We often think that to create conflict we need to show major conflict or fight scenes. For example, a car chase, an argument between lovers, a fistfight, or the threat of a nuclear explosion. Or we think of conflict as some kind of internal suffering: depression, longing, or pain.
But the truth is that if events and emotions were the only elements of conflict in our stories, we'd have some pretty flat stories.
Conflict, in good stories, is not always about spectacular events or painful emotions. Good conflict is about values.
Conflict is at the heart of good fiction. Our characters have to face opposition in their pursuit of a worthy goal to keep us interested. It's conflict that shows us who they really are. Let's look at how to develop good conflict story ideas from values.
What is a Value
When you hear the word value in this context, you might think of “family values,” or in other words, morals. While morality is crucial to storytelling, morals aren't what I mean by value.
Let's simplify it. A value is something you admire, something you want. If I value something, it means I think it's good.
Here are some examples of things you might value:
- Money / Wealth
- Your little brother
- Getting good grades
- The Environment
Think about a few of your favorite protagonists. What do they value?
For example, Elizabeth Bennet, our heroine from Pride & Prejudice, values honesty, humility, intelligence, kindness, and her family (am I missing any?). The source of conflict with Mr. Darcy was on the basis of these values. She thought he was dishonest, prideful, rude, and worst of all, he “ruined the happiness of a most beloved sister.” She believed he acted against her values.
Types of Conflict
Once you know what a character values, you can decide how to put that value at risk for strong character development. There are different types of conflict.
One is external conflict, meaning that something outside the character gets in the way of what they value. If a villain tries to stop the superhero, that's external conflict. If a terrible storm keeps a character from reaching the person they love, that's external conflict.
Win Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy convinces Bingley that Jane doesn't love him, he's creating external conflict that gets in the way of Jane's happiness (even if this is a secondary conflict in the novel).
Another type is internal conflict, where the character is at war with themselves. Elizabeth Bennet holding onto her own pride is an internal conflict—she has to overcome something in herself to find love.
When Good People Create Conflict
You don't need a villain to create narrative conflict. Most conflict comes about between two positive values that conflict.
In our example of Pride & Prejudice, looming above the whole story is the value of marriage and love. Mrs. Bennet wants all her daughters to get married. The daughters want to get married too, but only if they're in love… and preferably in love with someone wealthy (another central value in the story).
Marriage, love, and wealth are all positive values. They're values most of us would agree with! However, figuring out how to adhere to all of those values at once is incredibly difficult, and in Pride & Prejudice, we get to watch the characters try, fail, and then finally succeed at achieving all of these good but conflicting values.
There can even be conflicts within a single value.
All of the Bennet daughters value love, but what does love even mean? Does it count when the object of your affection isn't respectable? Is foolish passion still love? What if you love knowledge and books more than people? What if you make a marriage of convenience and end up loving your lifestyle but not your spouse? Is that okay? Those are all conflicts raised within the single value of love.
How To Create Conflict in Your Story
To create conflict within your own story, ask yourself the following questions:
What does your main character value?
Do any of his values potentially conflict?
How can you reveal the conflicts in those values?
Do any of his values conflict with themselves?
How can you delve into the complications of that single value?
A Note About Villains
While your story may not need a villain to have conflict, it's always fun to have one. A villain is a character who has the opposite values as those of your main character.
For example, Batman values justice and order. Joker values crime and chaos. Frodo values his friends and the peace of the Shire. Sauron values power at the cost of relationship and beauty.
To create the perfect villain, figure out what your main character values. Then, twist those values into some hideous shape and set the characters loose on each other.
Who are some of your favorite characters? What do they value and how are those values tested? Let us know in the comments.
Write a short scene showing one of your character's values. Then test that value, either with another positive value or by negating that value.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the practice box below. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few fellow writers' work too.
Enter your practice here:
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.