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.
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.
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.