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Conflict is the central element of any story. It’s what keeps us on the edge of our seats and turning page after page until 3:00am. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, narrative conflict is “an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Conflict creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome.”

So how do you create this all-important conflict in your stories? Well, it all starts in the development process. There are three basic steps to developing conflict, and they follow a specific logical progression because, ultimately, developing a good story is an exercise in logic. So let’s jump right in.

Step 1) Scope

The first step is drawing the boundaries of your story’s scope. That might seem like a weird place to start, but scope will determine nearly every other aspect of your story.

The key here is to determine what within the world of your story is out of balance.

This imbalance can be huge and obvious and affect everyone in the world or galaxy like the opposing Forces of Star Wars (pun—sorry not sorry). Or it can be a big problem with limited scope like the Gotham city crime and corruption problem in Batman. It could also be subtle and unseen, like an idea or secret that’s slowly destroying a society or family or even one specific individual such as in my all-time favorite story The Count of Monte Cristo.

If there’s nothing out of balance in the world of your story, you have a HUGE problem. Have you ever read a story without some kind of imbalance? No? I didn’t think so. If you have, I’m sorry for the sheer boredom you were forced to endure.

Tip: If you don’t quite understand what I’m getting at in terms of balance, watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and/or The Legend of Korra. That should clear things up nicely.

Figuring out scope can be a struggle or it can be incredibly easy depending on the story, but it’s always fun. This is the stage where everything’s up in air and you’re trying to pin down your concept, so explore and play around with lots of different ideas until you strike gold. You don’t have to perfectly nail down scope before you move on, but you should have a good idea of what’s causing the core imbalance of your world and to what limits it is confined.

Step 2) Antagonist(ic Force)

What, create your antagonist before the hero? What is this madness? Actually, it’s logic. A hero is ultimately someone who fixes the problem of your story and restores the world to balance. You won’t know what kind of hero you need to fix the problem unless you first know:

a) what the problem is and 
b) who or what is causing the problem

If you’ve established scope, you already know what the problem is. Developing the antagonist will tell you who’s causing the problem. Or what’s causing it. Contrary to popular belief, the antagonistic force of your story does NOT have to be a character. There are actually five broad types of conflict in fiction. FIVE. What? Your options just opened up? Amazing. Here they are:

Man vs Man - This is the classic hero vs villain scenario. The core conflict is caused by the antagonist wanting one thing and the protagonist wanting either to stop him or something in direct opposition. Sounds simple, but working out motivation can be harder than it looks.

Example: The Emperor’s New Groove (and basically every Disney movie as well as most superhero movies)

Man vs Nature - This is the kind of story where your character’s biggest problem is battling the elements or non-supernatural creatures found in “the elements” such as lions, tigers, and bears—oh my! Also dinosaurs. And sometimes aliens. They can also include stories about battling illness, plagues, or natural disasters. These are typically survival stories and can vary in scope from the survival of one person to the survival of an entire society or race. 

Example 1: The Swiss Family Robinson
Example 2: The Fault In Our Stars
Additional modern examples could include zombie stories such as The Walking Dead, alien take-over stories such as Pacific Rim, and even sentient machines trying to annihilate the human race such as Battlestar Galactica.

Man vs the Supernatural - This would be when your hero is up against something bigger than anything found in the natural world such as ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, urban legends, or even God himself. These stories often (but not always) involve an element of horror.

Example: Supernatural (duh)

Tip: Sometimes there’s a fine line between man vs nature and man vs the supernatural conflicts. As a basic rule, if the antagonistic force comes from the natural realm (or if it's made by man), then it’s man vs nature. If it comes from an unnatural realm and can’t be explained by science, then it’s man vs the supernatural.

Man vs Society - This one can get a bit sticky, but it’s basically man against an idea. Society is a stand-in for that idea, and usually one person rises up as a human embodiment of this idea and can then be physically fought by the hero (which can often make it look like a man vs man story even though it’s much bigger than that).

Example 1: The Great Gatsby
Example 2: Batman Begins (well, the entire trilogy)
Example 3: Most teen dystopias 

Man vs Himself - This is when the main conflict of your story is the protagonist's inner conflict rather than his external conflict. Is there still an external conflict? Absolutely. Should all stories include an internal conflict? Positively. This is simply when that inner conflict is the biggest or most interesting conflict in the story.

Example: Dexter

Can you mix and match these conflicts and combine them into one story? OF COURSE YOU CAN! Does this increase the complexity and difficulty of telling the story? Sure, sometimes it does. Does this make it a better story? No, not always, and especially not if it does nothing to make the main conflict more interesting. So should you do it? Only if it’s the right fit for your story. The conflict of your story should always feel organic and not forced or contrived. Trying to do too much with a story sometimes undermines believability in hilarious and unfortunate ways.

The tl;dr summary: your imagination is the limit here. Don’t box yourself in thinking you have to write the typical hero vs villain story. Thinking that way will limit you. Diversity your thinking and study all your favorite stories and what makes them interesting in your mind.

What kind of conflict did they employ? What kind of people and forces embodied that conflict? How can you harness that same level of genius and use it your own story? Those are the types of questions you should be asking. I can’t give you all the answers here, but thinking like this will get you closer to the answers than anything else.

The goal is to create an antagonist force your hero can do battle with (metaphorically or literally). The bigger the threat, the more powerful your hero will ultimately have to be. It can quickly become an inflation war, so be careful. Don’t make your story so big it becomes unmanageable and ultimately left unwritten.

If you start by knowing your antagonist inside and out, you’ll know exactly what kind of hero your story needs. 
And the protagonist is the most important part, so it’s only logical to know what factors dictate the kind of hero your story needs before you begin bringing him to life.

Step 3) Protagonist

About time, I know. There’s more advice floating around the writing sphere on how to create characters than any other topic. Forget all of it except the part saying the most important aspect of character development is to create your character specifically for the position of hero needed in your story. Oh wait. Almost no one’s saying that? *sigh*

You can’t create an interesting character in your head before developing the rest of your story and then just drop him into any old conflict and expect it to end well. No matter how interesting your character seems while filling out whatever character sheet you might’ve found, it will do you absolutely no good if those characteristics aren’t developed specifically for the story he’s playing hero in. That defies the logic of story development. Your main character, believe it or not, must be created to serve one very specific purpose:

To restore balance to the world of your story by neutralizing whatever antagonizing force is causing said imbalance (or fail epically in the process like Anakin Skywalker, because some stories are meant to be tragedies ... in more ways than one).

That’s it. That’s the ultimate purpose of your protagonist. Contrary to popular belief, his sex, gender, orientation, ethnicity, personality type, hair color, mental health, etc., etc., does not matter unless it’s vital to his ability to accomplish the former. Should you try to create diverse characters? Absolutely. Should you do it at the expense of telling a good story? No, what would that possibly accomplish other than telling a bad story? If you want to make a point about any of these things, write a good story first.

So how exactly do you develop just the right protagonist to fit your story? Well, it’s all about contrast, and that’s why you create the antagonist first. Anything your antagonist wants, your hero must want the opposite thing. Motives don’t really matter as this point, but that’s not to understate their importance.

Examples

Let’s say your antagonist is a super villain who wants to destroy Cleveland New York City. Well, Sony, you’re in luck because you still own the rights to a plucky teen hero who happens to live in New York and therefore wants to make sure the city isn’t destroyed—again.

Or let's say your antagonistic force is the idea that a corrupt city must burn to the ground before it can be reborn and rebuilt. Your protagonist must believe the city is worth saving and have the power to stop that from happening.

Your antagonist is someone your douchebag protagonist fired, and now she wants to kill him and take his job but accidentally turned him into a llama instead? Your self-centered protagonist must come to realize how much of a jerk he’s been so he can see the antagonist is out to get him in the first place, turn her into a cat, and then get his job back and use it to help others instead of just himself.

See what I’m getting at here? Creating a protagonist requires putting a lot of pieces together, including motivation, change, a want vs need arc, inner conflict, and the right personality for the job. There’s plenty of good advice out there on how to create interesting, three dimensional characters, but first you need to see that creating a hero is all about the contrasting forces of antagonist vs protagonist. Doing it right ensures conflict and therefore reader engagement. Without this conflict, you’ve got nothing, no matter how interesting or diverse your characters may be.

Tip: Why couldn’t you create the protagonist first and then create an antagonist who wants the opposite thing? This is getting into story structure and character arc. Basically, at the beginning of your story, your hero is often unaware there’s anything out of balance in his world or that he needs to do anything to fix it. A fundamental part of story structure is your character’s “call to adventure” and the process of gaining the abilities necessary to defeat the antagonist. So naturally, the antagonist has to be in play first. (Not to mention how sadly one-side villains turn out to be as a result of them basically becoming an after-thought. *coughMarvelcough*)

And there you have it. Ultimately, conflict in a story exists to provide suspense and keep readers engaged, but it really does even more than that. It provides a path of change in your story, so that your character ends up stronger, better, and more enlightened at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. This character arc is what provides the emotional payout we all crave from great stories. But that’s another can of worms.

Put these conflict development techniques to work in your story development process and see what happens. Storytelling through prose is a long and rigorous process, but it starts with throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. Hopefully this will provide some adhesive.

Bonus Quiz


medium 12 Questions for Fiction Writers by illuminara 
(Not created by me, but it's super helpful. Check it out!)

I've been in the process of writing this for years. :faint: It's technically part a story development model I created for my own personal use several years ago. The "complete" version I use involves a few other things like character arc and theme, but that's getting really involved and long-winded. The basic purpose has always been to develop a story's overarching conflict.

So yeah, here you go. I hope it's helpful. Let me know if you have any questions related to story development or how to create better conflict in your stories. As always, you're free to distribute this around the web and IRL. Credit is appreciated by not strictly enforced. Check out my other writing guides and resources here.

For further reading, take a look at these articles and bask in their mind-blowing awesomeness.

Character-Driven Hero's Journey
What Should Happen at the Midpoint
The Secret to Subplots
The Need vs Want Character Arc

I have amassed an entire collection of awesome articles about story structure here. They're extremely helpful if you're interested in learning more about the mechanics of storytelling and things like the three act structure and sequences. 
Add a Comment:
 
:iconpaytonsnewheart:
paytonsnewheart Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I hope this will help me develop my kind of stories. Thank you for posting this!
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
I'm glad you like it, and good luck with your stories! =D
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:iconpaytonsnewheart:
paytonsnewheart Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you! :)
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:iconnox-regime:
nox-regime Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2016
I love ATLA and TLoK! La la la la By the way, your guides are extremely helpful. :D (Big Grin)  
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
They're seriously the best! Such great storytelling and characters. Thanks, I'm glad you like them. :aww:
Reply
:iconbrownleaf360:
Brownleaf360 Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2015  Hobbyist
Really helpful!
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I'm glad you found it useful! =D
Reply
:icondremalone:
DreMalone Featured By Owner Mar 21, 2015
Love the worksheet. Definitely using this for future stories.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you found it useful!
Reply
:icondc-26:
DC-26 Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2015
I liked the table - more guidelines than actual rules, as others have noted, but still a nice "pocket guide."

Helps me understand my writer's block in one of my pieces and why writing another one is so much easier!

Know thyself (and know thy characters).
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Glad it helped! Good luck with your writing! =D
Reply
:icondc-26:
DC-26 Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2015
Do you find getting concrete about laying out steps / tips facilitates your own work?  I've usually found the best way to learn something is to teach it!
Which is probably why I'm better at personal statements than fiction at this point.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I use story structure as a guide, like laying the foundation for a building to ensure what I write will having something to stand on and hold it up. But if you focus too much on tips and formulas, you box yourself in and can end up in a rut of generic storytelling. Fiction is experimentation, and whether it "works" or not sometimes can't be determined until well after it's written. Basically, don't let anything stop you from writing! Use tools if you find them helpful, or don't if you find them limiting.

The best way to learn anything is to teach it! Scientific studies have actually proven this, which is why I try to learn everything worth knowing to the extent that I could teach it to someone else. =D

Just keep writing! You learn by writing and rewriting and writing some more. There's no easy way around it. :giggle:
Reply
:icondc-26:
DC-26 Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2015
Definitely agree about focusing too much on how it's "supposed" to be.  This particular tool happened to come at the right time for me to realize something about one of my projects.  Fortuitous!
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Indeed! :nod:
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:iconasjjohnson:
AsjJohnson Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
(looks through your writing folder again)
hm... I don't know about man vs society, don't really understand that one, but, I think the fanfic I'd been thinking of for a long time involves the four other ones. ...that mean I'd tried too hard to add plot and conflict stuff? I think there's some man vs Supernatural for the inciting incident and possibly a bit of it hinted at throughout, Man vs Nature around the second part of Act 2, Man vs Man during the climax, and Man vs himself throughout. When I'd first started thinking about the story, I thought it needed something to happen in the middle besides just internal stuff, so I tried to think of a physcial plotline, and it kind'a went from there.

About creating the protagonist later, I tend to base the antagonist and world around a protagonist and then tweak him a little to fit better. But, that might be why I have issues thinking of non-fanfiction ideas. My ideas tend to be based around flawed characters and what could address those flaws.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Man vs. society is a hero fighting an idea proclaimed by society to be good and thus forced on everyone. Katniss fighting Snow and his idea of what the world should be like, for example. 
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:iconmodji-33:
modji-33 Featured By Owner Edited Feb 5, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Just one quick question: why does 'protagonist is an antihero' not get 1 point in the quizz? Surely being an outcast would cause more conflict and obstacles. Plus i want my already high score to be higher lol
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 5, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
lol I'm honestly not sure (I didn't make the quiz). I think because it's a cliche, and also, an antihero-type character is less likely to have a dramatic character arc. Not that it can't be done; it just takes a fairly high level of skill. :aww:
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:iconmodji-33:
modji-33 Featured By Owner Feb 5, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
oh right; they're assuming you'll do it badly, okay. :) lol thanks
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
lol I don't know, but I've found most writing resources assume everyone's a n00b and are kinda condescending, which is why I usually dislike and avoid them. :shrug: They're helpful sometimes, but books on the subject are better. 
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:iconmodji-33:
modji-33 Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Your article was actually super-helpful and well-written, i got something out of it for sure :)
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
:aww:
Reply
:iconfelizias:
Felizias Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is most helpfull, thank you. :)

I was missing a lot of conflict in my story. :XD:
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! I'm glad it helped, and good luck with your story. =D
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:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2014  Student Writer
Great tutorial! Thanks for this. :)
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! Glad you liked it! :officechair: 
Reply
:iconbattlefairies:
BATTLEFAIRIES Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2014
Very nice! And the questionnaire is quite nifty.
Great job!
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks! Glad you like it!
Reply
:iconbornwiththesun:
BornWithTheSun Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
This was really helpful and interesting. I had never though of developing the antagonist before the protagonist. Usually I'm too excited about the protagonist's character to think about the antagonist for a long time, haha. It's certainly an intriguing idea, but I can see how it would work and prevent flat villains. Thank you for the guide! It was very helpful. :)
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:aww: I'm glad you found it helpful! And I know what you mean. It's so easy to get swept away by an awesome idea and great protagonist--I do it all the time, but then I have to remind myself that, to really do him justice, I have to put him in a story with good conflict. 

Good luck with your writing!
Reply
:iconbornwiththesun:
BornWithTheSun Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
You're so right. :) I'm looking forward to using these methods. I really do think they'll help! :)
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:aww: Let me know how it goes and if you have any insights!
Reply
:iconbornwiththesun:
BornWithTheSun Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Okay! I might be planning some stories soon, so I'll let you know! :)
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
=D
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:iconsoler7:
soler7 Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014
Thanks.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:aww:
Reply
:icontigerlilly9:
TigerLilly9 Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014  Student General Artist
this is very helpful! thanks!
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 3, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Glad to hear it! You're welcome. =D
Reply
:iconcecepeniston:
CecePeniston Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014
You wrote exactly what I'm doing with my manga: creating a group of teens who are linked through friendship then I show little by little their differences and maybe their differences will put them on separate ways maybe... I don't know....
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:aww: Writing a group is always a challenge! But a group can have a story arc just like an individual character. Think The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. =D
Reply
:iconcecepeniston:
CecePeniston Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014
Yes I'm slowly focusing on one character's story (Ethan)
It's not something I planned it's something which came naturally
I felt the need to develop and show his personality/ his life....
You can read my manga here:
www.inkblazers.com/manga-and-c…
If you have time of course^^'
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
:aww:
Reply
:iconmrspanyard:
MrSpanyard Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014
This can be quite helpful.
I have one question: I'm writing about an scenario so grey that anti-heroes are fighting anti-villains. Apart from the fact villains act and the heroes oppose to them, how can I make them look like villains and heroes? (story is told from the POV of the villains, well-intended extremists)

Thanks.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Hmmm ... you may be putting too much stock in the labels of hero and villain. They're just labels. The protagonist is the character who undergoes a journey or character arc, and the antagonist is simply the thing or character that forces the protagonist to take this journey. How they act or what their motives are is completely beside the point.

A morally bad guy can have a character arc of going from bad to worse, and he's still the protagonist. The person or thing responsible for this change is the antagonist, even if he's morally good. Story is all about change, and determining who and watch does the changing tells you everything you need to know about who's who in the story.

This is a great article that might help clear it up: www.crackingyarns.com.au/2011/… It's kind of long, but every word is gold.

Also these:
illuminara.deviantart.com/art/…
illuminara.deviantart.com/art/…
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