Reactions to Conflict in Fiction (Conflict in Fiction, Making it Real Series, Part 5)
Ever paint your main character into a corner? Yeah, me too. Since we are on the topic of conflict in fiction, let’s take a look at what psychologists know about how people react to conflict in real life. As we’ve done in the past several articles, we’ll apply conflict in psychology to fiction writing. I can’t promise you’ll never get stuck again, but arming yourself with information can’t hurt.Causes of conflict include differing values, perceptions, mindsets, backgrounds, and motivations. The way your characters respond to conflict determines whether they change for the better, remain static, or take a turn for the worse.
Behavioral scientists Ralph Kilmann and Kenneth Thomas developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which identifies five different responses to conflict.
Reactions to External Conflict
External conflict occurs between two or more parties. External and Internal Conflict in Fiction, part two in this series, gives a detailed look at this topic. For this article, I’ve drawn from the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which names five reactions to external conflict: competition, avoidance, accommodation, compromise, and collaboration.
Focusing on winning rather than negotiating a resolution, your character responds to conflict with confrontation, intimidation, and outright fighting. Your character believes that compromise is not possible due to the opponent’s inflexibility or because of competing goals that are mutually exclusive.
Motivated by fear, your character capitulates in order to preserve a relationship, spare feelings, and avoid conflict. In fiction, this sort of reaction heightens tension as it leads from one obstacle to the next because it doesn’t resolve the basic issue.
Escaping seems the only option when your character can’t decide what to do, feels the conflict can’t be won, or hopes it will resolve on its own.
Getting at the root of the problem, your character analyzes the conflict from all perspectives and reasons out a solution with all involved parties. The focus is not on winning but on mutual respect. Creative thinking and problem solving skills are a prerequisite to resolving a conflict by this method.
Your characters negotiate with one another, searching for a middle ground that will let them both win in some ways. To do this they need to be willing to give up some of their ideas to accommodate the other person.
Reactions to Internal Conflict
With internal conflict, the battle is with self. Inner Conflict in Fiction, part 4 in this series, describes the four types of internal conflict.
One of the differences between external and internal conflict is the degree of control your character has over resolution of the conflict. With internal conflict, complete control is in your character’s hands, although he or she may not believe that to be true.
Inner conflicts arise for a variety of reasons, including frustrated desire, personal issues, competing roles, or a goal with both negative and positive connotations. Turmoil is a characteristic of inner conflict, and delaying resolution can compromise a character’s mental stability.
Choosing Between Two Positive Outcomes
This type of conflict doesn’t create much tension unless the positive outcomes have serious negative consequences. For example: a young woman has to decide whether to marry the man she loves or give up her family relationships.
Your character reacts by deciding which goal is the most important, also factoring in the negative consequences that fulfilling it will bring. Or the character might try to escape the pain or making a decision by giving up both goals. In our example, the young woman goes into seclusion to become a nun.
Choosing Between Two Negative Outcomes
Your main character is ‘between a rock and a hard place,’ forced to make a decision between two equally repellent goals.
An example of this type of conflict: a woman’s abusive husband tells her he will find and kill her if she ever leaves him. She is forced to choose whether to remain in a painful relationship or escape, knowing he is capable of making good on his threat.
Your main character will vacillate over making a decision until the level of stress this produces becomes unbearable. At this point, the character reacts by attempting to escape the situation. However, this may be difficult or impossible to do. As a result, other means of escape, such as daydreaming, alcoholism, drug abuse, or even suicide may be employed.
The Questionable Goal
Your character is both drawn and repulsed by the story goal. An example of this type of conflict: a woman who has been poor all her life and needs money for an operation to save her mother’s life has to decide whether to marry a wealthy man she doesn’t love.
Your character will go back and forth over what to do. Escape is not possible, and compromise with the situation is the only solution. In our example, the poor woman admits she doesn’t love her suitor and works two jobs to pay for her mother’s medical care.
A complicated situation requires your character to make a decision with multiple positive and negative consequences. An example of this type of conflict: A woman pressured to become engaged to a man her parents want her to marry learns that the childhood sweetheart who broke her heart wants to make a fresh start with her.
While weighing the pros and cons of each choice, your character will likely vacillate until hitting on a compromise. In our example, the woman explains to her parents why she can’t marry their choice for her but agrees to give the relationship with her former sweetheart time to mature before making a serious decision about her future.
Some Final Thoughts
As in real life, creativity, reasoning, and clear thinking are required when resolving conflict in fiction. Your characters’ motives will influence their behavior and in some cases may need to be overcome. Introducing a character who can act as ‘the voice of reason’ can be a useful foil.