Conflict: Physical, Character, and Self

As a writer, one of the things you are going to come up against is conflict. If you really intend to drive your story forward, there will need to be some sort of conflict; it’s essential to the growth of the characters and to the movement of the plot. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not all about physical conflict. According to there are multiple definitions for conflict. Some of these include:

  • To come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash.
  • To fight or contend; do battle.
  • discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interest or principles: a conflict of ideas.
  • a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.

Including more than one form of conflict into your story will add depth, emotional connection, and it will help you create a 3D world for your reader to connect with.

a group of people all fighting one another, screaming and yelling in facesPhysical Conflict

  • To fight or contend; do battle.

When conflict comes up in the conversation, your mind may immediately jump to physical conflict. I know mine does. Physical conflict can come in a million different forms. Battles fought on the battlefield are one example. Physical aggression from one character to another is a second example. I’ve written both; personally, I find-one-on one aggression much easier, but that’s beside the point.

When you have physical conflict in your novel you open up the space for us to see how your character responds under stress. It can be a small window into the principles that govern the character because their reaction is driven by the conflict as much as it is driven by their values. To share what I mean, consider a battle on the battlefield. Your main character may be a general in the army. How does he react during the battle? Is he level-headed and quick to see what needs to be done? Or is he a loose cannon that got to this position because he takes action, sometimes without thinking? Both may be effective, but both give us an idea of two very different men.

The same principle applies for one-on-one conflict. The stories I have written to this point call for one-on-one conflict. They call for a test of the physical and mental attributes of my characters, and there is a reason for them. In my experience, one-on-one conflict gives the opportunity for characters to show up in a new way. In some cases they’ll experience growth. In other cases, anger might show up. Regardless, it’s an opportunity for us to see another side, something new that may not have been present before. Basically, physical conflict keeps the story in action while offering you the opportunity to show who your characters are. Is it necessary for every novel? No, but if your novel calls for it, it’s a great opportunity to develop your characters.

Character Conflict

  • Discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interest or principles: a conflict of ideas.

Another way to add or create conflict in a novel is to create two characters who oppose one another in their ideals. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen created this conflict within both of the main characters. Elizabeth and Darcy were completely at conflict in their ideals about how the world should run, how people should operate, and about who the other was. In order to come together as a duo, they had to deal with this conflict of ideals and come to see the world through a different view. They had to expand and grow, otherwise their relationship could never have developed. This type of conflict is brilliant because it forces your characters to either look at the world through a different lens, or to dig in their heels and really stand in why their ideal is the best. Either way, there is character development and your reader gets to experience what is truly important to the people you have created.

A conflict of ideals can also come up in two or more character views of how somebody or something should be done. Consider a man and wife. This occurs constantly in the world now. The man and wife have a conflict of ideals, strife builds, anger erupts, and they either come to terms on the conflict and find a way to look at the other side, or the anger gets pushed down until it can erupt again. They’re simply disagreeing on how they think things should operate, but it creates conflict. In a novel, this conflict is what moves the story.

Self Conflict

  • a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.

The conflict of self may be my favorite form of conflict, not because it’s easy to write but because it’s where you get the biggest window into the mental world of the character. I personally believe people fall in love with characters because somewhere along the way they connect with them; they saw themselves in the character. This is done through the Self conflict. An example of this type of conflict include Katniss Everdeen, who basically resists her own thoughts and experiences through the entire series. Her commitment is clear to the reader, but her experience of it is clouded, and it shows up in conflict of Self.

Another great example of Self conflict can be found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Near the beginning of the novel, Uncle Tom is sold to a slave trader. He is sold out of necessity, and in the conversation with his master it is revealed that the master does not want to sell him but feels he has no choice. He also feels that something isn’t right about it, although he never does figure out why. After selling Tom, the master tells the trader to make sure he ends up with a home that will treat him well. The trader basically responds by saying that Tom is his and he will sell him where he will. Uncle Tom’s master had a conflict of Self that ultimately decided the fate of one man. We see the conflict, we see the result, and we get a glimpse into the character of the master because of it. We discover where his commitment is, and where he’s willing to let integrity and values slide to honor that commitment.

Consider a dojo, or a martial arts practice hall. In these spaces conflict is required, it’s part of the process. But, to quote the E-Myth, “the true combat in a dojo is not between one person and another as most people believe it to be. The true combat in a martial arts practice hall is between the people within ourselves.” When you give the character an opportunity to experience this conflict in his or her ideals, in his view of himself, or in his view of another, you are offering him the opportunity to see the world anew. His experience changes, his mentality changes, and he grows. Your reader gets to experience this with him and as a result, your reader may grow as well.┬áConflict is a gift we give to our characters and ourselves.


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