Where Does Conflict Come From In Fiction?

Where Does Conflict Come From In Fiction?


In this post, we’ll look at why we need conflict when we write and we’ll answer the question: Where does conflict come from in fiction?

We’ve all been told time and again that conflict is fiction, but we’re rarely given more of an explanation after that. It is true, conflict is what drives our stories and make the readers turn the page, but what is it and where exactly does it come from?

Why Do You Need It?

1. For Character Growth:

We read stories to experience a different world, a different life. We want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We want this experience to be multidimensional. We want to experience new emotions, deal with new challenges, and try something different. We want to do this through a character we are invested in. A character who seems real and isn’t a cardboard cut-out. Conflict does that for us.

Characters change and grow when they are forced, or choose, to confront situations that challenge them. They resolve their inner conflict by overcoming the outer conflict. How they react to challenges and opportunities will also help to show who your characters are.

Think about all the changes you would like your character to go through. Make a list. What conflict will result in that change?

2. To Advance The Plot:

Readers want to read stories that have exciting events. Your characters need to stuff to do. The story goal and the resulting scene goals will give you action scenes. Readers love action scenes full of conflict. They move the plot forward. A story about a guy sitting on the couch will be a challenge to sustain for 80 000 words.

Conflict is what will make it harder or easier for your character to achieve their story goal. It is this conflict that will carry you through the challenging middle of the story. Think about everything that the conflict entails and brainstorm scenes around your character.

Where Does Conflict Come From In Fiction?

A. Set It Up:

We start our story with an inciting moment. This is a moment of change. This change that occurs in the characters life should result in a story goal. That goal is opposed by the antagonist. This reversal of desires results in conflict.

The word conflict is confusing. It creates the impression that we are dealing with violence, physical altercations, and screaming matches. Although those all do qualify as conflict, conflict is more than that.

B. Primary Source Of Conflict:

I would encourage you to use the antagonist as your primary source of conflict. Remember the antagonist does not have to be an evil, axe-wielding serial killer. They are simply the character who opposes the goal. For example: if your characters are married and the one character wants to have a baby and the other does not, they are in opposition to each other’s story goal. That is where your conflict comes from, but that is not the only source.

C. Other Sources Of Conflict:

From The Inside:

Besides the antagonist the character is always ‘their own worst enemy’. This is what is called ‘inner conflict.’ This is the character’s own faults they must overcome, for example, lack of confidence, facing fears, or self-sabotage. They overcome this by surviving the outer conflict.

From The Outside:

Readers, however like ‘outer conflict’, because that is where the action happens. We want to see a character getting off the couch and going to out to save the world, befriend the dragon, get the job or the guy, or win the prize.

Besides the antagonist you can use setting, pace, sub-plot, dialogue, and other characters as sources of conflict.

  1. Setting As A Source Of Conflict: In a previous post, I spoke about setting as a source of conflict. Setting is a big part of any story and can help your characters or make it very difficult for them.
  2. Pacing As A Source Of Conflict: You can use pace as tool to add tension and conflict to your story. Think about time constraints in movies. A bomb counting down, a deadline for a newspaper story, a presentation, a wedding date. Think about the duration of your story and how you can limit the time to complicate it for your characters.
  3. Sub-plot As A Source Of Conflict: We use sub-plots to show that our characters have full lives and that the story isn’t one dimensional. How can you use those sub-plots to complicate your main story line? Think about your character’s past, their secrets – remember that trip to Vegas – what do they want to hide and how will it affect the story.
  4. Other Characters As A Source Of Conflict: Which characters are complicating the story? Who is encouraging them to be better, who is trying to change their mind? Who is delaying them so that they are late? Who shares your character’s life and how do they feel about the main character’s story goal?
  5. Dialogue As A Source Of Conflict: One of the easiest ways to introduce conflict in a scene is to make your character say something they shouldn’t. There are so many ways dialogue can help you. Your characters can reveal secrets, lie, joke, tease, argue or nag. These are tools that will add to the conflict.
  6. Viewpoint As A Source Of Conflict: Readers usually trust the narrator of a story, but viewpoint is so beautifully nuanced that you can have lots of fun with it. The point of view of the main character or narrator can be manipulated to give the reader a false impression or a one-sided impression of events.

The Last Word

Be careful of adding conflict for conflict’s sake. Your character must have a main goal and most of the conflict should relate to that goal. I hope this post will help you add lots of relevant conflict to your story.

Suggested Extra Reading:

  1. The Craft Of Not-So-Subtle Conflict In Fiction
  2. The Art Of Subtle Conflict In Fiction

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

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Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.