Writing: Conflict and Antagonists, humph!

Conflict. HoooBoy! Conflict has given me some trouble. Not my understanding of what it is, but figuring out how to do it correctly, so that my story’s conflict would mean something more than just trouble for the protagonist. 

As with so many things, my trip down the conflict rabbit hole taught me that there’s more to conflict than had I first imagined. One thing I noticed right away in multiple sources was that conflict is not merely an argument or fight. Conflict is anything that thwarts the protagonist’s goal.

But that last statement seems to be the most important part—conflict must relate to the goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. In her video, “Scene Structure Part 2: How to Write Conflict,” Ellen Brock made this point clear by stating that if a bad thing happens, or a series of bad things, it will feel irrelevant and readers will become bored if that event isn’t connected to the protagonist’s goal.

From Lani Diane Rich’s How Story Works podcast, I got more specific information, though not necessarily different information: Rich defined conflict as a struggle between opposing forces. She differentiated between narrative conflict and mundane conflict, with the narrative kind being conflict that relates to the protagonist’s goals, and the mundane kind being conflict that is unrelated to those goals. For example, if your protagonist’s goal is to win a baking contest, then a narrative conflict could be not having enough room in the refrigerator for your mousse to chill, whereas arguing with a child about putting pjs on would be mundane conflict.

Rich goes on to talk about different types of conflict: external conflict, or man vs man; and internal conflict, or man vs self. She also talks about the antagonist’s role in the conflict–which is being the agent of conflict because the antagonist’s goal is the same as the protagonists and only one can win.

This idea was one of the things that tripped me up in my own story planning process. I don’t really have a single antagonist. I feel as if I should be able to, but I can’t point to any one character and say she is the antagonist. There are people who cause conflict, but not one who is decidedly set against my protagonist’s goal. So does that mean the protagonist is her own antagonist? Do I need to have a single, easily identifiable antagonist?

To answer this, I looked a little further down the rabbit hole of conflict, and found Tyler Mowery’s video “The Purpose of Conflict,” in which he says that internal and external conflict are an outgrowth of the philosophical, or thematic, conflict. The philosophical conflict is a clash of worldviews. This was an interesting point to consider, but it didn’t help answer my question about my antagonist, or lack thereof, so I kept looking.

In “How to Write Compelling Conflict without a Villain,” on standoutbooks.com, editor Robert Wood states that a central antagonist is not necessary. Phew! It was a relief to read this. In looking at what Wood said, I could see that my conflict fit in here better than in the things I had read previously. 

According to Wood, the internal conflict that comes from a protagonist struggling against difficult situations—environmental, philosophical, or aspirational—are enough as long as you focus on the protagonist’s mental and emotional reactions to the situations. 

He goes onto say that rather than one main antagonist, you can use multiple minor antagonists whose function is to point to the primary source of conflict. So in a story where the source of conflict has to do with one’s age, there could be a character who, with no malice or even ability to block the protagonist, might comment on the protagonist’s age in a way that shows society’s attitudes on age, which the protagonist is struggling against.

Coming back to conflict,  writer Deeanne Gist, in her video “2 Minute Tips for Writers: How to Write Conflict,” makes the case for being sure to include both an internal as well as an external conflict. Gist advises that the external conflicts should be there primarily to highlight the internal conflict. Her advice is to consider your protagonist’s source of internal conflict, then make a list of everything that could happen in the external world that would trigger the internal conflict—then do all of those things to your character (heartless!).

Conflict really is complex because there is tension between internal and external conflict, there is a difference between relevant conflict (tied to protagonist’s goal) and irrelevant conflict (bad stuff that just happens to happen), it is connected to the antagonist, and conflict must also be tied to what is at stake for the protagonist, according to writer C. S. Larkin. 

Larkin says that if there is nothing at stake in the conflict, then the conflict will feel irrelevant. This point about conflict is similar to the one about conflict and the protagonist’s goal—which makes sense because if the goal is a worthy one for a story, the protagonist has something to lose if they don’t reach it, i.e. something at stake. So if something blocks and/or endangers the goal, it is also messing with the stakes of the goal.

All in all, after this trip down the rabbit hole, I do feel better about my conflict situation: I have tied the external conflicts to the internal struggle, I have serious stakes for (I hope) a believable goal, and I am content now that the antagonists are relevant and helping move my protagonist toward her internal change. So, not a bad bit of work!

Sources mentioned in this post:

Ellen Brock, “Scene Structure Part 2: How to Write Conflict,” https://youtu.be/oaCDNC8E4YU

Lani Diane Rich, How Story Works, https://chipperish.com/podcasts/how-story-works/

Tyler Mowery, “The Purpose of Conflict,” https://youtu.be/59_Ho1GTUk4

Robert Wood, “How to Write Compelling Conflict without a Villain,” https://www.standoutbooks.com/how-write-conflict-without-villain/

Deeanne Gist, “2 Minute Tips for Writers: How to Write Conflict,” https://youtu.be/eX9nhzoiHL4

C. S. Larkin, “Creating Conflict with a Purpose,” https://www.livewritethrive.com/2014/03/19/creating-conflict-with-a-purpose/

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