Society
Elliot has been caring for his sick mother for a very long time. That 4.0 high school GPA and all the things he’s taught himself about being a caregiver lead him to believe he’d make a great doctor. It’s a dream he’d pursue, with a full scholarship, if only he didn’t have to work to pay the bills.
Too real? This type of conflict often features in novels with social commentary themes as well as dystopian fiction. Think of Winston Smith versus Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell, Katniss Everdeen versus the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Atticus Finch versus racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Some experts identify additional types of conflict, such as:
- Person Versus Machines/Technology
- Person Versus The Unknown/Supernatural
- Person Versus The Gods/Fate
These conflict types are self-explanatory variations on the classic themes. Either your character is struggling with himself, one other entity, a group of entities, or the forces of nature itself.
How to Create Conflict in Your Fiction
When you boil it right down to its essence, a story consists of three basic elements:
- Conflict. The character wants something.
- Action. The character struggles to get what he wants.
- Resolution. The character succeeds or fails.
Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats used a series of tweets to give excellent advice on telling a story. She simplifies plotting your story with this template:
Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
And it really does work! You keep repeating, Because of that, ____ until you’ve reached your Until finally. It can help to remember that each Because of that brings a new complication.
Remember that your characters can’t be perfect. Perfect is boring. We like characters whose flaws not only make them human like us but cause them trouble and make us root for them.
Most stories have a blend of conflict types. There may be external forces or an antagonist at work all while the main character’s own flaws and insecurities cause troubles. Sure, Harry Potter struggled against a whole host of bad guys from Draco Malfoy to Voldemort, but he also wrestled his own insecurities and morals.
25 Ways to Stir Up Narrative Conflict
Here are just a few ways to raise the stakes and inject conflict into your fiction.
- Your character’s goal conflicts with his personality. (A short-tempered man who wants to work as a mediator.)
- Your main character wants the same thing as another character, but they both can’t have it.
- Two groups clash. (Preps versus Greasers. Montagues versus Capulets.)
- Lack of money or social status prevents reaching a goal.
- Two characters who hate each other have to work together to accomplish something.
- Your character makes sacrifices and suffers for an ideal or cause.
- The ideals of a group clash with the ideals of your character, who happens to be a member of that group.
- Something or someone wants to destroy something beloved to the character and must be stopped.
- There’s a rivalry between something or someone inferior versus something superior. (David versus Goliath.)
- Your character falls prey to misfortune or is the victim of cruelty.
- Your character is tempted by something they should not have.
- Something is lost, and your character must find it.
- Your character is wrestling with two opposing choices.
- Your character has a secret that threatens to destroy her.
- What are your character’s worst fears? They’re all about to be realized.
- Your character has been betrayed by someone he loves and trusts.
- A disaster has occurred, and your character must survive.
- The wilderness is a dark and dangerous place …
- Your character is coming to realize that things are not what they seem.
- Your character made a decision. But it’s an awful one.
- That one thing your character never wants to be? That’s what she suddenly is.
- Something your character did in his past is about to come back to haunt him.
- Your character is very proud of her ____. It’s the key to her identity. She’s just lost it.
- Your character goes on an internal journey to cope with the loss of something dear to them.
- The robots have become sentient. Will your character welcome his robot overlords?
How many ideas for creating conflict can you come up with? Start a list or share some of your favorites in the comments below.