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Conflict: Can't Live With It; Can't Write Without It

Conflict. What an unfriendly word! (Almost as bad as rejection, if you ask me). Conflict by definition means that someone is not happy. I've always been a peacemaker, from the time I was a little girl. Even now, I want everyone around me to get along and live in harmony. In real life, that's not an altogether bad attitude to have. In fiction, it's the kiss of death.

Without conflict, you have no story. The whole point of story is to show (not tell) characters in conflict. Through the course of the story, the character's journey, those characters will take actions that will either overcome their conflict and allow them to achieve their goal, or result in ultimate failure. In romance, it's a given that the characters are going to triumph, at least in their reward of winning happiness and true love. (They don't necessarily have to reach their story goal to win true love and achieve a happy, satisfying ending. That's where your killer plot and individual creativity comes in.)

You've surely seen it stated that there are two types of character conflict: external and internal. Learning to tell the difference was a maddening task for me in the beginning. In fact, I still get tangled up from time to time. One thing that helped clarify them for me was something Julie Garwood said in an old RWA workshop. She defined the two conflicts like this: external conflict is the dragon; internal conflict is the demon.

In other words, external conflict is that tangible outside force that's keeping your character from achieving his story goal. For the hero we created in the first part of today's section, external conflict can come in the form of a rival shipping magnate; a deceased relative who leaves a young child in the hero's care; a debilitating sickness that strikes the hero; the heroine who wants to shut his business down--anything that he can touch, see, etc., can provide external conflict.

Internal conflict, on the other hand, is that force WITHIN A CHARACTER that interferes with or prevents him from pursuing a goal, or poses some sort of threat to his secret desire. Internal conflict can be a force unto itself, or it can grow out of the external conflict. For example, let's say our hero's sister dies unexpectedly and names him the guardian of her young daughter. He doesn't want anything to do with the child because he feels the responsibility of this ward will interfere with his business goals of amassing more wealth and advancing his social standing. However, if he doesn't take the child, she will be put in an orphanage. (External conflict.)

Reluctantly, the hero agrees to bring his niece home to live with him. (This action also serves to show his character, as opposed to his characterization. Did you catch that?) Now that the child is installed at his estate, it doesn't change the fact that the hero still feels he is too busy and too important to be a proper guardian. To assist in that problem, the hero hires a governess for his niece in the form of our heroine. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself attracted to the prim and pretty governess. Against his better judgment, he starts spending more and more time at home--if only to pursue the heroine into his bed--and, as he feared, his business begins to suffer for his absence. (Internal conflict, his unwanted attraction to the heroine, intersecting with his external conflict, fear of losing his business/status.)

So, now that we've got our hero heading up Conflict Creek, it's time to take away his paddles. After much romancing, he's finally gotten the heroine into his bed, and, glory be, they did it so often and so well, she is pregnant with his child. His little niece, whom he's since come to think of as his own, has suddenly come down with a strange illness that will require expensive specialized medical treatment. Our hero has an instant, beloved new family that he would do anything to protect, but because he's been neglecting his business interests of late, a rival shipping magnate has edged him out of his biggest job. Even worse, his current clients have pulled their contracts to go with his rival, who's unearthed some damaging information about the hero's less-than-sterling background while our boy was busy falling in love. (That's three big external conflicts we've thrown at him. Your reader is really worried now.)

All of these external dilemmas work to bring the hero's singularly biggest internal conflict into the light: that being, his fear of unworthiness and feelings of inadequacy. He may not have admitted to that fear until this pivotal point in the story, but you, the author, knew what demons he battled, and so you've taken care to plant clues about that fear for the reader to find along the way. Suddenly his unforgiving scorn of his destitute sister and his initial reticence toward his urchin niece makes sense. His consuming drive and ruthless ambition don't seem so cold now; instead the reader feels sympathy for the hard man the hero had to become. Likewise, your reader will understand--far better than the heroine, no doubt--when the brooding hero suddenly retreats into himself or lashes out when the heroine urges him to marry her and adopt his niece to give her the protection of his name. In his mind, he has nothing left to offer anyone. Without his wealth and status, he believes he has no value. Because he has no self-worth, he cannot, or rather, will not, commit to the heroine or his niece. (Internal conflict has hit the fan. This turning point revelation will lead us toward the black moment of the story, when it seems that all is lost, that the hero and heroine's budding romance is doomed.)

Does that make sense? I'm not going to try to resolve the convoluted mess I just created, but I hope it helps you understand how to develop and use conflict in your books. We've really only just scratched the surface of this topic (ditto my article on Characters, which should be ten times longer), but if you have any questions about what I've covered today--or what I haven't covered--ask away!

Also, for more information on conflict, see Debra Dixon's book, GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT. (See the Reference Desk section of my Writers Tips & Articles page for a link to order.)