A bare-knuckle, heart-pounding, intense fistfight. A frail, tiny girl standing on stage in front of faceless thousands. The high-speed adrenaline rush of a car chase, or the heartbreaking silence of a couple in the midst of a personal feud. Finding a roadblock in your neighborhood, or the ticking clock of a bomb doomed to level a city. Throughout this broad range of scenarios, one thing is common: the element of conflict.
Conflict is the backbone of every story ever told. Compare these two tales:
Now, why was the second story more engaging than the first? It’s a simple, almost obvious answer: humans crave conflict in all its forms. Conflict is how each and every one of us has gotten to the position we are at, both individually and as a species. Humanity has overcome everything life throws at us, from predators to natural disasters. Even you, the reader, might have suffered through a hard class or a family crisis, coming out intact. These conflicts make up the stories of our lives, shaping who we are as people. And, in a novel, they are necessary to shaping who our characters are as people.
Many teachers or literary scholars will try to create labels to define conflict. You’ve heard these terms before in your english classes: man vs nature, man vs society, man vs. self, etc. But, these categories don’t necessarily explain how these conflicts work, instead classifying them in terms of genre convention.
I prefer to think of conflict as a single entity, a predictable one at that, but one who wears many different masks. Conflict’s main goal is to make life as difficult as possible for our protagonist. On the other hand, our protagonist’s main goal is to overcome the conflict however they can. Part of the joy of Conflict’s life is the struggle, because he doesn’t consider it fun unless the protagonist is actively fighting back. A hopeless, pessimistic protagonist is boring to read about, because it doesn’t seem realistic to most people. Regardless of how we act in real life, each of us likes to believe that, if we were put in the same situation, we would try to escape it. When we find a protagonist that feels the same, we see ourselves in them, and we start to empathize with their journey.
Conflict is not particular about the specifics of his attacks against the protagonist, and often manifests in many forms, each affecting a different aspect of our protagonist. The protagonist might face a main conflict against a powerful tyrant, but also face personal conflict from his family, his loved ones, or even himself. Think of Hamlet. The titular character faces opposition from Claudius, his uncle who has taken the crown following Hamlet Senior’s untimely demise. While many look at this as the most obvious conflict, Hamlet is also forced to stifle his love for his romantic interest Ophelia and wrestles with his own indecisiveness, a fatal flaw. The ways Hamlet deals with these issues reveal more about him as a person, a pattern we must follow in our own stories. The more conflicts a character faces, the more insight we gain into them as people.
By the end of the novel, the conflict must be resolved in a satisfying way, usually as a result of the climax. By the end of the second tale, the conflict was established, but the protagonist had not overcome the problem. When the man wakes up from his jelly-induced coma, the author must decide how he (the character) will recover from his wounds and keep going in his quest to create his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Is this a story of a man overcoming the struggles his world throws at him? Will it be a cautionary tale about how the deliciousness of a PB&J corrupts the good-hearted and virtuous?
It is up to you to decide.
Do you have specific questions about conflict that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 2/27 may not be answered.