Don’t you hate people for whom everything comes easily, or seems to? Everything goes smoothly for them, they never have any glitches, and if they do they always know the right person to call or where to seek answers. Those of us who struggle with the daily details of life resent them.
Of course, you could argue that there are probably hidden areas of their lives that are seething with conflict. And here lies interest. As in real life, conflict in a story shows character, in how your protagonist reacts to it and how he handles it.
Ashley is the protagonist in your imaginary novel. She is pretty, accomplished, has a loving boyfriend named Garth and a wonderful family. She sees her parents regularly, she and her siblings get along, and she has a well-paying and engaging career (insert fabulous job here). Everything is perfect. If Ashley goes through the novel without any of these details changing, the reader will fall asleep. Ashley is boring. Ashley could also be described as author wish fulfillment. Either way, who wants to read about someone whose life is perfect?
Something has to happen for Ashley to keep the reader’s interest. Something she holds dear must be threatened. Her boyfriend could break up with her. Is that enough? Well, it might be, if it drives her to change her life somehow or she meets someone more dramatic, as in a women’s fiction or romance tome. In a thriller or mystery, her boyfriend could kill or be framed for killing her parents. She could stand by him and poof, there goes the job and the siblings. How will Ashley find her way out of this dilemma? Fantasy or horror could find Ashley fighting monsters from a parallel dimension who threaten her perfect life, a zombie serial killer or aliens taking over her town.
Each scene must lead to more conflict or the reader won’t care about Ashley anymore. You must set up the character so that the reader will believe she is capable of handling the conflict and won’t simply fall apart. She should have some lurking problem area where her reaction will let us know her better.
In Robert R. McCammon’s 1990 novel Mine, the pregnant protagonist Laura is concerned about her struggling marriage. She hopes the new baby will bring her and her distant husband together again. The character begins the novel with conflict already in place. Laura isn’t sure what to do about her husband, but she knows her baby will have all of her even if he doesn’t have his father. McCammon gets to explore Laura here, and we can see her personality, her doubts and her fears about the future.
Back to Ashley. Say you take the thriller/mystery angle. Perhaps you could set up some uncertainty with Garth, or with his relationship to her parents. Maybe the parents don’t like him, but Ashley knows he is a good man. Her faith in his integrity presents a problem later.
Ashley comes home from her job one day to find Garth in her apartment, covered with blood. He runs out the door and vanishes. The police come and tell her that her parents are dead, killed with a knife that has Garth’s fingerprints all over it. From there begins the character’s quest to clear her boyfriend’s name and find the real killer. How will she do that?
Because you took the time to establish doubt about Garth’s integrity earlier, the conflict has more legs. Ashley will not only have to search for her parents’ killer, but fight the harsh attitude of her siblings, who may believe Garth actually did kill them. Why else would he run?
The search for a killer and a man’s innocence will work fine by itself in a mystery. In a straight thriller, you might have to ramp up the conflict and make it more dangerous. In Mine, for example, Laura’s baby is kidnapped from the hospital. Unfortunately for her, it’s not an ordinary barren woman who takes little David, but a deadly fugitive radical named Mary Terror, who is following her hallucinations to her former lover and the leader of their now-defunct underground group, baby in tow. The life of Laura’s child is in jeopardy, a powerful motivator. Desperate to find her son, she takes it on herself to follow Mary and the action begins.
Laura has to grow to meet her challenge. She finds herself doing things she never imagined she could do. The errant and useless husband is discarded. The only focus she has now is to find her baby. Along the way, numerous problems arise that add to her frustration and fear, and keep the stakes high.
Keep the conflict moving. If Ashley could walk out the door, find a mysterious letter that clears Garth’s name and turn it in to the police, then the story would be over. It helps sometimes to think in terms of a film adaptation; since film has to get to the bare bones of the story quickly, extraneous asides are often eliminated. You can use this as an exercise to draw out the conflict and keep it focused. Ashley could start getting mysterious hang-up calls, and her car might be disabled, or her life threatened as she gets closer to discovering who killed her parents and why. If you build on the original conflict and thwart her repeatedly as she goes, she will have to think laterally to get around obstacles and change to meet the new challenges. This will keep the reader engaged in her plight.
And don’t forget to give her a reason to keep going, like Laura saving her baby. Could she begin to have doubts about Garth herself? Sure, if it will make the story more interesting. But something should happen to convince her that he is innocent, and that he needs her help. Otherwise she might give up entirely and move on. The reader probably wouldn’t buy that; he/she would want to know everything and if you don’t deliver, you’ve lost a reader.
You should give Garth some face time as well. His conflicts will allow you to introduce the villain who framed him and provide a link to Ashley through that character or the difficulties he/she sets up for her. Weave a web of intrigue for her to navigate. Let her save, or try to save, her boyfriend. How it ends is up to you.
Whether your character’s conflicts are internal or external or a mixture of both, every scene you write must drive the resolution of that conflict. If you prefer to have your character acted upon, make sure you have a good reason for it. Most thriller readers prefer a protagonist who helps himself, but in the right story, a victim can make an engaging character provided she has some degree of autonomy. Even if Ashley does fall apart, she has to make decisions sooner or later, even if they’re bad ones. In literary fiction, a helpless approach might work if you’re exploring your character’s inner life. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber’s character did nothing in the real world, but in his mind was a daring and brave adventurer.
Give your character stuff to do. Her actions and how she deals with conflict will establish her as a well-rounded person. If you have noticed any good examples of conflict you would like to share, please note them in the comments.