By Ane Mulligan
My first novel was a Biblical fiction in which I strung together a bunch of scenes from Jesus’ life, interspersed with the fictional characters. There was no conflict, other than the Pharisees wanting to crucify Jesus. I figured that was enough.
Uh, no. Not for a novel. Sigh. I had a lot to learn.
I slid that first manuscript under my bed, never to see the light of day again. I turned to contemporary fiction and let my funny bone come out to play. However, I still lacked enough conflict. My crit partners (you know the ones: Attila the Holmes, Genghis Griep, and Ludwig von Frankenpen) ripped it apart.
“More conflict!” was the verdict.
But I write light-hearted Southern fiction.
“You still need conflict. Anne of Green Gables had a story question that kept it going. Would Anne be able to avoid her usual high jinx and get adopted? While not the usual conflict, it provided tension needed to carry the story forward. You need more!”
Okay, okay. I heard. I began to do deeper character interviews in which I discovered the secrets about my characters’ past. Once I found their deepest need or darkest secret, I had the basis for conflict. What was the worst thing that could happen to her/him? Do it and then go one worse.
Suspense, mystery, and adventure genres have built-in conflict by nature of the genre. They are plot driven, meaning the events cause the protagonist to make decisions.
But in character driven fiction, (the character’s decision causes certain events to happen, driving the plot forward) the conflict will stem from the characters motivation, which is based on that lie they believe about themselves.
These things, the lie and motivation, are found within the character’s backstory. That secret. That devastating childhood event colors their personality and their worldview. These are from where you draw the story conflict.
If it matters to the character, if it violates or goes in direct opposition to their motivation, it causes great conflict.
For instance, in Chapel Springs Revival, my protagonist, Claire, wants respect. Her lie is that it’s all her fault. She lives to prove that wrong. But she’s her own worst enemy, trying so hard, she forgets to stop and think before she moves or says anything. She charges headlong into trouble, and usually ends up in a mess, further compounding her dilemma.
In Rich in Love, by Lindi Peterson, the heroine, raised on the mission field, wants nothing to do with foreign missions. She’ll serve God right here in Atlanta, thank you very much. The hero, with whom she’s fallen head over heels in love with, has been to be a foreign missionary.
Filled with conflict? Absotootinglutely!
So remember, conflict comes from within, in a character-driven novel. It comes from the character’s past, their hurts, their fears-their backstory. That backstory may never make it in the book (and probably shouldn’t) but you’ll glean so much from it, you’ll have built-in conflict.
Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. She’s a novelist, a humor columnist, and a multi-published playwright. She believes chocolate and coffee are two of the four major food groups and resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband, and two dogs of Biblical proportion. You can find Ane at www.anemulligan.com.