For the next few weeks, I’m going to do a series of posts on the conflicts that can be found in a narrative. Depending where you look, and whose advice you ask, there’s anywhere from 4-10 types of conflict that can drive a plot. I’m only going to cover six, though. Those being:
- Character vs. Character
- Character vs. Self
- Character vs. Society
- Character vs. Nature
- Character vs. Fate
- Character vs. Machine/Supernatural/Other
Character vs. Self
This type of conflict is all about morals, and is often presented alongside another type of conflict. Some value that your character holds dear and true is tested. They are forced to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, or maybe even dream of doing in a million years. This can be something as dramatic as the hero has to kill someone to save his family, or as benign as grandma has to sabotage her beloved bake sale to find out who has been poisoning the cookies (okay, maybe that’s not really benign). The person has to overcome their sense of goodness and righteousness to make sure something bad doesn’t happen, and it wracks them with guilt, horror, and a lot of other bad emotions as they watch themselves act out of character for the greater good.
It can also be a story about the character trying to overcome something negative about themselves. Someone trying to overcome addiction, put a wretched past behind them, or make amends for something terrible they’ve done. They’re actively trying to grow and turn into something they can admire. This is difficult for them though, or at least it should be, or it’s not much of a story. We often identify with stories like this, even if we’re not suffering from the same afflictions as the protagonist, because we’re all struggling and trying to overcome something within ourselves. At least, I think most of us are. Getting a peek inside someone else’s head while they fight can be comforting and give us strength.
Overcoming oneself is sometimes the worst battle of all. At least with a villain to fight, there’s a cause we can aggressively rally against, and we can draw lines of right and wrong. When we’re fighting ourselves, were trapped in a small, confined space with the “villian” and there’s no escape. We can’t fight them with fists and any pain or suffering we inflict upon them is inflicted upon ourselves. We can’t kill them. All we can do is live with them and try to get them to change and shift their patterns of thinking, or convince them to do what they have to do to accomplish what needs to be done. This is a terrible struggle, and writing about it is also writing about humanity in general.
For Character vs. Self, you need:
- A challenge. The protagonist may have to do something they find it hard to bring themselves to do, or they may have to wrestle their own mind to the ground and tell it that it’s time for a change. Either way, they can’t sit in place and just let things happen to them. The challenge must be so great that they have no choice but to get on their feet and fight.
- A battle. They must actively battle against their inner voices, conscience, and their values to try to get to the end of the struggle. They have to grapple with what’s tormenting them, or set aside all they believe in so they can overcome. Again, it’s important they don’t just sit in place and let things happen, or there’s no story.
- A way to overcome. If it’s hopeless, then the story ends in only one way–the end of the protagonist. And yes, this does happen in fiction and it sadly happens way too often in real life, but you should at least give your character a fighting chance. Give them some weapons and some means, and at least let the reader hope for a little while that they might win. If the character has nothing to fight with from the start, the story ends quickly.
Character vs. Self can be a challenge to write, as it explores deep issues of the human psyche and condition, but for that reason it can also be fascinating to read. Do you like this sort of conflict in a story?