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Tap the Psychology of Conflict in Your Fiction

Not all Conflict is Created Equal

When two desires or motives come into opposition, conflict occurs.  If one motive is weaker than the other, the stronger one will win out, removing the conflict.

This is why portraying a weak antagonist or wimpy main character is death to a story.

The motives of the protagonist and antagonist should be of roughly equal weight.
If you’ve ever resolved to eat better but dined on fast food because you couldn’t find more nourishing fare, you know all about making a bad choice while under stress.
Decisions made by a main character may be good or bad, but they always lead away from the desired outcome.

Today we’ll cover the interpersonal and unconscious conflict types, and next week we’ll look at intrapersonal conflict.

Interpersonal Conflict

This type of conflict pits one or more people against one another. Examples of conflict in literature that align to this category are man vs. man and man vs. society.  Interpersonal conflict occurs due to:

  • opposing values
  • relationship issues
  • styles of leadership
  • personality clashes
  • conflicting interests 
  • personal style differences
  • ethical stances

Opposing Values

Our core values are the concepts we hold dear. Examples include family, love, success, security, loyalty, modesty, and honesty. Conflict over values might come from differing backgrounds, religious viewpoints, or cultural norms.  People can live in harmony despite their differences, but an attempt to enforce values on another person results in conflict.

Relationship Issues

By their very closeness, relationships allow fertile soil for conflicts to grow. Issues in relationship include:

  • miscommunication
  • misbehavior
  • outside parties
  • unrealistic expectations
  • past issues
  • a crisis

Styles of Leadership

A leader’s personality, expectations, and way of leading may grate on a person who must choose whether to submit to or reject the leader’s authority.

Personality Clashes

Strong-minded people may be so much alike that they clash with one another. Or maybe they are so different they’ll never see eye-to-eye. How they perceive one another may be faulty, based on their own background or unresolved issues.

Conflicting Interests

A conflict of interest is a competition or disagreement over needs or desires that are in opposition. With conflicts of interests, people are thinking only of their own agendas.

Personal Philosophy Differences

Individual approaches to life can put people in conflict. For example, one spouse may be easy going while the other is impatient. One sibling rises early and makes endless to-do lists, while the other sleeps in late at every opportunity and takes life as it comes. One writer plots meticulously, while another is a pantser. These differences create conflict when an individual feels superior or believes that everyone should share the same mindset.

Ethical Stances

We all have a set of moral values upon which we base our behavior. These values can be threatened when an ethical decision must be made. A young girl’s boyfriend presses her for intimacy, but she wants to save herself for her future husband. A guard who desperately needs money must decide whether to accept a bribe. The friend of a potential suicide victim has to decide whether betraying a confidence is justified when it could save a life.

Unconscious Conflict

Sometimes desires can be so deeply ingrained that a person isn’t aware of them on a conscious level. Repressed desires that may not be acknowledged or socially acceptable shift to the unconscious, where they remain active. Building on supporting experiences, they strengthen over time and try to enter the conscious mind in unsuspecting moments. They may appear in dreams or a slip of the tongue or reveal themselves through subtle behaviors.

When a group of repressed wants tries to return to the conscious mind, they form what is known as a complex, which immediately stirs conflict.

Some Final Thoughts

Strategies used to resolve interpersonal conflict provide the perfect tools to set up the next decision point in the story. They include avoidance, use of force, confrontation, devaluing the opposing side, and compromise.

Use unconscious conflict to create complex characters and stories with deep emotional layers. Scarlett’s character arc in Gone With The Wind is a wonderful example of this technique.

Scarlett has a conscious desire to win the love of her cousin, Ashley Wilkes. (SPOILER ALERT) It is only at the end of the book, when Ashley tells her he loves her she realizes she doesn’t want him, after all. The unconscious desire she has hidden from herself all along is to love a man with a spirit as strong as her own, Rhett Butler.

Come back next week for the continuation of this post. Subscribe to Live Write Breathe to ensure you won't miss any posts in this series.

Tap the Psychology of Conflict in Your Fiction Writing via Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

2 thoughts on “Tap the Psychology of Conflict in Your Fiction”

  1. Another great post.

    I agree that a story is dead without conflict. True conflict can lead to page-turners. And incorporating more than one type is essential to give your characters depth and allow them to grow.

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