Conflict: A Taxonomy

Conflict is an essential part of storytelling. Every story needs a conflict to drive it, even if that conflict is as simple as getting to the office on time. I’ve talked about conflict before from time to time but today it’s time to sit down and really dissect it. In literary terms there are four to eight types of conflict but in the writing tradition I learned from there are exactly seven and this is the system that I continue to use to this day. Without further ado, the seven kinds of conflict as I learned them are:

Character vs. Character 

In this conflict you have two people who cannot agree on something. Each character tries to get their own way and hijinks ensue. While this seems like a simple type of conflict it is really very deep, these conflicts tend to spread out of control as they exist almost any time two characters interact with each other. The vast majority of stories today have character vs. character as a major conflict, if not the major conflict. Luke’s story arc in the classic Star Wars trilogy is a great example of this kind of conflict, as is any Superman story with Lex Luthor in it.

Character vs. Self 

This conflict arises when a character is dissatisfied with some aspect of themselves and attempts to correct it. If you’ve ever tried to get in shape or break a bad habit you know how hard this can be. Stories focusing on this kind of conflict usually make a big deal of how the thing being changed effects the central character and the world around them, and how the attempts to change cause ripples in the character’s life. Groundhog’s Day or (oddly enough) Scott Pilgrim VS The World are great examples of this.

Character vs. Nature 

A struggle with nature arises any time impersonal laws of existence, like gravity or time, or forces of nature, like storms or earthquakes, or just wild animals threaten a character or prevent them from getting what they want. These kinds of struggles usually focus on the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of ingenuity in the face of mindless obstacles. The Old Man and the Sea is the quintessential example of this. The Perfect Storm is another good case study.

Character vs. The World (or Society) 

When a character desires something that just isn’t the way things are done, or social mores and strictures put entire groups of people against one person or one person just tries to march to his own rhythm and is discouraged by the ways he doesn’t fit in you have a character vs. the world. It’s much like character vs. character except it’s as much about the nature of the system the character is caught in than the wants and needs of the individual characters who oppose him. Romeo and Juliet does this on a small scale, 1984 on a large one.

Character vs. Fate 

This is much like character vs. self except all the character’s attempts to change are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. It can also pertain to stories where characters attempt to thwart some prediction only to make it come true – usually because of some quirk of their own characters. Regardless, it hinges on how a character’s nature makes their actions ineffectual. And sometimes (rarely, to tell the truth) how they overcome those natures. Oedipus Rex is an example of this conflict.

Character vs. Machine 

This conflict is actually kind of new, but not at the same time. It’s a well known fact that changes in technology force people to adapt and the struggle to adapt to changing places in the world, or hold on to your place in the face of new tools or techniques, is a timeless one. But only in the modern era has it started to look like machines can actually replace people entirely and how people deal with that possibility is the center of this conflict. The Caves of Steel is a perfect example.

Character vs. gods/God 

Any time a character struggles against another character who is utterly beyond their abilities to comprehend that conflict is character vs. gods/God. What sets this apart is that the conflict is almost always one-sided. The human character does all the work, invests all the emotion and purpose and almost always fails to provoke any kind of reaction at all from the other party. These stories run a spectrum from The Call of Cthulu on one end to Till We Have Faces on the other.

So what function do these classifications serve?

Mostly, I find they help you think about your characters in a new light. Trying to classify your character’s central conflict can focus your narrative wonderfully, helping you fixate on and eliminate needless distractions and really hit the story where it lives.

For those of you following my Avengers Analyzed series, I employed this technique to help me narrow down the elements of each character’s own character growth and ignore their actions which were intended to advance the development of others. Which brings me to another important issue. Most every character in your cast should probably have a conflict of their own that they are dealing with. Working out what those conflicts are will help your characters’ actions and dialog to have purpose and make them more believable and sympathetic.

Conflict. It needs to be at the heart of your story so make it as clear as possible.

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World Building: Start with the Basics

Okay, so we’ve covered original vs. derivative in terms of world building. But whether you want to be completely original or mostly derivative, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself, otherwise your story will be a flat thing in a flat world (and I’m not talking about Discworld here.) So where do you start?

There are obviously a lot of things to think about when you’re building a world. What’s the geography like? What’s the climate? Who lives there, what do they want, how old is the world and what’s the current political situation, what events led to the current status quo, and on and on. To be honest, it can be more than a little overwhelming. It’s important to keep some basic principles in mind.

Build From the Bottom Up

Start with the basic ideas. Where did the world and the people come from? Is it a colony created by Earth around a distant star in the far future? Or is it on a disk on the back of elephants, put there by bickering lesser “deities”? And how much of the world’s origin is even known to the average person? If it’s not known, what are the prevalent theories?

Who lives there? Are there other races beyond humans? Are there humans at all, or is the average person an oddity there? How much of the world is actually explored and understood by the people who your story focuses on?

Frame the Rules of Enagement

What do you want to your world to be about? While in the real world science, exploration, political theory and standard of living were all linked in their advancement, there’s nothing wrong with your distorting your world slightly to bring one of those elements to the foreground. But if you’re going to do that, you need to know that you’re doing it from fairly early on, or you’ll have to go back and make significant adjustments to bring things in line.

Also, if you’re going to have magic, metahuman abilities like telepathy or telekinesis, nonhuman races or even stranger things like lurking eldritch horrors, you’re going to need to decide on that at this stage. Adding these things after the world is mostly set can result in story elements that are wildly out of place.

Set The Scene

Choose a particular part of your world to focus on first. Choose a country (or a city or a county) to focus on first. Build that place until it’s what you want it to be, then think about other parts. It’s true that no country is an island (unless, of course, the country is a literal island(s), like Britain, Japan or Madagascar, but that’s not what we’re saying here) and as you think of ways for that your first area of focus ties to other places in the world, go ahead and write them down.

Eventually, you’ll need to think about places outside where you want to tell stories, unless you want to convey the idea that you’re dealing with one of the last places on earth or a small colony in space or something. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to go back and edit what you’ve already written about your first place. It’s important not to give the impression that everything in the world revolves around that one patch of ground. But there’s nothing wrong with having a very firm idea what one place is like before you move on. If you’ve done it right, you can actually follow the lines of commerce, politics and money from place to place until you have at least a general idea what the entire known world is like!

Establish the Core Conflict

There’s a conflict inherent to every setting. When looking at the part of the world you’re working on, find out what that is. As your characters explore that world later, they’ll have to encounter it at least tangentially, or their life won’t look real. For example, in Asimov’s robot novels, it’s the struggle between Earth and the Spacer worlds that results in the murders that Elijah Bailey must solve. Bailey’s conflict is between himself and the murderer but the larger conflict in the world around him defines those smaller conflicts in dozens of ways, including the constant presence of R. Daneel Olivaw.

On the other hand, few conflicts are world wide. It’s fine if one area has one overarching conflict, such as the local equivalent to Prohibition and the resulting organized crime, while another area is wracked with conflict between a petty tyrant and la Resistance.

Identify Major Players

I’m not talking about the characters your story will be about (although they may be in your story, and they may even be your characters, the just don’t have to be.) Rather, decide who’s important in your neck of the woods. Who runs the government, who owns major businesses, who heads la Resistance (if there is one). Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need one of these people to help your story along, and it looks much better if you can show their influence from the beginning, rather than having a major player in the military-industrial complex simply appear out of thin air.

With these five basic rules to help you lay a foundation you should be well on your way to making a decent world. Getting the broad strokes down is just as important as all the other minutia, and the one won’t look nearly as good without the other. There may be another few posts on the subject of word building, but for the time being, I hope that will be enough to get the wheels turning.

Story Ideas

A lot of people think that the hardest part of writing is coming up with the ideas. After all, once you have the idea worked out the rest of the story should just flow naturally from that, right?

Well, if you’ve actually been a writer for any length of time you know that is pretty much the opposite of the way things really are. Most authors will admit that they have a lot more ideas for stories than they know what to do with. It takes months of careful thought, writing, editing, critique and rewriting to make one good, solid story. In the mean time, while not working on that story idea, you will probably have six to eight really good ideas for stories present themselves to you. That does not include the two or three dozen ideas you have that aren’t any good, sound vaguely interesting but really aren’t worth your time right now, require way more research or technical knowledge than you have the time or money to acquire at the moment, or otherwise don’t mesh with your time and talents.

In other words, if you’re a writer with a real investment in the art of story, you’ll see stories everywhere, and never lack for ideas to follow up on. On the other hand, if you’re not, it may seem like stories simply pop up out of nowhere for some people while you can never seem to get one started.

But not to worry! Finding story ideas is a skill that can be practiced, rather than a talent you are born with. So how does one spot a good story idea?

Well, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that all good stories focus on a compelling conflict. This doesn’t necessarily refer to a physical confrontation, but there must be at least two goals being pursued by a character or characters in the story, and achieving them must conflict somehow. It can be as simple as a man not having enough money to pay rent and buy a present for his girlfriend’s birthday or as complicated as a multisided dispute over territorial rites on a completely fictional world humanity colonizes after achieving space flight. It’s the working out of these conflicting goals that forms the backbone of your plot and gives your story its narrative drive.

The second thing about your story is that your conflict cannot have a simple solution. Even if the solution seems simple at first, there must be enough obstacles in place to make achieving the solution very difficult, if not impossible, otherwise your story will either be too short or feature characters who are painfully shortsighted. If it’s not possible to complicate your story’s solution, it may not be a good idea to pursue.

Lastly, your story idea must interest you, or you won’t have the drive necessary to slog through all the work necessary to turn the idea into a serviceable story. If the idea isn’t working for you, you shouldn’t work for it!

Keep these ideas in mind and sooner or later you’ll find yourself with plenty of ideas to play with. Then all that’s left is the outlining, drafting, character development, writing, editing, rewriting, ripping up huge chunks of plot and redrafting them then finally stepping away from the whole mess and calling it done before it ruins your life!

Enjoy.