Monday, April 19, 2021

A Lousy Way to Create Conflict in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Don’t take the easy way out when developing your plot.

I love conflict in stories, but not all conflict is created equal. There’s one type that really annoys me as a reader or a viewer.


Maybe I’m just a team player at heart, but I prefer a group of characters who work together to overcome problems. That “us against the world” attitude makes me cheer for them and I can’t wait to see how they deal with the next obstacle thrown their way.

But if they turn on each other and start bickering, or stabbing each other in the back, then I want to kick the whole lot to the curb. It’s hard to root for people who are being mean, petty, and selfish. Watching people fight is not my idea of enjoyment (though countless daytime talk shows says I might be in the minority here).

Bickering characters read like lazy plotting. Stuck on what to do? Have everyone turn on each other!

Now, I’m not saying characters can’t disagree, or fight, or even betray each other. When done well, those elements add to the richness of a well-told novel. I’m also not talking about protagonists fighting antagonists, because that’s their jobs.

I’m talking about core characters who typically work together, start fighting each other because it’s easier than creating worthy obstacles for them to struggle against. There’s no actual conflict to be had, so the writer resorts to crafting fake drama out of nothing.

Here’s a test to see if your characters are having useful fights or just fighting each other:

1. Why are the characters fighting?

If there are solid, believable motivations for the fight, then odds are it’s helping, not hurting, the story. Disagreements over the right course of action for the same goal is a good conflict, because the issue’s not what to do, it’s how to do it. Disagreements because one character is pissed off at the other for a slight and is just being contrary, is manufactured conflict, and probably isn’t helping to advance the story.

If there are no real motivations for a fight, then there are probably no stakes either. No stakes equals a boring scene, because nothing bad will happen to make the reader care how the fight turns out. If the fight truly doesn’t matter, it doesn’t need to be there.

(Here’s more with What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

2. What’s gained by the fight?

If the characters are turning on each other, there’d better be a good reason plotwise. Maybe it’s a difference in morality or beliefs, or a strong sense that one person is crossing a line or making a mistake, or even the deliberate attempt by the author to show the conflicting sides of an argument to make a point–whatever it is, the fight achieves something that deepens or advances the story.

If the fight achieves nothing but make the characters angry at each other, odds are it’s not doing much for the story, and the fight might even feel contrived. Also be wary of fights that do nothing but separate the characters so they’ll be alone or at odds when the antagonist strikes.

(Here’s more with What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents)

3. What changes because of the fight?

Like any good turning point, the fight should affect either the plot or character development in some way. If the story and the characters are the same before and after the fight, that’s a red flag the fight is unnecessary. Make sure the fight changes what happens–let it sway opinions, alter goals, raise the stakes–whatever it needs to do to make it a plot point and not just filler until the next actual plot moment.

(Here’s more with If Nothing Changes in Your Novel, You Have No Story)

4. What’s revealed during the fight?

Fights get emotional, and when people get emotional, they often say things they wish they could take back. Secrets and miscommunications are often what triggers a fight in the first place. If your characters aren’t saying anything they wouldn’t have said while calm and rational, then why are they yelling it? What’s the point of the fight if it doesn’t cause new information to come to light?

(Here’s more with Tah-Dah! The Best Place to Reveal Your Story Secrets)

5. How are the emotions affected?

When tensions are high, people will snap at each other. If these spats turn into a larger fight, how does this affect the characters involved? Maybe it causes a shift in thinking or opinion, or reveals a less-than-likable side to a character that changes how another character feels about them, or maybe it sparks (or re-ignites) a passion or attraction. It’s hard for people to fight and not get emotionally caught up in it, or have those emotions color their judgment for a period of time afterward.

Unnecessary infighting often has the characters making up with a few mumbled apologies, and acting as if the fight never happened—because they didn’t care either. They just did what the author told them, so the fight and anger didn’t stem from a real place or affect them one bit.

(Here’s more with Busta Mood: Using the Emotional State of Your Characters to Craft Better Scenes)

If your characters are going to fight, make sure it’s a fight worth caring about.

While not everything on this list has to appear in every fight (or any if you can make it work without them), it’s worth checking to see if a fight between characters is helping your story or just delaying when something interesting occurs. Tossing in a fight to shake things up might seem like an easy fix, but if the fight serves no real purpose, readers won’t care.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine any fights in your novel. Are the characters fighting for a reason or just to cause “extra conflict?” Add whatever is needed to make the fight affect the story.

How do you feel about character infighting?

*Originally published at Publishing Crawl April 2014. Last updated April 2021.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Amen, amen. This is too often the laziest writing there is.

    Check the cause, and check the effect. A good argument is one that *had to* happen, because we already know (or we can accept) that there are real differences between these people. We should be expecting it to happen, at least given the right trigger.

    And the effect... New information is great; so is finding some token change in the plot or their feelings to capture that something happened. But ideally it's a promise that there's a real plot thread about this conflict, that's going to trigger a bigger event later on. (And at the time we weren't sure this *wouldn't* be the real explosion.) Or if it's a temporary clash, that moment and how hard it is to apologize have to carry their own weight.

    Anything's better than "then they fight, because fighting's fun." No, it's *resolving* a fight (or seeing why they don't) and what that means that makes it worth having.

    1. Exactly, if you have that inevitable sense of "this isn't going to end well" then it can work.

      Glad it's not just me who dislikes this clichรฉ :)

  2. I completely agree. I have no issue with arguments and disagreements, but characters should arc (in the stories I like, anyway) so the conflict should serve the arc. In other words, yes, the conflict should make sense in the context of the story. I love when characters move past problems to come together in cooperation, friendship, or attraction. In truth, characters coming together and demonstrating that people working together are stronger than if they're apart is a theme that runs pretty much every novel I write.

    1. Good theme. We need more of that in the world, so people think first to work out differences than fight about them.

  3. Thank you for all of these articles and tips! Ive been writing. Romance since last year and I read a ton!
    I don't have any experience in writing so I am teaching myself. I also have a few of your books and I appreciate anything that I can get! Thanks again!!

    1. Most welcome, and thanks! We all start somewhere, and you're in the right place to learn. Good luck with your writing!

    2. Yes, so true! Thank you!! Appreciate the response! ๐Ÿ˜ƒ๐Ÿ“š๐Ÿ“š

  4. I dislike daytime talk shows and soap operas for this reason. My in-progress novel has some moments of character conflict - I went back and reviewed them with this list in mind and I feel confident that they are serving a point. Thanks for the great information!

  5. I'm really sorry but I disagree. Completely disagree (perhaps I am not a team player). Lord of the rings and Game of thrones are two of the most successful fantasy series of all time and filled with infighting. Similarly The Foundation trilogy and Culture novels in Sci-Fi, House of Cards and Wisdom of Crocodiles in Political thrillers, do not get me onto spy stuff, detective or Historical fiction, the list would be too long. Packed with infighting. The more the better in my opinion. Sorry

    1. That's fine, I did say I was probably in the minority. And I'm not against infighting, just when it's the ONLY conflict and there ONLY because there's no actual conflict in the story.

      When the fighting is from real conflict and real issues, it works. But when characters start fighting for no reason that I have a problem with it.