From Internal Struggles to Epic Showdowns: The Tension of Character Conflicts
Updated: Oct 4
If there's one thing that keeps readers eagerly turning the pages, it's tension. The palpable sense of anticipation, the clash of emotions, and the uncertain outcomes make for a gripping reading experience. And where does much of this tension stem from? Character conflicts.
In this blog post, we'll dive deep into the world of character conflicts and explore how they can be harnessed to create and sustain tension in your stories.
Internal Conflict: The Battle Within
Let's start with the conflicts that rage within our characters' minds and hearts. Internal conflicts are a goldmine for tension. They draw readers into the character's psyche, allowing them to empathise with the struggle between desire and duty, fear and courage, or past and present.
Take, for instance, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.
'So, would he have hidden the sword well away from Hogsmeade, then? What d'you reckon, Ron? Ron?' Harry looked around. For one bewildered moment he thought that Ron had left the tent, then realised that Ron was lying in the shadow of a lower bunk, looking stony. 'Oh, remembered me, have you?' he said. 'What?' Ron snorted as he stared up at the underside of the upper bunk. 'You two carry on. Don't let me spoil your fun.' Perplexed, Harry looked to Hermione for help, but she shook her head, apparently as nonplussed as he was. 'What's the problem?' asked Harry. 'Problem? There's no problem,' said Ron, still refusing to look at Harry. 'Not according to you, anyway.'
In the book, Ron Weasley grapples with internal conflicts stemming from feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. His perception that Harry and Hermione share a closer bond and his own self-doubt strain their relationships, jeopardising their mission to defeat Lord Voldemort. Ron's vulnerability to the dark magic of a Horcrux intensifies the novel's tension, and his loss of confidence adds pressure to his friends.
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen's internal conflict between survival and her moral principles also intensifies the novel's tension. She grapples with the need to form alliances, kill other tributes, and manipulate the Capitol's audience to stay alive, all while harbouring a deep sense of compassion, and opposition to the Capitol's cruelty. This inner turmoil creates constant suspense, keeping readers on edge about whether Katniss will compromise her values for survival. It also adds depth to her character, making her relatable and human.
So, how should you go about crafting effective internal conflict in your characters?
Know Your Character's Inner Landscape: Before you can effectively portray internal conflict, you must intimately know your character's inner world. Understand their deepest desires, fears, regrets, and aspirations. What keeps them awake at night? What are the unresolved issues from their past? This rich understanding will form the foundation of their internal conflicts.
Desire vs. Duty: One classic internal conflict revolves around the tug-of-war between a character's desires and their sense of duty or responsibility. This is the battle of the heart versus the mind. To keep tensions high, ensure that these desires and duties are deeply rooted in your character's core values. For example, a character torn between their passion for art and their family's expectation to become a lawyer will face an intense internal struggle. Show the emotional turmoil, the moments of doubt, and the difficult choices they must make.
Fear vs. Courage: The battle between fear and courage is another potent source of internal conflict. Fear can paralyse a character, while courage drives them forward. To create tension, gradually build up the fear, making it seem insurmountable. Then, through a series of challenges and character growth, let courage slowly emerge. Readers will be on edge, wondering if the character will find the strength to overcome their fears.
Past vs. Present: Characters haunted by their past or struggling to reconcile it with their present choices can provide a rich vein of internal conflict. Unresolved trauma, regrets, or unfinished business from the past can create a constant sense of unease. To sustain tension, reveal the character's past incrementally, allowing readers to piece together the puzzle. Show how the past influences their decisions and relationships in the present.
The Inner Monologue: One of the most powerful tools for portraying internal conflict is the character's inner monologue. Let readers into the character's thoughts, doubts, and self-debates. Use first-person narration or close third-person perspectives to dive deep into their psyche. The more readers understand the character's inner turmoil, the more invested they'll be in the conflict's resolution.
External Triggers: While internal conflicts originate within the character, external triggers can exacerbate them. Introduce situations, other characters, or dilemmas that force the character to confront their internal struggle. These external pressures can push the character to their limits, increasing the tension as they grapple with their inner demons.
Change and Growth: Effective internal conflicts should lead to character change and growth. The character should evolve, even if only slightly, as they wrestle with their inner demons. Show this transformation over the course of the story, allowing readers to witness the character's journey. The resolution of the internal conflict should reflect this growth, providing a satisfying payoff for the reader.
Incorporating well-crafted internal conflicts into your story can be a masterstroke for keeping tensions high. It draws readers deeper into the character's emotional landscape, forging a strong empathetic connection. Remember, it's not just about the conflict itself but also the character's journey of self-discovery and transformation that will keep readers eagerly turning the pages. So, dig deep into your characters' hearts and minds, and watch the tension soar in your novel.
Interpersonal Conflict: The Clash of Personalities
Interpersonal conflicts are the spice of character interactions. These clashes occur when characters' personalities, goals, or beliefs clash head-on. They're like the sparks that fly when two strong forces meet.
In George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, the feud between Cersei Lannister and Eddard Stark is a prime example of high-stakes interpersonal conflict. Their conflict arises primarily from their differing values and ambitions, which contribute significantly to the novel's tension as they represent a central power struggle in the story. It underscores the theme of moral integrity versus political expediency, with Ned's honor and Cersei's cunning playing contrasting roles.
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the central conflict revolves around the clash of personalities between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
[Darcy] sat down for a few moments, and then getting up walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner and thus began, 'In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.' Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. [...] In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man's affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger.
Elizabeth's initial prejudice against Darcy's aloof demeanor creates interpersonal tension. Their verbal sparring and misunderstandings keep readers engaged, wondering if their differences can ever be reconciled.
So, how might you effectively use interpersonal conflicts to keep tensions simmering?
Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters: To craft compelling interpersonal conflicts, authors must breathe life into their characters. Each character should have distinct personalities, goals, values, and motivations. These differences will naturally lead to clashes when these characters come into contact. Develop well-rounded characters with both strengths and flaws, and ensure their individual traits are integral to the conflict.
Goals and Motivations Clash: At the heart of many interpersonal conflicts are conflicting goals and motivations. To heighten tension, establish clear and specific goals for your characters. Then, set these goals on a collision course with those of other characters. Whether it's a protagonist striving for justice while an antagonist seeks revenge, or two allies with differing agendas, these clashes will keep readers eagerly anticipating the outcome.
Belief Systems Collide: Differences in belief systems, values, and ideologies are a potent source of interpersonal conflict. When characters hold steadfast to their convictions, sparks are sure to fly. To maintain tension, delve into the origins of these beliefs. Show how they shape the characters' actions and decisions, and let these conflicts challenge the characters to reevaluate their beliefs or deepen their resolve.
Dialogue as a Battlefield: Dialogue is where interpersonal conflicts often ignite. Engaging, well-written conversations that reveal the characters' conflicting views can be a goldmine of tension. Allow characters to engage in verbal sparring, debates, or impassioned arguments. Use dialogue tags and body language to convey the intensity of the conflict, and let the characters' words leave a lasting impact.
Forced Alliances and Unlikely Partnerships: Sometimes, characters with opposing interests are forced to work together. These forced alliances or unlikely partnerships can generate gripping conflicts. As they collaborate under duress, tensions rise due to their conflicting objectives. Readers will be glued to the story, wondering how these characters will navigate their differences while pursuing a common goal.
Evolution of Relationships: Interpersonal conflicts can evolve over the course of the story. Characters who initially clash may develop complex relationships. Show how these conflicts change and mold the characters, forcing them to adapt and grow. Whether it leads to grudging respect, reluctant cooperation, or deeper animosity, these evolving dynamics sustain reader interest.
External Factors Amplify Conflicts: External factors can intensify interpersonal conflicts. These could be external pressures, time constraints, or life-and-death situations. When characters are pushed to their limits, their interpersonal conflicts become even more charged. Use these external factors strategically to escalate the tension.
Consequences and Ripple Effects: Make sure there are consequences for the characters' conflicts. Interpersonal clashes should have a ripple effect, impacting the plot and other characters. The fallout from these conflicts can spawn new tensions and dilemmas, ensuring a continuous thread of suspense throughout the narrative.
Reader Empathy and Engagement: Engaging readers emotionally in the characters' conflicts is key to sustaining tension. Encourage readers to empathize with the conflicting characters by providing insight into their motivations and vulnerabilities. When readers care about the outcome of these conflicts, they will remain emotionally invested in the story.
Interpersonal conflicts are indeed the spice of character interactions, and when executed masterfully, they add depth, complexity, and a relentless sense of tension to your novel. By meticulously crafting characters with distinct personalities and motivations, setting their goals and beliefs on a collision course, and allowing the conflicts to evolve and ripple through the narrative, you'll keep readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly anticipating the next clash of personalities.
External Conflict: The Battle Beyond
External conflicts, often physical or situational, ratchet up the tension to epic proportions. These are the battles, chases, and showdowns that keep readers at the edge of their seats, wondering if the characters will emerge victorious.
Think of the epic lightsaber duels in the Star Wars franchise. The clash between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is a prime example of external conflict that not only showcases their physical prowess but also reveals the emotional stakes involved.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is rife with external conflicts, quite notably in the form of epic battles.
Without a word or cry, suddenly the Riders halted. A thicket of spears were pointed towards the strangers; and some the horsemen had bows in hand, and their arrows were already fitted to the string. Then one rode forward, a tall man, taller than all the rest; from his helm as a crest a white horsetail flowed. He advanced until the point of his spear was within a foot of Aragorn's great. Aragorn did not stir.
The Battle of Helm's Deep and the climactic Battle of Minas Tirith are prime examples. These massive conflicts, involving armies of orcs and men, create high-stakes tension as the fate of Middle-earth hangs in the balance. Readers are on the edge of their seats, invested in the outcome of these epic showdowns.
So, how can you best make use of your novel's epic showdown(s)?
Establish High Stakes: The essence of gripping external conflicts lies in high stakes. Make it abundantly clear what the characters stand to gain or lose. Whether it's life and death, the fate of a nation, or the survival of a cherished relationship, the higher the stakes, the more invested readers will be. High stakes create a relentless sense of tension and urgency.
Foreshadowing and Build-up: Effective external conflicts often benefit from foreshadowing. Drop subtle hints early in the narrative, hinting at the impending showdown. Allow the tension to build gradually. Readers should sense the approaching storm, eagerly awaiting its arrival. Foreshadowing primes readers for the impending conflict, making it all the more intense when it finally erupts.
(I've said it a thousand times, and I'll say it again!) Show, Don't Tell: When the external conflict erupts, show it in vivid detail. Engage the readers' senses by describing the sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations of the conflict. Instead of simply telling the reader that the battle is fierce, immerse them in the chaos and intensity of the conflict. Let them feel the adrenaline, the fear, and the determination along with the characters.
Character Investment: Ensure that readers are deeply invested in the characters involved in the external conflict. Emotional connection is crucial. When readers care about the characters and their fates, the tension naturally escalates. Make sure the characters have clear motivations and reasons for engaging in the conflict, and let these motivations drive their actions during the showdown.
Multiple Dimensions of Conflict: External conflicts can have multiple dimensions. It's not just about physical combat but also about strategic maneuvering, moral dilemmas, and unexpected twists. Layer the conflict by introducing unforeseen challenges or internal conflicts within the characters themselves. These layers of conflict add depth and complexity to the showdown.
Unpredictability and Uncertainty: Keep readers guessing by injecting unpredictability into the conflict. Unexpected turns of events, sudden betrayals, or twists that challenge the characters' assumptions can elevate the tension. Readers should never feel entirely certain about the outcome, keeping them on the edge of their seats.
Emotional Resonance: The most memorable external conflicts are those that resonate emotionally. Show the characters' emotional turmoil and growth during and after the conflict. Whether it's the triumph of an underdog, the bittersweet victory, or the devastating loss, make sure the emotional impact reverberates with readers long after the conflict is resolved.
Consequences and Aftermath: External conflicts should have consequences that ripple through the narrative. Explore the aftermath of the conflict, showing how it affects the characters and the world around them. The resolution of the conflict shouldn't mark the end of the tension but rather the beginning of its reverberations.
Subvert Expectations: Don't be afraid to subvert readers' expectations. Sometimes, the character doesn't emerge victorious in the traditional sense, but the conflict serves as a catalyst for growth or transformation. Subverting expectations can be a powerful way to keep the tension fresh and unpredictable.
Incorporating well-crafted external conflicts into your story is like unleashing a storm of tension that captivates readers. By establishing high stakes, employing foreshadowing, immersing readers in the conflict, and ensuring emotional resonance, you can create showdowns that leave readers breathless, wondering what will happen next. These conflicts are the crucible where your characters' mettle is tested, and the tension they generate will keep readers at the edge of their seats, eagerly anticipating the next epic clash in your narrative.
To conclude, character conflicts are the lifeblood of tension in storytelling. By delving into the internal struggles, interpersonal clashes, and epic showdowns, you can craft a narrative that keeps readers eagerly flipping pages. Remember, tension is not just about what happens but also about how it affects your characters on their journeys. Master the art of character conflicts, and you'll have readers on the edge of their seats, craving more of your stories.
As an editor, I'm committed to providing you with free, insightful content, and I have no plans to clutter your reading experience with advertisements. If you've enjoyed my work and would like to support the continued creation of these articles, I invite you to consider buying me a coffee.