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Conflict in Fiction

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

From my previous article in Worldbuilding, I expressed my frustration with Dune and its seemingly never-ending layers of conflict, external and internal. As many already know, conflict represents oppositional forces against your protagonist, and these forces can occupy just about anything; society or even struggles of self-worth. Conflict and tension contribute to the dramatic question of a good story - the driving question that will motivate your reader.

When outlining or writing your next story it is important to treat conflict as an antagonist as strong, if not stronger than the protagonist. The obstacles should not be easy to overcome and that is a pitfall I have encountered multiple times when writing short stories.

Weak conflicts diminish the agency in a plot. This was my reason for not giving Rebecca Roanhorse's Black Sun, a full five stars.

(Spoilers ahead)

The novel focuses on the stories of four characters whose fates are intertwined. There are plenty of areas of conflict where the interests of one character oppose the desires of the other. Roanhorse articulates this well especially with multiple points of view. The only problem was that these obstacles were cosmetic at best; attempted mutiny, politics among the priesthood, and the uncertain climate inspired by a string of assassins and assassination attempts. I say cosmetic because on the surface these are appealing ideas and should be difficult to overcome, however, the novel swam through these issues and the characters triumphed each time. Even their failures are short-lived and become inconsequential.

Naranpa's ultimate goal was never fulfilled in Black Sun because of a betrayal from within the priesthood. There are two reasons why I do not perceive this to be a failure: her loss was not due to her choices but by the actions of others. This was thrust upon her rather than done to herself. The second reason is that her ultimate goal conflicted with Serapio's who represents her oppositional force. Her loss was in a way Serapio's success (sort of, he never succeeded in killing her), still, he managed to embody a god and slaughter hundreds.

I will add this: I would have feared for Naranpa's life, which is more than I can say for Serapio, Xiala, and Okoa. Had Roanhorse not included the early chapter of Naranpa being alive after the solstice, I might have been more invested in her effort to succeed.

Conflict should threaten the protagonist and his goals. It should oppose his goals enough to prompt the dramatic question - will he make it? will he fulfill his goal?

The best way to approach this is to not simply assign a bad guy in the story. There should be multiple 'bad guys'. One that lives inside your protagonist and one or a few that dwell externally. These issues together should make it nearly impossible for the character to succeed. He should endure cycles of trying and failing. Never shy away from "what if"? Because the answer to that may contribute to the best antagonist of your story.

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