We’ve all heard about the importance of conflict in storytelling; that it is the fuel that drives the drama; that without it our stories lack interest.
But where do we find conflict? In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger stresses that conflict springs up between characters because of their differing motivations, backgrounds, wants and goals, values and attitudes.
Often, these conflicts are psychological. The traits that characters often find the most infuriating about each other come from their repressed sides; ironically, it is these very qualities that both attracts and repels them.
Conflict sometimes occurs because characters hide things from each other, either purposefully, or because of an inability to communicate, which, in turn, leads to misunderstandings. In Cheers Sam and Diane’s first kiss is fraught with conflict, albeit humorously rendered:
SAM: What is it you want, Diane?
DIANE: I want you to tell me what you want.
SAM: I’ll tell you what I want… I want to know what you want.
DIANE: Don’t you see, this is the problem we’ve had all along. Neither of us is able to come out and state the obvious.
SAM: You’re right. So, let’s state the obvious.
DIANE: O.K. You go first.
SAM: Why should I go first?
DIANE: We’re doing it again.
SAM: Diane, just explain one thing to me…Why aren’t you with Derek?
DIANE: Because I like you better.
SAM: Really? Well, I like you better than Derek, too.
SAM: All the jealousy I ever felt for my brother is nothing to what I’ve felt In the last five minutes.
DIANE: Oh, Sam. I think we’re about to start something that might be kind of great, huh?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, You’re right. I guess we oughta like…kiss, huh?
But because nothing is ever straight forward between Diane and Sam, it takes many pages of discussion and arguing before they finally do kiss.
The point is that conflict does not have to be graphic to generate interest in the characters and drama; often, it is the more subtle, hidden conflicts that most hold the reader’s and audience’s attention.
Character conflict often occurs when characters try to hide something from each other, or are defined by differing values.