Conflict is often viewed as two forces that clash and cause tension, but it’s much more complicated than that. Conflict is engaging because it prevents a character from attaining a desirable goal, which readers can empathize with because of the struggles in their own lives.
Perhaps the character is a little boy named Billy who wants a cookie, but the jar is out of reach. This presents an obstacle, but it’s a less effective use of conflict because it’s not dichotomous.
The Essence of Conflict Is Contradiction
Readers need two sides to root for, not just one character and an obstacle. Nobody can sympathize with an inanimate object.
Suppose Billy’s sister, Sally, also wants a cookie, and only one is left. Mom told Billy he could have the cookie, but Sally didn’t eat her cookie yesterday. They both have a legitimate claim.
We might be tempted to stop here. The obstacle must still be surmounted, but now two characters are vying for the cookie and readers can relate to both of them, so they’re torn about who to cheer for. The conflict is more complex, yet is it enough?
The seemingly natural progression of this scene would be for Billy and Sally to exchange a flurry of nasty words that lead to an assault on the kitchen and a shoving match to see who grabs the cookie first. Hurray for conflict!
But that would also waste a wonderful opportunity to invest readers even deeper in this tale of sibling warfare.
What if Billy and Sally didn’t hate each other and instead loved each other dearly? This introduces personal conflict into the situation. Both Billy and Sally hunger for the cookie, but they are restrained by their affection for each other and the nagging sensation that they should let the other have the cookie.
Here we can check off our third level of conflict and realize that we now have six sets of contradictions to captivate readers: Billy and Sally versus the unreachable jar, Billy and Sally versus each other, and Billy and Sally versus themselves.
Conflict Is Not Black and White
Although hatred between characters may be the most obvious way to provoke conflict and hinder a goal, hatred fused with love can be far more powerful. No character or relationship can ever be summed up by one emotion. The coexistence of love and hate is not confusing, but enhancing, because they develop and draw each other out. A character who both loves and hates is unpredictable. Readers won’t know who will win, which heightens the satisfaction or grief the audience experiences when the conflict is finally resolved.
However, please note that interpersonal conflict is not the only type of conflict in a story. Plot conflict—two separate threads of the same plot interacting as opposites—is another option. To demonstrate, I will share two examples from famous works. The first highlights interpersonal conflict, and the second features plot conflict, which is simpler but no less crucial.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy illustrates contradiction particularly well. Though he appears to be a pompous man belonging to a snobbish class, he is unlike the others of his class—especially his manipulative aunt. He is a proud but honorable and honest man in a society where pride is lauded and honor and honesty are scorned. He is discordant before Elizabeth Bennet even enters the story.
Notice how this second layer builds on that foundation. Headstrong and opinionated Elizabeth dances into Mr. Darcy’s life, representing everything repugnant to his pride and the circles of society in which he moves. Upon meeting, they mutually offend each other and part with indifference on his side and revulsion on hers.
But, in spite of himself, Mr. Darcy is intrigued and perturbed by Elizabeth. Even though he is different from his class, some of its prejudices and misconceptions have influenced him, tarnishing his surface. He’s deceived himself into believing that his pride is pardonable. When Elizabeth waltzes into his life, she forces him to examine his values, thus launching the disparities of his character into a battle for dominance. This illuminates, not belittles, the strength of his pride. Love and disdain grind against each other, yet love increasingly triumphs.
The conflict in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is more plot centric. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman in an age where firemen don’t extinguish fires, but start them—to burn books. No crime is greater than owning a book.
Montag contracts a fatal attraction to these forbidden pieces of glue, paper, and ink. Hoping to stifle his curiosity, he recommits himself to his work with burning zeal (pun intended). But his fascination only grows, exacerbated by his strained relationship with his wife, who will do anything to stop him from saving books. His inward turmoil becomes so intense that he must make a decision and discover the truth.
These contradictions are the beginnings of character arcs, but they can be appreciated merely for the beautiful contrast they bring, allowing readers to explore two opposing concepts. An uncertain outcome enthralls readers and makes a dichotomous plot doubly resonant.