The Elusive Conflict—or why can’t they talk it out?

There are many misconceptions about conflict. In our world of writing romance, a classic conflict is considered to be between two people with opposing deep-seated beliefs. The famous character arc is built upon the premise that two people in an impending relationship will change and grow, overcoming their internal beliefs, and cement their relationship at the end as the committed couple we want them to be.

There is a problem with this kind of tunnel thinking.

It leaves out all of the other delicious conflict that flickers between humans.

Delicious conflict?


Where? How? No one sent me the memo! (The frustrated writer cries into her….)

Conflict One

The conflict between men and women is as old as the two sexes. THEY DON’T THINK ALIKE. This bypasses the character arc altogether as it has nothing to do with learned issues. Here’s an example: The relationship is new. The guy wants to hold on to the newness and surround the woman. He is enthralled with the wonder of it. He is thinking on the here and now and maybe the next hour. He’s on short time. The woman asks him if she should book her vacation time to match his—three months away. He looks stunned. She immediately asks him if he thinks the relationship is a one night stand. He looks stunned and says something like no. She wanted reassurance that there is a real relationship building and not merely lust or fun—something more. Women think in long time. At the stunned look on his face, they end up in a tiff with her saying something like ‘I’m fine’. However, the tight jaw and clipped words don’t match. Everyone, including him, knows, she ain’t fine. He’s in trouble and with experience with women, he will conclude that is a trap that women set. She will conclude that men are only looking for one thing. Many promising relationships get shot in the head at this stage. This is conflict and it can last between two people for quite a while. Will it carry the entire book? No. But it can be a crucial element adding depth to a story. Friends and family of the character can weigh in on this one too.

Conflict Two

Family. Everyone has some. Some have a lot. A soldier has his buddies. Those are family too. Their needs, wants, desires, and unwelcome interference—sometimes by their mere presence or absence can cause conflict. Babies in books are a popular theme. They too cause conflict. Whose baby is it? When was it made? Is the other person going to cause difficulty? How about a loving interfering mother or as in some popular books, the grandparents causing our character’s grief? Suppose a dad won’t let a daughter become part of the family business—like chasing bail jumpers. She decides to start her own firm. Conflict with family can be loving, annoying, judgmental, violent, or even cold. None of which changes a character’s internal belief, necessarily, but adds dimension and color to a story.

Conflict Three

Money. Everyone has some. Some have much. Some have little. However, the attitudes surrounding money can add conflict. For example, maybe our hero/heroine has been taught all their life to attain a certain position in the family firm. Deviation from the plan means there is no money. Conflict comes as the characters try to figure out how to keep, hold, make, steal, give, or burn money. Money comes in many forms—cash, bonds, stocks, land, machinery, etc. This too has nothing necessarily to do with internal story arcing.

Conflict Four

Job. Everyone has a position in this world. Whether it pays a salary or like a herdsman grows his flock, a job is what a person does. Even volunteering, although payless, is a job. People not only have opinions about those, but also have to do them. Doing isn’t necessarily a part of the character arc, but it offers problems in delivery. A cattleman cannot leave during a snowstorm to attend something. As soon as possible he has to hunt his herd down. Finding all of them, feed and water them, as well as bring them home. It doesn’t matter how he feels about his job. He has to do it. Jobs conflict with people all the time.

Conflict Five

The villain. No character arc there. The villain gets to do or think what he likes to mess up the plans of others.

Conflict Six

Nature. Forest fire. Snow storm. Flood. Desert. Rock falls. Sunburn. Boat sinking. No amount of character arcing is going to affect these little babies one iota. Don’t think this is conflict? How the characters fight and overcome these obstacles is the nature of these conflicts—same as overcoming other issues.

Conflict Seven

Animals. You could consider them nature I guess, but a snake or spider in the right place seems different. Horse stompings, pigs running amok, attack dogs, spitting lamas, you name it, things can be quite a mess. Then there is the dog shelter where twelve dogs need attention. New kittens are found in a guy’s back seat when he left the window down on his corvette overnight. Baby skunks under the house. You haven’t see conflict until you’ve tried to wash honey off a cat in a shower. They can climb tile. Been there, got the scars to prove it.

Conflict Eight

Paperwork. The world runs on records. Suppose your character isn’t who the records say they are. That is another hurtle to face. Suppose the records say your character is two people?

Conflict Nine

Clothes. Tell me you haven’t heard about how she doesn’t think he owns anything without a hole in it. Tell me you haven’t heard about how he thinks that she shouldn’t dress in such see-through blouses now that she’s dating him. Yet clothes and how we feel about them is so basic this one is often overlooked.

Ok, I’m stopping here. There are conflicts all around us. Keep your eyes and ears open. Some of you will think these are plot devices. Conflict is conflict. None of these issues are going to be solved just because the hero and heroine sit down to talk about it. These conflicts aren’t going to go away just because a character took a growth spurt in his character arc. They aren’t large, but can be emotional. Some of these conflicts and how the characters react to them are strong enough to carry a story. Others can be small enough to add flavor or variety to stories, adding interest to those sagging middle pages.

My personal opinion is that there is no such thing as a character arc. Did I hear gasps? I think people do not grow and change. I believe that whatever is in a character or person is there all along and circumstances come along to reveal the hidden parts of a character. These hidden parts are usually hidden from the character. We never know, until we are tested, what is in us. This opinion is not the current norm in writing romances.

More on conflict can be found at Wikipedia.

You might like to use this little fun thing to discover your own or your character’s conflict style.

Happy conflicting.


Roxann Delaney said...

All but maybe Conflict 1 are exernal conflict. (I just saw the exact mini-scene in a movie.) As Harlequin American author Susan Meier said recently, external conflict is what drives internal conflict. I'll add that it can be past or present.

In romance, we concentrate on the internal conflict. External is explained as the story moves along. (see Reese's Backstory Dumps, Top Heavy Writers) It's the "why", the motivation for the character. Goals can change as the story grows because the motivation and conflict change.

Throwing in an animal (Conflict 7) can definitely add to the conflict, as would any of the ones you listed, Nina. In fact, I used horses in The Rodeo Rider. But it wasn't "horses" that were the conflict. The heroine was afraid of riding again after a serious riding accident when she was young. The hero was a rodeo bronc rider. As she grew to love him, her fear of him getting hurt began to grow along with it.

I used Nature as a mini conflict in Bachelor Cowboy. The same stranded the heroine with the hero in Rachel's Rescuer, and there's no way to talk out a snowstorm. --grin--

Great list, Nina!!!

Joan Vincent said...

I love the deliniation of the conflicts. A line up of external can lead to the internal conflicts which are powerful because they make the character examine and re-examine values and truths they may have held since childhood. No one -- we or our characters grow without conflict. Just like Nina said we don't know what hidden strengths or weaknesses we have or our characters have until we/they are tested. The results then can run from the gamut from to extraordinary to horrifying. Strong conflict equals a strong story.

Starla Kaye said...

Nice list of conflicts with examples. True, most of those listed were external conflicts by themselves. But each of them can also become internal conflicts if you go into how those external conflicts affect the character(s).

Roxann Delaney said...

Starla, you said that so much more simply than I did. :)

Jeannie said...

Another bang up post, Nina. Conflict is the heart of any story, of course, but your idea that characters don't change only reveal hidden aspects of themselves is worth thinking about.

I intend to check out those links you listed. I'm always open to new ways to throw those rocks at those characters up in that tree.

Cats, honey and showers. Sounds like a prescription for disaster. From your words, tile isn't the only thing they can climb...

Nina Sipes said...

Thanks everyone for not hanging me a dawn. I've had several people ask me about my character arcs and my conflicts. It took me forever and listening to conference tapes to finally figure out that my characters do have conflicts that are spawned by their situations. And everyone has a situation to deal with as well as that new love interest. I rested well that night. Unlike the night I tried to wash the honey off the cat. You see the shower has one of those hose head thingies and I thought it would be ok to strip down and get in the shower with the cat and then turn on the water and wash the cat, dry the cat, and finish washing the shower down. All went as planned (5 seconds), when I turned on the water. The hiss of the water is what got the cat going, I think. I had her in my arms when I reached for the water valve. That cat went wild, I started to yell, but decided quickly that wasn't going to help. I poked a hand out the door through a crack and grabbed a bath sheet and then tackled the cat as she made another attempt for my head. So, there I was, sans clothing, tossing a honey covered cat out the back door--towel and all. (Sometimes it is lucky I live 15 miles from town.) I went back to bleed in the shower and remove honey from my person. I decided the shower could wait until another day for a full scrub and got out to bandage myself up. The cat lived. I have no idea how she removed the honey. I lived, but now I'm afraid of being confined in a shower with a cat.

Roxann Delaney said...

Tsk, tsk, Nina, on the cat. LOL They DO NOT like water, but I guess you know that now.

Conflict was always hard for me to figure out. I could never differentiate between external and internal in my feeble little mind. Even Deb Dixon's GMC and Elizabeth Sinclair's The Dreaded Synopsis, which also deals with it, could get my head screwed on straight. It took years for me to get a clue and was finally the tape of Naomi Horton's The Heart of the Love Story that started moving me in the direction of understanding.

Which doesn't mean I still don't struggle with it. I do. I probably always will, but I keep working on it.

Becky A said...

Ah Miss Nina,

You always give great food for thought but now I am so conflicted about getting another cat! Do I or don't I, oh the agony. (dramatic sigh)

And I hate to create more conflict but my son has a cat that gets in the tub with the kids. Weird but true, he likes water.

I also believe that we do not fully know what is in us until we are tested but I also believe that we can grow and change through those experiences. Our understanding of the world, people and life will change and most of us grow with that knowledge.

"When I was a child . . ."

Thanks for all the great ideas, Becky

Becky A said...

PS: You do realize that there will now be books written that contain a woman in the shower with a cat. Both covered in honey and screams ripping through the air.
If it's a horror book it will include the blood and scratches. If it's racy it will include a hot and naked man stepping in to join her. If it's a youth book, it will be the camp couselor with all the kids laughing outside. If it's a childrens book, then it'll be her kids and the spouse laughing until he takes pity on her. If it's suspense she'll end up dead so someone can solve the mystery of how someone deathly allergic to cats ended up in the shower with one.
I'll shut up now, love ya, Becky

Nina Sipes said...

OH, My, GAWD! Becky, what a fertile mind you have. I can see each of those scenarios!

Nina Sipes said...

PS How did you know I'm allergic to cats?

Jeannie said...

Checked out those links, Nina. There's sure a wealth of information in them. The chart is sort of neat. Of course, most of my heros are the sort to solve conflicts with fists, swords or guns. My heroines, too.

Wonder what that says about me....

Jeannie said...

ROFLMAO, Becky! You certainly do have a fertile imagination! You could write in just about any genre you want.

Pat Davids said...

This is a wonderful post. I struggled with understanding conflict when I first started writing. I thought throwing problems at my characters amounted to conflict. What I really needed to add was why, in their hearts, they felt their love was not possible.

Penny Rader said...

Great post, Nina! I'm going to print it and keep it with my writing notebook. Thanks for the links, too. They have a lot of great info. Conflict is my bugaboo, probably 'cause I avoid it in real life.