Category Archives: writing tips

The Six Types of Conflict in Fiction

I’ve talked before about the importance of conflict in a story. This is all well and good to know, but what forms, exactly, can conflict take in a story?

At its most basic, conflict in a story takes one of six different forms.

  • Man Against Self. In a story about inner conflict, the character from whose point of view the story is told fights mainly against him- or herself. Think of Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; Louis struggles against his own ambivalence regarding his new vampire nature. The risk you run in detailing this sort of conflict, of course, is a far too introspective tale, but because it focuses on human nature, it can also be the most rewarding to write.
  • Man Against Nature. This type of conflict focuses on an individual who seeks to overcome natural elements: he or she seeks to scale a mountain, or survive three days in the wilderness, or cross an ocean. One of the most notable “man against nature stories,” of course, is Jack London’s Call of the Wild. These types of stories tend to be Realist in tone; when it comes down to it, humans simply cannot overcome Mother Nature – not for long, anyway.
  • Man Against Society. Probably the favorite of the bohemian artist set, this sort of narrative usually pits a misfit against a conformist society. He or she may seek to enlighten, liberate, flee from, or simply survive in such a society, but society as a whole wants him out of the way. Richard Matheson, in his I Am Legend, puts a fascinating spin on this conflict: only one human, Robert Neville, exists in the whole world – and all of the undead want to drink his blood.
  • Man Against Machine. Rapidly rising in popularity in our increasingly mechanized society, this sort of conflict usually depicts a human fighting against machines, which are conveyed as soulless or even demonic. Think of the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, in which the hero, Freder, battles the man-killing machines of the dystopian Metropolis. These types of stories usually fall in the sci-fi camp.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice.Man Against God. In a story featuring this type of conflict, an individual fights a capricious or cruel god or gods; mythologies of many people focus on this sort of conflict. Many times, the hero or heroine overcomes the gods either through trickery or sheer valor, but in other stories, the hero fails and is condemned to eternal punishment. For example, take Orpheus, who wins the right to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, as long as he does not look behind him as they leave the Underworld. But, of course, before he can lead her all the way out of Hades, he turns to look at her, thus violating the agreement – and losing her again.
  • God Against Everybody. Possibly the most sweeping type of conflict concerns a god dead set on destroying all of humankind; again, these stories usually fall in the mythological camp. Think of the many mythological destruction narratives, such as an Egyptian tale in which the gods, annoyed with the amount of noise humans make, decide to send the goddess Hathor down to wipe out the pestilence of mankind. Today, these types of stories would be classed as fantasy, though they need not be.

Endless variations on these conflicts exist, and of course, there’s no reason multiple conflicts can’t happen within the same story. And no matter how complicated the plot, at the core of any good story, you’ll find a conflict driving the action.

Give Your Villains a Break — And Rough Up Your Heroes

One of the hardest feats to pull off when writing characters is creating complete, realistic characters. Usually, you’ll find this most difficult when you’re either writing a character whom you despise—or when you’re writing a character based in part on yourself.

When you’re writing a character whom you despise, you run a quite high risk of making the character one-dimensional. For example, I wrote a short story featuring a brutal doctor, Dr. Arnold Hollingsead II. Hollingsead, in my mind, was a judgmental bigot who did not care about his patients. I gave him no quarter and painted him as the suave sadist I imagined him to be — resulting in a thoroughly one-dimensional character about whom readers felt absolutely nothing. Not hate, not pity, not even dislike.

Why was this? After all, hadn’t I shown him to be despicable? Well, yes, but I hadn’t shown him to be a real person. In real life, few, if any people, are wholly good or bad. Most of us are a mix of good and bad traits. Even saints, for example, often led colorful lives before reforming — think of St. Augustine, who fathered an illegitimate child, or St. Mary of Egypt, who was quite the seductress. And even for the person who goes on to become as good as gold, the past can still trouble him or her.

St Augustine -- Not always such a saint.Characters whom you want to show as despicable should also comprise good and bad traits. In order for your readers to hate your villain as much as you do, you must make the bad guy sympathetic. For example, I gave my villain, Dr. Hollingsead, no characteristics with which readers could empathize. And the key is that a reader must see a bit of himself in that vile character. Because no one believes that he or she is evil, if you can show your reader a slice of himself, he or she will have that emotional reaction you seek to evoke.

The other difficulty writers run into in creating characters is a failure to make a main character truly come alive. This almost always occurs because that main character is a part of the writer. We know ourselves too well; it becomes impossible to separate yourself from your character, and the result, again, is a one-dimensional representation. Or, for example, because you love your character so, you give him or her no bad traits at all.

How do you get around this? You can use character worksheets, as I mentioned in my previous post, to truly give that character a separate life from yourself. When you use this method, try to think of traits that you don’t have — maybe you’re obsessively neat, so make your character a bit of a slob. Maybe you didn’t give him any vices — so now his vice is compulsive gambling.

I know, I know, you don’t want to have to do this. You love your main character, and you want others to love him, too, because he is really you. But again, if you don’t give him dimensions, you risk creating a flat character with whom no one can identify, not least because you haven’t drawn him out.

So go ahead, give even your villains a break, and rough up your heroes. You might be surprised by the results.

Character Worksheets: Map Your Way to Complete Characters

Creating well-rounded characters is one of the most fun aspects of story planning. Now, if you’re protesting this statement, I’m going to share with you an easy way to create your characters.

The simplest and easiest way to create good characters is to use character worksheets. On these worksheets, you list a number of questions you’ll need answers to in order to round out your character. Sure, you’ll want to know his or her name, location, age, and appearance, but that doesn’t take you very far.

For example, what is your character’s main vice? What about her main virtue? Political views? Major hangups? Romantic history?

What I like about character sheets is that they help me write a more fully realized story. If I know my character’s nervous tics, for example, then I know what she’s doing with her hands when she’s anxious. If I know her major vice — say, she forgets to watch the speed limit — then I might know she’s had a lot of encounters with cops and may have a bad opinion of them. If I know her movie and book tastes — for example, documentaries and nonfiction — then I might know she’s more of a cerebral type.

Two of my most favorite questions to answer are sun sign and phobias. Now, whether or not you believe in astrology, knowing your character’s sun sign can also help you round out a character. For example, for a character I created name Sadie, I set her birth date on December 10, 1985, making her a Sagittarius. A little Internet research provides some information about Sagittarians: overly expressive, with frequent burnouts, and who like to make a difference in the world. These traits helped me put Sadie together into the politically active, turbulent character she turned out to be.

For another character I created, Levi, I chose apeirophobia as his phobia. Apeirophobia is fear of infinity or living forever. This helped me figure out why Levi, who is naturally spiritual, chose the religion that he did — one with no conscious afterlife existence. This also helped me come up with a backstory for him, as well as an impetus to choose stargazing as his hobby.

For me, putting these character sheets together is a bit like playing God — and quite a lot of fun, although I otherwise would not make a very effective God. The benefit of them is that as you’re writing the story, you have a wealth of material about this character, whom you now know quite well, to draw from in any situation.

And in case you were wondering, Phobia List has a near-complete list of phobias, and Astrology Online has in-depth explanations of the characteristics of each sun sign.

The Six Questions Fiction Must Answer

You may remember from sixth-grade English that a writer must answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why – and of course, how. Though these details have a long history in rhetoric, Rudyard Kipling usually receives credit for popularizing them in a poem included in his “Just So” stories, published in 1902:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

This procedure, called the Kipling method, is usually associated with journalism, but the method also applies to creative writing. As in a newspaper article, these six details provide all the necessary information for a piece of writing.

Let’s break it down.

What, of course, answers the question of plot: a theft, an affair, a pursuit. Though your plot may be long and complicated, it does still break down to this one simple question: What happened?

Why answers the question of motives. Why did Bilbo steal the ring? Why did Anna Karenina kill herself? Why did Harker set out to kill Count Dracula? While motives are rarely clear-cut, they, with all their convoluted reasoning, are still necessary to flesh out a story.

When puts a timestamp on the piece. Even if your work takes place in a fantasy setting with no parallel to our Western timeline, it’s still necessary to situate the piece in a named era or age, as Tolkien did with his epic Lord of the Rings (Third Age, starting in 3001), or as Brandon Sanderson did in his Mistborn series (the Final Empire).

How also answers plot questions. How did Frodo destroy the Ring? How did Anna’s life unravel? How did Count Dracula go about thwarting his pursuers?

Where applies to setting. Though setting is underutilized in modern fiction, in times past, setting proved indispensable, such as in Jack London’s stories or in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Because environment contributes to shaping of a person, setting shows your readers another how as well: how your characters came to be the way they are. Could Scarlett O’Hara, for example, have been a Northern belle?

Finally, we come to Who. This question might appear the simplest to answer, but we’re talking more than name and rank: who covers the character and soul of the individuals in your piece. Who is Anna, that she has a brazen affair? Who is King Arthur, that he sleeps with his own sister? Who is Lisbeth Salander, that she sets out to kill her father?

By answering all of these questions when you have a mosquito of an idea, you can chart a course for your story. Of course, in fiction, you won’t simply relate the facts (unless you’re Hemingway); you’ll dress these up and elaborate on them, but when you boil your story down, these are the questions that form its backbone.

Crafting a Premise Sentence to Keep Yourself on Track

If you ever had to write a paper in college, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an abstract. An abstract is a short summary of a paper that precedes the paper itself. This abstract notes the main points of the paper, as well as its conclusion.

Similarly, as K.M. Weiland writes in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, writing has its premise sentence. A premise sentence pins down such variables as your protagonist’s identity, the nature of the central conflict and plot, and any relevant details, such as setting. However, unlike an elevator pitch or abstract, writers should craft the premise sentence before writing the actual work.

This premise sentence essentially serves as your lighthouse. Clarifying and directing your thoughts, it keeps the overall thrust of the work at the forefront. Additionally, distilling all your thoughts into one sentence can help you glean particulars from your general concept. For example, you may think that your main character’s primary problem lies in her rootlessness, so you might write the following:

Nixie Morrison is a rootless young woman who searches for a home.

Doesn’t exactly grab you, does it? So make it specific:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for her home colony of Ressad.

Much more specific. Still, I haven’t indicated the conflict. So, what about this:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for Ressad, her home colony – but the man who slaughtered half of Ressad, including her parents, is determined that she never find it.

There you have the protagonist, her situation and a character trait, the plot, her backstory, and a conflict, all in one sentence. Now, if I write Nixie’s story, I can refer to it as I go, making sure that all my threads weave into this one, central idea.

What do you do with your premise sentence once you’ve worked it out? I suggest posting it in a location where you can see it while you write. This keeps the premise in your mind and can potentially prevent your plot from wandering off-course. It’ll save you time and the disappointment of realizing that you’ve spent the last fifty pages chasing a plot that doesn’t add up in the end.