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The Art of Conflict by Rachael Thomas

Happy Monday! Rachael Thomas explains why conflict plays a crucial role in a story. 

Every story needs conflict, but what exactly is conflict and why does it matter in romance? Conflict is an incompatibility between the objectives of your characters and is needed because it creates tension in your story. In short, it’s what keeps your characters apart emotionally despite the physical attraction they have for each other. A character with a believable conflict will keep the reader turning those pages to see what happens next.

Just to make things a little more difficult there are two types of conflict and a romance novel will need a good mix of both.

External Conflict

This is something which keeps your hero and heroine apart but comes not from the characters, but from outside sources. It is plot driven. It will affect the hero and heroine, causing them to react to the situation and change, which will have an effect on the developing relationship with each other. For instance a storm may rage, trapping your hero and heroine together, or a marriage may be needed to unite families or countries, or it could be a company that is wanted by both the hero and the heroine but for very different reasons.

External conflicts will be solved by an equally external remedy. The storm will subside, the marriage will go ahead and the company will be saved, one way or another.

Internal Conflict

This is where it all starts to get interesting. Internal conflict is the struggle which goes on within a character and so is character driven. It is what creates the emotional tension and comes not only from the hero and heroine’s personalities but also from their beliefs, events in

their lives and their reactions to other people. It will make them vulnerable and will mean they have to take a risk to get what they want. It raises the stakes.

How to find your character’s internal conflict

To find this you have to dig deep into the character’s emotions. Expose their vulnerabilities. This could come in the form of fear – of their past either catching up with them or repeating itself. It could be a fear of being rejected. It could be guilt over a past event or even pride. These emotions will be deep and complex and will show your hero and heroines motivations and aspirations.

Internal conflict will be solved by the characters themselves. They will have to face the dilemmas they have and overcome them if they want to achieve their goal. For example saving the company or achieving the takeover. More importantly the hero and heroine will have to overcome their internal conflict to achieve not only their goal of getting or keeping the company, bur of finding happiness with the person they are attracted to, despite that being the worst person possible, one who challenges them emotionally.

It may mean that your hero has to put aside his fear that he can’t be loved, that he is not only incapable of loving but unworthy of love because his mother abandoned him at birth. During the story he may have to discover the truth of what happened to him as a baby and accept that it wasn’t his fault and is capable of being loved by the heroine – and loving her too.

The goals which create conflict and tension

Your characters will have goals and will aim to reach them even though they may compete against those of the other character. It is these goals will expose their internal conflicts and create the tension.

For example, the hero may have launched a ruthless takeover bid for a failing company but the heroine is determined to save it. The company is the goal and the external conflict. It’s what brings them together. The hero’s goal is to take it over and heroine’s is to save it. The internal conflict will be much deeper and more complex and as you uncover it, will reveal the story between your hero and heroine.

Exposing the layers of conflict

In the example of the company takeover, the hero may have clawed his way out of the poverty of his childhood and has become so ruthless in business, due to a need to succeed, that he will stop at nothing. This burning desire to succeed will be layered in his past, maybe his father was a useless drunk who couldn’t provide for his family.

The heroine may have worked in the company started by her grandfather and has grown up with the expectation that she will one day run it, but recent losses mean the company is no longer sustainable and should be sold or closed. Each option will challenge her believes and create conflict.

The hero offers her a deal which will mean the company can continue but will no longer be hers. Should the heroine accept and give the company her beloved grandfather started a fighting chance? Can she step back and watch people lose their jobs if she refuses the offer?

The external conflict, the company, has brought out their internal conflicts and the attraction the hero and heroine feel for one another will challenge these internal conflicts, exposing even more layers.

Reaching the happy ending

As the story progresses the conflicts that have been exposed will need to be solved to create the happy ever after needed in a romance. The hero and heroine will have been on a journey of emotional highs and lows and self-discovery. They will have solved smaller conflicts arising from the main conflict and exposed others, until ultimately they reach a point where all their insecurities, or conflicts, have been exposed and the emotional tension between them will be intense. Add to this the sexually tension arising from the attraction they feel for one another and you have all that is needed for that final crisis, the moment where all is lost, physically and emotionally.

Finally that last bit of conflict can be solved. For example, the hero realises that what happened to him as a baby has no relevance on his ability to love or be loved and the heroine understands that loving the man who has taken over her grandfather’s business is not a betrayal to anyone, least of all herself. Their conflicts are solved and they can walk off into the sunset together