Monday, January 27, 2014

Levels of Conflict: Hitting Your Hero From All Sides

by Gamal Hennessy

The vast majority of all fictional plots boils down to a struggle to achieve a goal. A protagonist has an object of desire that is material or situational. To get what she wants, your heroine has to exert effort against everything that stands between her and her goal. The power and intensity of her obstacles will define both your heroine and the strength of your story. But where do those obstacles come from and how can we build them into the story in a way that tests the heroine in the most satisfying manner? One answer lies in playing with the different levels of conflict.

Three Levels of Conflict
A level of conflict is a source of antagonism that stands between your protagonist and their goal. Robert McKee's book Story defines three major levels of conflict:
  • Internal: where the thoughts, feelings or physical characteristics of a protagonist block achievement of the goal
  • Interpersonal: where relationships with other people or groups block achievement
  • Extra-personal: where institutions, natural phenomenon and situations block achievement

To put this into perspective, let's say you're writing a story about a boy named Adam living in Jerusalem. Adam has just seen a beautiful Arab girl and in that moment decides that he is in love. What obstacles does Adam face in his quest for a relationship? As a writer, you have several options:
  • Internal: Adam's shyness, lack of experience with women and unattractive features get in the way of his budding romance. 
  • Interpersonal: The girl might resist his advances for her own reasons, or she might have another suitor who wants to remove Adam from the picture. Also, Adam's parents could try to prevent him from getting involved with an Arab girl. The girl's brothers might threaten him with violence.  His own friends might reject him.
  • Extra-personal: The wider Arab Israeli conflict could also inhibit our hero. Hezbollah bombings into the settlements could disrupt Adam's life or create a curfew situation. A suicide bomb could destroy everything or even kill the girl. Protests, strikes or other mass social events could tear their relationship apart before it even gets started.

This is just a few examples of what Adam is up against. If he is able to win this girl's love, the obstacles he'll have to overcome could make an amazing story.

The Different Directions of Conflict

After you determine the conflict against your hero, you have three main choices when deciding on the direction you’d like to go with each one:
  • Broad: where the protagonist has to deal with conflict on each level, either at once or simultaneously
  • Deep: where the conflict is primarily on one level, but the impact on that level is this hammers at the core of the character
  • Compound: where the conflicts are both broad and deep and the hero fights intense battles on all fronts to achieve their goal.

The direction you choose is often a function of genre. An action adventure might have heavy interpersonal and extra personal conflict when the hero battles the arch villain on the top of a mountain in a blinding snow storm. A cozy mystery might have strong internal focus as the detective quietly strains her intellect to solve the crime. Every style of writing can tap into each type of conflict, but some genres lend themselves to specific conflict types.

Conflict as Spotlight

The best way I've found to develop conflict in my work is to focus on the aspects of my protagonist that I want to reveal and then creating conflicts that explore those traits. One of my main characters is a young woman named Nikki. She wants the affection of her mentor and lover Chris. To show her dedication to this goal, I put several obstacles in her path in the first twenty five pages of the book.

Nikki has to deal with the extra personal danger of spying on the Russian mafia for Chris. She has to face the interpersonal roadblocks of abusive teammates. The internal doubt she has about who Chris really is and her own feelings for him create the largest source of conflict. As the story progresses, each level of conflict deepens and interacts with the others to build a story that reveals Nikki's true character as the narrative unfolds. (See Creating Complex Characters)

The best stories have the strongest conflicts. While it's not necessary to throw every obstacle at every character in every story, a weak story is most often the result of weak antagonists. Pit your heroine against the strongest combination of antagonism that you can think of. Your readers will thank you for it.

Have fun.

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