I've been surprised, when reading books about fiction writing, that such short shrift is often given to the decisions writers make about conflict and its levels. We hear a lot about voice, point of view, characterization, place, structure, theme, and other issues; but when conflict is discussed, it's rarely treated as particularly complex. You'll read, almost as an afterthought: 'Of course, your story must have conflict,' as if it appears in unvarying form in every narrative. But conflict is no more monolithic than love is; and in the same way that love arrives in multifarious forms in both life and literature, so does conflict.
I've heard this issue discussed at length in the context of theatre and film. But fiction writers need to be just as aware of the importance of conflict levels as playwrights and screenwriters do, and possibly more so, because more options are available to them.
Conflict needn't always be about warfare—cops vs. drug dealers, Allies vs. Nazis, space travelers vs. aliens. Reduced to its essence, conflict is just a way of describing the gap between the formation of a desire and its realization. I think it's important to include desire in the equation, as obvious as it may seem, because that's what brings characters' motivations and objectives into play. Good, well-rounded characters are richly motivated, and often have competing desires (which is itself a form of conflict, as described below). Even the crudest action films acknowledge the importance of motivation: There are two minutes of, 'They killed my helpless little brother/sister/goldfish, so I'm going to slaughter them all,' followed by ninety minutes of bloody mayhem.
But conflict, particularly in literary fiction, needn't be so simplistic. He wants a relationship but she's not ready (or vice versa). Maybe they both want a relationship, but one of them is involved with someone else, or about to take a job overseas. Or perhaps their parents disapprove, or they come from warring clans or different religions, and would be putting their lives at risk. The variations are infinite; the point is that they may both be gentle, intelligent people, without easy access to automatic weapons, but between desire and the fulfillment of that desire springs conflict.
Levels of Conflict
Ideally, in fiction, conflict can (and should) occur on many levels. From inner to outer, these may be usefully summarized as follows:
- Conflict within the mind of the character, as he tries to reconcile warring parts of his own consciousness—e.g., love vs. duty, action vs. inaction, rationality vs. emotion, spiritual aspiration vs. carnal desire, freedom vs. addiction, immortality vs. death—in order to find his way. Hamlet is a classic example of this, of course, but there are many others. In fact, this level of conflict is naturally suited to fiction writing, because of the effortless interiority the form provides. It feels much more natural to learn about such conflicts from a character's inner monologue than from a soliloquy delivered from the stage. In theatre or film, it's essential that such conflicts be expressed in outer action. This isn't necessarily the case in fiction—Beckett wrote entire novels in which most or all of the action took place in the protagonist's head—but usually stories are more satisfying if there is such expression.
- Conflict between the character's mind and body, where the will is frustrated or subverted by physical problems or limitations. This sort of thing is hard to manage—think the illness of the week on cheesy television shows—but it can also be done beautifully. My Left Foot is an example of it working well, as is the wonderful play and film, Wit.
- Conflict between the individual and those close to her. This level of conflict is inherently compelling and is present in nearly all narrative and dramatic literature—books, plays, and film. Almost any work you'd care to name is built on or around this level of conflict, which often (though not necessarily) involves families. It's so ubiquitous, in fact, that examples aren't really necessary.
- Conflict between the individual and society is well represented in most forms, as well. Examples may be as disparate as Beloved (where almost all of the story's conflicts flow out of the central, intractable presence of slavery and its effect on the minds and bodies of Sethe and the other characters), Huckleberry Finn, Macbeth, An Enemy of the People, Austen and Dickens (where friction between individual yearnings and society's maddening constraints lights the fires of conflict), Ishiguro's Never Let me Go, Yiyun Li's Vagrants, Kafka, Orwell, and many others.
- Conflict between the individual and the universe. This level of conflict brings the discussion full circle, because it's very close to the first level, that of conflict within the mind of the individual. From Oedipus on down, we've seen how ignorance, willfulness, blindness, and similar traits bring one into conflict with the universe—whether manifested as fate, nature, God (or the gods), or simply that vast expanse of space and time of which we have so little understanding, and which, as a result, inspires us with wonder, humility, and occasional rage. Many of the works already cited also function well within this level of conflict (e.g., Hamlet, Wit). But this level shows up in all sorts of unexpected forms, too. For example, George Saunders's great story "Brad Carrigan, American," which appears mainly to be a surreal social satire, is on a deeper level an extremely sharp and cogent rendering of Buddhist cosmology and the inherent despair of samsara, or the cycle of suffering that results from the state of primordial ignorance. The story uses the metaphor of television to construct that universe, but if you miss the source behind the metaphor, I suspect you miss the central conflict—and meaning—of the story.