Conflict is the lifeblood of story.
In real life, conflict is something we generally want to avoid. Stories, on the other hand, require conflict. This discrepancy is an indicator of the underlying purpose of stories as a kind of training ground, a place where we learn to deal with conflict without having to suffer real-life consequences.
In this post we will look at:
- An Analogy
- Archetypal conflict in stories
- Conflict between characters
- Conflict within a character
- The central conflict
Along with language (in some form or other, be it as text or as the language of a medium, such as film) and meaning (intended by the author or understood by the recipient), characters and plot form the constituent parts of story. It is impossible to create a story that does not include these four components – even if the characters are one-dimensional and the plot has no structure. However, it is formally possible to compose a story with no conflict.
It just won’t be very interesting.
If we view plot as the skeleton of a story, characters are the muscles. They move the bones. To complete the analogy, meaning must be the organs and flesh, and language – which we perceive most strongly, since it is most directly visible – is the skin, hair and features. All of these together make a whole, a body.
Coursing through this whole is blood – conflict.
Add a spark of magic in the form of a dash of inspiration plus lots of hard work, and you have the soul and mind, which bring a story to life.
Conflict does not occur at particular points in a story. It permeates the whole of it.
We can view the plot of a story as being triggered by an event that creates a conflict – the conflict between the ordinary world at the beginning of a story which is disturbed by an external problem. There is a desire for stasis, a pull towards maintaining the existing order, which conflicts with the need and yearning for action, the pull towards a new order or re-balancing. Resolving the problem is a conflict between the old and the new, for instance between the parents and the children, between the patriarch and the prince. The ending of the story returns the world to a renewed state of equilibrium, resolving the conflict.
That may seem rather abstract. More obvious is the conflict that flows between and within characters.
Conflict between characters
The most obvious and visible form of conflict is fighting, be it a punch-up between two characters or a war between nations. Since in stories conflict is so prevalent, we therefore must not wonder that violence seems to play such an important part in so many tales, and why the warrior is such a common archetype. The world of stories is, on the whole, a far more dangerous and violent place than the real world is for most of us – thankfully!
However, when we read or view a violent confrontation, what sustains our interest is not the action but the reasons behind it. We, as readers or audience, understand what is driving the characters to fight and we know their motivations. We probably want one party to prevail over the other. And this is because we understand the conflict of interests that underlies the situation. The fight has occurred either because conflicting characters want to attain opposing ends, or indeed because they want the same thing.
Conflict in stories is not necessarily physical. The basis of conflict is contrast. By setting up a cast of contrasting characters, the preconditions for conflict are created. If one of the characters is hot-headed and temperamental and another is circumspect and diplomatic, the contrast between them leads to conflict once they begin to pursue the same aim.
Hence, when populating a story it makes sense to ensure that the various characters have recognisably differing personalities, which translates to different approaches to dealing with problems.
On the superficial, outer level of the plot, a story is about an external problem, which creates conflict. A yet stronger form of conflict is brought to the surface by the character’s internal problem. The story is emotionally about the character overcoming this flaw or deficiency or correcting a past mistake. Of course, the character must first recognise this flaw or error, and then may deny it or refuse to accept and deal with it. But ultimately, the moment will come when the character must face up to the conflict between the old self and the potentially “cured” new self, and must make a choice in order to bring about a change. At best, this inner conflict stands in direct relation to the outer conflict of the plot.
Furthermore, authors give characters depth by imbuing their personalities with inner conflict in the form of dimensions. This dramaturgical device means taking an emotional axis and showing an individual character’s reactions to separate events in the story as the poles of that axis. So if the emotional axis is, for instance, temperament, a character might react to obstacles with violent anger at one point in the story and with peaceful serenity at another. The contrast between these two very different reactions to difficulties that the character faces cause surprise and shows the audience or readers that this is a complex person rather than a one-dimensionally “angry” or “serene” cardboard character.
Any of the above – the archetypal conflict, a conflict between characters, or the conflict within a character – may be described by the author as being the “central conflict” of the story. It depends on where the author wants to direct the focus. There may be a strong duality, for instance the simplistic good versus evil dichotomy, which may be expressed most directly by the protagonist/antagonism relationship. This might be the central conflict of a fantasy or adventure story. If the author is more interested in exploring the psychology of an individual, the central conflict might be that character’s inner battle with his or her own personal demons, which she or he may or not overcome.