by Vicki Hinze

What is conflict?

First, let's talk about what isn't conflict, and maybe thatíll help explain why so many authorís have a problem getting a firm grasp on it.

Conflict is not simple misunderstandings that could be resolved if the characters would simply have an adult conversation to clear things up. It's not convoluted circumstances inserted for convenience. It's not anything that isn't of consequence to the characters.

There are two types of conflict, and both should be present in your novel.

  • Internal Conflict
  • External Conflict

Internal conflict is the dilemma facing the character inside and its impact on that character. Writers typically choose internal conflicts that arouse a universal emotion in people.

External conflict is the depicted events the character encounters as obstacles during the course of the novel.

The best "author tip" on handling conflict I know: Find the main character's Achilles' heel (the root source of his/her internal conflict) and stomp it (external conflict).

See, the characters have holes in their lives. Some experience that they have endured has left them scarred. (IMHO, no one reaches puberty without being emotionally scarred in some way.) That's their vulnerability, and it's their vulnerability that they must confront as a direct result of what happens to them in the novel. The resolution to that confrontation--constructive, destructive, successful or not--is the venue of showing character growth.

Character growth is essential. If nothing in the story forces the character to see something in a new light, to confront their worst fear or greatest personal challenges, then there is no conflict and no character growth. The character is the same person at the end of the novel as at the beginning. If the character remains the same, why tell the story? The reader is robbed of satisfaction.

An example from All Due Respect:

The male protagonist was a victim of abuse.

At four, whenever his father started on his mother, the boy was charged with the responsibility of getting out of the house and calling the police.

At six, he couldn't get out--couldn't find the key to the deadbolt lock, and his mother died.

He carries that guilt as an adult. He didn't commit the abuse, but he failed in his responsibility to save his mother. His father was imprisoned, and the boy was put into foster care. Twenty homes in twelve years. He learned not to need anyone. Not to depend on anyone. He became self-sufficient, self-contained. He became isolated and distant. That's the root source of his internal conflict.

In the external conflict he can't do what needs to be done alone. If he tries and fails, millions of innocents will die. He needs help from another scientist he'd give anything to avoid because she threatens his self-sufficiency. So the external conflict mirrors the internal conflict.

We understand the decisions he makes overtly in the novel because we understand the complexity of his internal conflict. Both drive the story. What he hates most, fears most, is exactly what he must face. He has to confront his darkest demons. The catalyst that most helps him isnít the other scientist, it's a six-year-old boy, who has suffered abuse and yet opens his heart to love this man. From the child's courage, the man grows, because he comes to understand that what he needs is what he's been so adamantly denying in his life: freedom to live and love. That in denying love a place in his life and heart, he is denying the value of one of life's greatest treasures. He's denying life respect.

Now, some writers don't use internal and external conflicts that mirror or echo each other. They use disassociated challenges. They'll select conflicts that bring out different aspects of that character. But even then, there is a correlation. One impacts the other, drives the character to behave in specific ways, to respond to events in a certain manner. While I've seen this successfully done, I have to say that it doesn't work as well for me. I think the reason is that I'm an extremely subjective writer. This disassociated method of handling conflict works best for extremely objective writers.

In subjective writing, the author has to be inside the character's mind, heart, and soul. In objective writing, the author is more distanced, does more relating with less of the writer's opinions, thoughts, and desires manifesting in the work. If looking for specific genres, you'd be more apt to find objective writing in mysteries and true crime. Subjective in romance, inspirational, and many psychological thrillers/suspense novels.

Every writer should determine whether they are subjective or objective, because when you're one and you write in the other, you're usually violating your author theme, and that creates challenges for you.

As mentioned often, conflict is the spine of the novel. It has to be strong enough to sustain. Gary Provost, whom I greatly admire for his work on craft, used the analogy of a character having a hole or flaw in his/her character.

Breaking down the novel, it would look something like this:

In the beginning, the character has a hole in them (an emptiness or a flaw) caused by a bad experience. (A fear, lack of fulfillment, a broken spirit issue).

In the novel, the character fights the demons created in that bad experience, faces obstacles created that impact that experience. Obstacles that grow greater and more difficult to overcome (raised stakes) as the novel progresses.

By story's end, the conflicts are all resolved--first the smaller conflicts, which lead the character to address the inner conflict (and see it in a new way, find a constructive solution) that corrects the flaw or fills the hole.

Then, equipped with new knowledge, strength, gained by the resolution of the inner conflict, the character is then able to resolve the largest conflict.

It's important to note that a character typically has multiple conflicts to resolve. Goals change during the course of the novel. New information or insight alters motivations and goals and lead to new conflicts and new potential solutions.

Let's say a mentor is guiding the protagonist. But during the course of the novel, the protagonist learns that the mentor has not been honest. That something the mentor told the protagonist to motivate him to act decisively--and to act right now--proves untrue. This changes the protagonist's view of the challenge. It alters his or her perspective and changes the goal from A to B. It also injects additional conflict. Betrayed by a trusted friend, the mentor, the protagonist must discover what motivated that betrayal.

I'm mentioning this because what drives a character changes as the character changes, and that usually happens throughout the novel, not in one scene, or with one incident. Cause and effect, action and reaction play key roles in fostering change and in facilitating conflict.

Remember the three essentials in conflict: no misunderstandings, no convoluted logic for convenience sake, and no insignificant roots.

Conflict at its best is strong. Itís complex to that specific character, logical and motivated, and of consequence.

Vicki Hinze © 2003

Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Visit her website at:



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