Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! For the first time in a few weeks, we’ve got all three hosts on the same cast! Just in time for us to brew up some good conflict. Of course, conflict is much too large a topic to cover in a single cast, so this week we focus on what it is and what types of external conflicts there are. Next week, we’ll finish up with internal conflicts and some strategies to layer conflicts for maximum effect. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher. Remember, tell your friends using the #firstsinfiction and/or @firstsinfiction to help us get a good social media buzz. Appreciate your listenership!
Conflict is one of the fundamental elements of fiction. Without it, fiction can’t exist. On the simplest level, conflict is the thing that stands between your protagonist and his or her desires. Conflict always stems from character motivation, which is why it’s imperative to know what drives your character. What is their ultimate goal? Once you’ve identified this, you can put something in the way to challenge or oppose them. It is a clash between two incompatible sides or forces.
It’s also important to remember that at least one of the sides must be personal–that is, they must have free will, some sort of conscious choice in the struggle. Typically, in writer speak, we call this “man” to refer to the protagonist. The term, of course, covers women and elves and dwarves and alien species alike. It’s shorthand for the side with free will. If you consider the Perfect Storm, we have man’s struggle to survive the elements of nature out on the open sea. However, if the perfect storm hit, and there were no boat, no people threatened, we would not have a story. Neither the sea nor the storm have conscious will, and therefore, cannot provide conflict (because there is no character motivation).
There are several types of external conflicts. The most common are these:
Man vs. Nature: Like the above example of The Perfect Storm, Man vs. Nature conflicts pit humanity against natural elements. Think of Jack London’s To Build a Fire or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Other popular examples include Moby Dick, Into the Wild, and Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. While not as popular anymore, this conflict is often used as an additional layer to other conflicts. Hunger Games for example, pits Katniss against society, other people, and nature while splashing in some good old fashioned internal conflict (which we’ll explore in more depth next week).
Man vs. Man: This is perhaps the most common, or the most commonly thought of when we talk about conflict. Simply put, this is one person fighting against another. think of a boxing match, or the super hero fighting the super villain. This can be a love triangle, or simply a love story. Either two people want what only one can have, or the motivation of both characters exists in such a way that no compromise can be reached. Think Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Star Wars, etc. In cases like this, it is important to remember that the antagonist cannot be a push over. They need to provide sufficient opposition to the protagonist. Our characters are measured, in part, by what they over come. If there is no challenge, our characters will be utterly forgettable. Also, you’ll want to make sure the outcome matters. This idea is often called “upping the stakes.” What’s on the line? For the reader to care about it, it must be important. Think family, life, children, love, safety, etc.
Man vs. Society: Many stories don’t focus only on one character versus another. Often times, our characters have to battle society itself. This may be a legal thriller (the man trying to prove his innocence) or something more insidious, like the lone rebel taking on the evil government. Most dystopian novels fall under this category (as does Star Wars, to a lesser extent). These stories can be very compelling when done right. It may help to replace the word “society” with “system.” Any structure or organization which threatens the well being of the people can be considered a type of “system” or “society.” Often times, this conflict is layered together with man vs. man in the sense that empires and the like are often controlled and run by a single individual (the Emperor, President Snow, etc.). This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s often a good thing to help ratchet up the tension. While these stories are usually about bringing down the establishment, they can as easily be about changing the establishment from within.
Man vs. God(s): We use this to describe a conflict that pits a normal person against some sort of overwhelming supernatural force. Though it’s commonly called Man vs. God(s), it could as easily be called Man vs. Demons or Man vs. Angels or Man vs. Super villain or Man vs. Alien. Anything beyond the bounds of our physical, natural world can be classified in this category. Think Percy Jackson or The Odyssey. But we can just as easily suggest anything from the horror genre that pits some sort of evil beast or alien or monster against humanity.
Man vs. Technology: The final type of conflict has been popular for ages. Originally, it spoke to our innate fears of the pervasiveness of technology. Now, we embrace technology, but these stories warn us not to forfeit our humanity for the convenience of our gadgets. Think of every Terminator movie ever made–the machines take over and kill us. Recently, this conflict has become more subtle, and a new genre has risen in literature: the tech thriller or tech suspense novel. Here, technology is misused by humanity, and must be stopped. Think of common hacker novels or AI gone horribly wrong. Each of these fits very nicely into this particular category.
Next week, we’ll take a look at internal conflict and how to layer conflicts together. Until then, good writing.