How to Create Layers of Thematically Pertinent Conflict

A Guest Post by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland), author of “Structuring Your Novel”

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How many times have you heard that conflict is story?

This truism powers all of fiction for the simple reason that conflict creates plot. Your protagonist wants something. Someone prevents him from immediately gaining that thing. Conflict ensues, and a story is born.

On the surface, conflict is a ridiculously easy concept. Have one character punch another. Or yell at him. Or even just give him the silent treatment. Easy-peasy, right? And to some extent, that’s true. As long as you have an antagonistic force that is preventing your protagonist from getting his grubby little mitts on his overall story goal (and the individual scene goals in between—both of which I discuss in way more detail in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), then you have enough conflict to drive your plot.

But if you want to take your story to the next level, then you’re going to want to not just generate a simple round of one-on-one conflict. You’re going to want to take it to the next level. You’re going to want to layer the conflict among multiple characters.

Selecting your story’s antagonists

How do you know which characters should be your story’s antagonists? To begin with, let’s just stop and clarify that an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy. An antagonist is anyone (or thing) preventing your character from getting what he wants. A scene’s antagonist could be the nice little old lady your protagonist has to take time to help across the street before he can go catch the escaping bank robbers. The story’s overall antagonist could be the character’s mother, who wants him to go to college instead of hiking around the world.

So when we start talking about people who are opposing your protagonist and creating conflict, we’re not necessarily talking about super-villains with squirrely henchmen. What we’re talking about is a person who has a legitimate reason to oppose your protagonist’s wishes—and who has the muscle to be a formidable threat. It isn’t enough for a character to disagree with your protagonist; he has to have the ability to block your protagonist’s best moves.

Once you’ve got your main antagonist in the bag, you’re then going to want to identify at least two minor opponents. These folks probably won’t have quite as much muscle as the main antagonist, but they will also oppose your protagonist on some level. And they’re going to be just as tenacious and annoying in holding him back from getting what he wants. For example, if your main antagonist is a mafia don, then your minor antagonists might be your protagonist’s family members or co-workers. They may not even have a direct connection to your protagonist at all, but rather just a vested interest in preventing his goal of bringing the don to justice.

Creating contrast and pertinence in each instance of conflict

Now that you’ve identified a handful of important antagonists, your next step will be answering the following questions:

  • How will these characters stand between your protagonist and what he wants?

This is always the most important question to ask yourself about any potential opponent. If a character isn’t standing in your protagonist’s way, then he’s not an antagonist.

  • How will these characters attack your protagonist’s weakness in different ways?

Each of these antagonists needs to oppose your protagonist in a different way. In short, Henchman #1 and Henchman #2, who are only in the story to carry out the bidding of the Evil Mastermind, do not qualify as antagonists in their own right. You’re looking for characters who are going to attack your protagonist from different directions. His fight with the main antagonist will be head-on; the minor antagonists will come at him from the sides. 

  • How do the opponents’ motives and values differ from your protagonist’s—and from each other’s?

Here’s where the whole exercise suddenly gets deep. Your protagonist’s values—and how they evolve over the course of the story—are what create the framework for your story’s theme. If your protagonist is going after that mafia don out of vengeance, but learns to appreciate justice over the course of the story, your theme will probably center around the moral ramifications of revenge.

But a character’s value system can’t exist in a vacuum. What he believes—and how he acts upon those beliefs—only matters insofar as his beliefs are opposed (and thereby tested) by the other characters’ value systems. In the plot, your antagonists’ chief purpose is to prevent your character from reaching his goal. But in the theme, your antagonists serve to challenge your protagonist’s motive for wanting that goal.

On the basic level of one-on-one conflict, you’ll be presenting a relatively black and white perspective of your theme. The protagonist has one idea, and the main antagonist has another. But when you deepen your conflicts, you have the opportunity to also deepen your theme by giving each antagonist a different motive and value system.

Layering your conflicts

Finally, once you’ve identified your story’s antagonists—and once you’ve figured out how and why they will each oppose your protagonist in a different way—you now get to have the fun of taking it one step further. Instead of merely presenting conflict between your protagonist and his antagonists, why not see if you can create a little organic conflict between each of the antagonists as well?

Script doctor John Truby calls this “four-corner opposition.”

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In his words, this approach “allows you to create a story of potentially epic scope and yet keep its essential organic unity.” You’ll have created endless possibilities for conflict without endangering the thematic purity of your story’s focus.

*****

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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16 Comments

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16 Responses to How to Create Layers of Thematically Pertinent Conflict

  1. Pingback: How to Create Layers of Thematically Pertinent Conflict

  2. Thanks so much for hosting me today, Larry!

  3. Bob

    Awesome post. I’m going to guess that anyone who stands in your character’s way could be considered an antagonist, Including the protagonist himself? Like a fantasy story where the protagonist has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.
    Another great tool for conflict is a type of character that was mentioned in one of the lasts posts I believe who was called the “shapeshifter.” This is an enemy of the protagonist’s that is disguised as a confidant or friend. Or maybe even a friend disguised as an enemy, something like Darth Vader. This seems to be a good area to create intrigue and conspiracy in your stories.

  4. Absolutely. Technically speaking, an antagonist doesn’t even have to be a person. Any force that stands between your character and his goal, thereby creating conflict, becomes an antagonist.

  5. Hi, K.M. How nice to see an explanation of antagonists who aren’t thugs, criminals, or hazardous settings. My WIP has a minor antagonist who is a criminal, but the major antagonist is her mother with her brother as a lesser one (and she loves them both – which makes life more difficult). Most antagonists have been portrayed as brutish forces–human or natural–and I have a hard time relating them to my WIP. Thank you for helping me with that! BTW, I love your blog and check it often. Glad Larry brought you over here!

  6. Great stuff. When we build in complexity but make it look obvious, it deepens the story without confusing the reader. Your “how to” explanations are super. thanks for pointing me to the print version of your book. Seems like it’ll be a great companion to Larry’s pair.

  7. @Nan: You’re right, we do tend to think of “antagonist” as some megalomaniacal bad guy straight out of Bond. But sometimes the most powerful bad guys are those the protagonist deeply loves.

    @Joel: I love Larry’s Story Engineering and recommend it all the time. I hope mine can be helpful companion to it.

  8. @ K.M. I guess almost anything can produce the push back. In the specific case of your post, the link to your book on Amazon is broken. As a stock broker friend of mine used to say, ” Curtis it is just one damn thing after another.” I think she understood conflict.

  9. @ K. M. Thank you.

    Question: I’m wondering if there is not at least one more layer of development to conflict beyond the “four-corner opposition.”

    The hat trick– when conflict contains the possibility of benefit , a window of opportunity or the way of salvation. In its most simplistic form. The heroine is dashing through sidewalk crowds to save the day. She is interrupted by a beggar waving a tin cup near the bus stop. The slow down offers an additional layer of kindness in the context of chaos, but also prevents her from stepping into the path of the 5:30 Express.

  10. Great point. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that’s another “corner” in the opposition (although, technically, we can have as many corners as we want), since it could easily be an extension of any of already mentioned antagonist forces. But it *is* a great way to add complexity to any conflict. I love exploring gray areas of morality. When the protagonist is faced with two equally bad choices, good things always happen to the plot and theme.

  11. @ K.M. Thank you for your thoughtful response. “…gray areas of morality..” As you know, ( I can tell from your Twitter profile list, “child of God”) that you know the gray area is the point of tension in decisions, fictional or otherwise.

    P.S. I thought I was following you on Twitter. I need to go tweet your post today. Again, thank you for your response and the excellent presentation in your post of conflict.

  12. Someone brilliant (whose name I’ve sadly forgotten) once said that novels aren’t about finding answers. They’re about asking questions. I’ve always liked that approach, and nowhere more so than in the “gray” areas.

  13. Since Mr. Brooks cited her, I can now admit it. Last year, two people really brought about my massive change in writing last summer. One was Larry Brooks. The other was K. M. Weiland. I credit these two right along with 9 novels worth of failure with allowing me to write my tenth novel. This is the first one where I finished it with an adrenaline rush: ready to dive in and edit and still excited. That is probably why this comment is so long!

    Last summer I started this novel with a bad feeling. It was an idea I had been kicking around since age 14. Luckily, I stumbled on Ms. Weiland’s book. As a result I decided to do some planning. I then stumbled upon Mr. Brooks and got some more pieces. I had learned a lot of lessons through 9 failures, and actually developed a lot of ideas, but a good novel was not one of them.

    One innovation that came from my “pause” was an actual villain. I even discovered a bigger villain who will fall in if I ever write a sequel. I planned out other, smaller antagonists (who included friends) to oppose my protagonist. In fact, for the first time, I planned out a story before writing it. The actual writing went quickly, even though I was writing by hand.

    I’ve always been disgusted with my novels and finished mostly out of obligation than love. When I finished this one it was a weird combination of elation and disappointment. I’ve never felt so close to a protagonist. I have rough edges to smooth off, and I’ve learned things about characters. But, I’m actually excited enough to start typing. I HATE typing. I’d rather handwrite with my fountain pen.

    So, the lessons I learned include planning (which is something I always do in my profession as a teacher) and characters. So, some of the lessons:

    1. Depth: make the novel feel as though a lot of story went on before and after. I once wanted to pick up my character as a child. Instead I picked him up around age 40. And, wow, does he have a backstory. Also, the planet has a history. At the end, the story is resolved, but it is clear that the character’s journey is only just beginning. Whether this leads to a sequel or not is beside the point. He’s in a larger universe.

    2. Plan: The first 9 novels were written as they came to me. I planned #10 for months before I started actually writing. I sketched out ideas, drew maps, planned characters, and then, finally, wrote out Mr. Brooks’ plot points before I fleshed them out into an outline. By the way: this is where I learned that the story only gets interesting when the hero is about 40. He does a lot of interesting things prior to that, but these are things which are not pertinent to the tale.

    3. Characters: I’ve always been good at coming up with interesting people, except for two characters: the protagonist and the antagonist. In 9 novels, I never had an actual antagonist! I nearly made the same mistake in #10. Luckily, I planned first, long enough to absorb some lessons from Mr. Brooks and Ms. Weiland. Additionally, my protagonists have always been ciphers who were essentially devoid of personality. #10 is quiet (which works) but underneath that, has personality in spades. I actually finished some home renovations this summer despite a broken humerus (which wasn’t funny) because I pictured what my protagonist would think. He is quite crippled from the waist down, and has the kind of personality that gets him around this.

    4. Universe: This is actually a huge benefit of writing 9 awful novels. I set them all in the same universe. I have developed a lot of features of this universe. What I needed to do is become more systematic. I have a universe that is bigger than the novel. I left this one wanting more. I hope that if I ever publish it, my readers will want more as well. I’ve never felt this before. I really believe that this applies well beyond my science fiction. Even if I were writing a contemporary novel set in rural North Dakota, where I live, I would still have a universe. Every character has a history, and the ones that survive the novel also have a future.

    5. Depth: This may go along with “Universe.” It is the sense that every character and place had a life and history before the time captured in the novel, and that they continued to have a life and history and life after. I hate to think of my protagonist living “happily ever after.” He has more life to live. He also has almost 40 interesting years prior to the novel. It was tough, during the planning, to turn these 40 years into random comments during the novel. Originally, they were meant to be the novel! The same is true of the history of the planet or, indeed, humanity in the future. Even many secondary characters got quite a history. I want the novel to feel like the reader just got a glimpse into something far larger. This is a feature that really struck me about Tolkien’s books.

    6. Arc: From Ms. Weiland, I got the idea of planning. From Mr. Brooks, I got the parts of a novel. After I wrote out my 9 plot points, I filled them in with an actual novel. I have 3 viewpoint characters, so I will confess a debt to JK Rowling to get an idea how to format the outline. But, it was great to see how to really punish and torture the protagonist. His low point is really low, and he has some real highs, despite a somewhat sad ending. My original plan was rather flat.

    These aren’t exactly the format raised by either Ms. Weiland or Mr. Brooks, but these are the more important lessons I pulled from both. As I noted, 9 failed novels certainly gave me some lessons as well. I am excited to type this current novel. I don’t know if it will ever lead anywhere, I just know that this is the first one that has gotten me excited.

    I will also add an important lesson for prospective writers out there: humility is a vital part of improving one’s craft. Though I wish I had learned these and other lessons when I started writing, I suspect that I would not have learned them. I have now failed often enough that I’m more open to advice. I realize now that I am not an infallible expert.

    #10 may not be the success that I hope it is, but at least now I have some hope for the future. After all, hope is what keeps us going. At age 37, it is time for some hope!

  14. Jim Rac

    @ Jason – thank you for sharing your lessons learned, I found them quite inspirational!

  15. @Jason: This is fantastic! I’m absolutely thrilled you found my book helpful in progressing your writing journey – and I’m honored to be in such awesome company as Larry’s. All of your “lessons” are excellent, but I particularly resonate with what you say here: “These aren’t exactly the format raised by either Ms. Weiland or Mr. Brooks, but these are the more important lessons I pulled from both.”

    For all that we’re all walking essentially the same road, we all also have to find our own way, learn our own lessons, and create the processes that work best for us and our individual visions for our stories. Keep it up!