One of the main pursuits of any writer is story conflict. The old saw tells us, “no conflict, no story,” so we’re always chasing after this little friction-causing engine. But as with so many things in writing, sometimes concentrating on the thing itself ends with us missing the forest for the trees.
Story conflict is all hard, confrontational, poky edges. Even the word itself is poky, with its hard c and t sounds and the visually jabbing f right there at its core. It’s anything but warm and cuddly—and why would we want it to be? It’s conflict! It’s angry eyes across the dinner table. It’s broken dreams. It’s napalm in the morning.
That’s the stuff of story conflict. That’s the driving force of great plots everywhere.
But, by itself, it will always fall flat. You will never reach your goal of writing gripping and intense story conflict if you haven’t first discovered a reason to make your conflict matter to readers.
That reason is empathy.
Your Ultimate Story Conflict Checklist
Let’s take a moment to consider the important factors that must be present to create worthwhile conflict in your story.
First of all, just dismiss the notion that conflict is two people fighting.
Nope, conflict is about the opposing forces of goal and obstacle. You don’t have to have two armies to get conflict; you can get it just from a man trying to figure out how to clean a stain off his shirt.
Still, most conflict in fiction will take the form of two human beings opposing each other. One or both of those human beings has a goal, and the opposing human being (the opponent) will be presenting an obstacle to that goal.
When Bob Wallace in White Christmas wants to go to New York to promote his show, while his partner Phil Davis points at his bum arm and guilts him into going to the skiing lodge in Vermont instead—that’s a goal obstructed by another goal. That’s conflict.
But who cares?
Who cares if two people want different things? Bob wants to go to New York; Phil wants to go to Vermont; all God’s children want to go Hawaii. So what?
That is the question! That “what” is the entire key to making your story conflict so incredibly fascinating and engaging readers will be every bit as invested in your characters’ goal as they are.
The Warm and Gushy Heart of Story Conflict
Whenever you think of conflict, the first images and emotions that pop to mind are likely the harsh connotations we talked about in the opening.
Disagreements, arguments, fights, brawls, battles, wars.
But now it’s time to stop thinking of conflict in those terms.
Those terms aren’t incorrect, but they’re only half the picture. For the moment, stop thinking about conflict altogether, and instead give a thought to empathy. What new connotations spring to mind?
Love, perhaps. Relatability. Understanding. Sympathy.
Sounds pretty warm and gushy to be mentioned anywhere in the vicinity of conflict, doesn’t it?
But without empathy, your conflict will be a meaningless shell. Readers will have zero reason to invest in your characters’ desires and actions.
We often think of conflict as being the “interesting” part of a story. Conflict makes things happen, and when things happen readers pay attention. Right?
In an October 2016 interview with The Writer, Author Guild president Roxana Robinson noted:
Empathy animates connection and creates engagement. Empathy is the true engine of writing; without it, conflict is empty: It doesn’t matter to the reader if two people fight and you don’t care about them. It’s empathy that draws you, the reader, and me, the writer, into their hearts.
Have you ever picked up a novel that dumped you into a Code Red firefight right from the first sentence? Exciting stuff! The author was obviously doing his best to suck readers in with an exciting hook. But all by itself, that electric opening conflict is just as likely as not to fall flat.
Because at that point in the story, it’s just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Readers don’t know the characters and have no reason to care about the stakes. At that point, they might just as well root for the antagonist as the protagonist, for all they know or care about these people.
5 Ways to Jack Up Your Story Conflict With Empathy
How can you create the kind of empathy that will make your story conflict matter to readers?
Short answer is it all comes down to characters.
Create characters readers care about, and you can bet readers will also care deeply about the conflict those characters are engaging in.
The heart of empathy is relatability. Readers must be able to see a little of themselves in the characters, to put themselves in the characters’ shoes. When they do that, they will care. Why? Because, in essence, they will now be caring about that little part of themselves.
Here are five specific questions you can ask on your way to crafting rich and deep characters who will draw readers into empathizing with their conflicts.
1. What Is Your Character’s Motive?
I’m often asked, “How I can make readers like my character even when he’s maybe doing some pretty bad stuff?”
It always comes down to the character’s motive. Why is he doing what he’s doing?
Take over the world just because I’m a total psycho and it sounds like fun? Erm, not so relatable.
But: Backstab my best friend to get in with the cool kids? Ah, yes, most of us can at least relate to the emotions, desires, and pains that would spark such an idea.
For Example: The reason we care about Bob and Phil’s classic conflict in White Christmas is because we understand Phil’s motivations. He wants Bob to find a girl and get married because he’s “a lonely, miserable, unhappy man” (and also because Phil wants forty-five minutes all to himself). Currently, Phil may be the one making Bob miserable, but his heart is in the right place and we love him for it.
2. What Is Your Character’s Goal?
If motives were horses, beggars would take over the kingdom. Or… something like that.
The point is your character’s motives cannot live in isolation. It’s not enough for your characters to sit around having good (or bad) thoughts about something they’d like to do. Doesn’t matter how relatable a motivation is, readers won’t care a nickel about it until the character actually acts on it.
For Example: When Luke Skywalker sets out to save Han and Leia from Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, it isn’t just his honorable motivation that invests us in the conflict. We also care deeply about the goal itself. We’re interested in the forward momentum of it (he’s doing something about his desire), and we’re also invested in its outcome—and thus the obstacles and conflict Vader throws in Luke’s way.
3. How Does Your Character’s Interiority Present Him?
In a novel, you have the added benefit of drawing readers to your characters through the internal narrative. The deeper the narrative, the deeper you can pull readers directly into the brain of your protagonist. Readers get to experience life right alongside the character. They eat, sleep, and breathe with him. They become him.
This is the great cathartic power of fiction. The ability to relate and care about an imaginary personage as deeply as we do about ourselves is why we read in the first place.
For Example: As the author, you get to use every word of the narrative to craft an interiority that draws readers into the realism of your character’s world and reactions. In Milena McGraw’s literary war epic After Dunkirk, she writes from the protagonist’s perspective:
And I . . . stank. Of fear: past, present, and future. (I’d stopped noticing it long before, of course; but they … they wrinkled their noses.) Stale sweat . . . that sort of thing. And my shirtsleeves: clammy with my blood, of course. (Snip, snip. Skillful! Well trained!: the medicos, the Germans. They’d cut my shirtsleeves; then they bandaged me. Now what was left of my sleeves: the blood was drying. And blood has got a stench all its own.) I tried to look dignified . . . Pain.
4. How Do Your Character’s Relationships Affect the Conflict?
Readers love characters not just for who they are, but also because other characters also love them (or, sometimes, fail to love them). Relationships are the driving force of all fiction, and, indeed, of most conflict itself. The deeper and more poignant (or ironic) the relationship between two characters, the more we care about the conflicts arising between them.
For Example: The catalyst of the true conflict in Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller Mystic River isn’t so much the murder of the main character’s daughter, but rather the warped but enduring bonds between him and his two childhood best friends. Without the backstory between these three characters, the story’s conflict becomes mechanical and ceases to matter.
5. What Is at Stake for Your Character?
All of the above elements work together to build the final ingredient in convincing readers to care about your conflict: the stakes. Once readers care about your characters and their goals, they will necessarily care about what those characters stand to lose.
But for that to work, the characters must first stand to lose something. What is at stake in your story? What happens if your character is permanently stymied by the conflict’s obstacles and fails to reach his goal? The worse the consequences, the more invested readers will be in the outcome.
For Example: In Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedy Arsenic & Old Lace, protagonist Mortimer Brewster’s failure presents two possible outcomes—either his beloved aunts will be arrested as serial killers, or they’ll remain free to continue their mercy killings of old men. The stakes are as insane as the characters—and viewers haven’t been able to look away for seventy years.
Empathy is the grease in your conflict’s cogs. Without it, the whole machine grinds to a halt. But if you’ve properly oiled every aspect of your story conflict, readers will care deeply about your characters’ altercations, goals, failures, and perhaps, finally, their successes.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What will make readers empathize with your story conflict? Tell me in the comments!
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