It's Complicated

Conflict, complications - isn’t that really what we live for as readers?  We want complex characters that are pulled and weaved through an intriguing plot.  Actually, what fun would it be if there wasn’t any conflict?  Would there even be a story?

Think about real life.  How simple is yours?

Maybe you’re going to tell me that you’re married to the perfect man, have the most obedient children, have a prestigious job where your boss idolizes you?  But I doubt it!  Life is riddled with complications – aka conflict. 

More likely, you’re going to tell me you’re overworked, and underappreciated at the day job.  What you set out thinking you wanted for a career was waylaid by the necessity of making a living so you’re in a job you don’t love that much.  And if you did land the career you had idolized, more than likely you’re realizing that some days the stress is overwhelming.

And, kids, I don’t have any, but I can observe.  Yes they can be obedient, when they chose to be, but a lot of the time they have minds of their own, and don’t forget by the time they become teenagers they know everything.

Most people try to get through life with the minimal amount of conflict possible.  In fact, some avoid it all costs, yet there are some of us who thrive on conflict.

Years ago, I worked with a single woman who dated often but seemed to find a solid relationship, so I asked her how it was going.  She told me she was likely going to end it soon because they got along too well.

So what about your life?  Maybe it isn’t that stressful.  Maybe it has just the perfect balance.

But is that what you want to read about?  Someone who goes to sleep, wakes up and goes about their day, or do you want conflict?

I vote in the favor of conflict!

But how much conflict is needed to hook you as a reader?  Do they all need to be larger-than-life?  Or can conflict in novels be situations you have faced?

Personally, I believe a good novel has a blend of both.  If all the characters ever faced were mountainous challenges, it risks being unrealistic.  Now, I know we want to be taken away to a fictional place, “live through” experiences we never would in real life, but what if that’s all it was?

Even in science fiction, the basics are derived from real-life – the balance of good and evil, the finding of justice.  Everything is hinged on the basics of humanity.  (That may be a deeper subject.)  But I believe that the smaller conflicts, the ones many of us experience on a daily basis, have a place in novels.

For example, in TIES THAT BIND, while Detective Madison Knight tries to stop a potential serial killer she also has smaller conflicts to deal with.  She has a partner distracted by going ons in his personal life, she has a boss who just wants case closed even if that means an innocent man behind bars.  But Madison also faces personal conflicts.  She loves her job, and a lot of the time sacrifices a personal life because of it.  She has a younger sister who is her mother’s joy because she got married and had children.  Madison mourns the loss of a grandmother who believed in her and left her all she had, and she has a mother who is jealous of that relationship who would have preferred her daughter got married as opposed to working as a cop.

Honestly, can you say you never worked with someone who drove you nuts some days?  Can you say you never had a boss you didn’t understand?  Have you been fortunate enough not to experience family tension? 

Anyway in the writing of TIES THAT BIND and my other novels, I worked to incorporate not only the larger conflicts but I made room for the human conflicts, the relatable ones.

Now relatable characters – that could be the discussion for another day.


  1. This is so true! I love the story about your co-worker who ended the relationship with someone because they were getting along too well. Priceless! Thanks for writing about the complexities of conflict.

  2. Thank you Info. Yeah, I couldn't believe it when she said that...personally I would rather a reliable and non-confrontational home-front. lol

  3. So true. I guess that's why conflict is so important. No one wants to hear about some character's smooth life when he/she has a complicated one.


  4. One correction.. Kids know everything by age 9 now :)

    I agree about needing conflict but for me it isn't about the size. I need the conflict to be more interesting and clear cut then my everyday life. I can't resolve all my conflict but I want them to be able to resolve theirs.

  5. Alison, see there's another good reason I'm afraid of kids! LMAO! So I guess they believe they are adults by the time they're 13?

    Welcome to my blog, and thank you for your comment.

  6. There will always be conflict, even internal conflict, but I, personally, have never written an antagonist. I prefer to think of these characters my protagonists have to face as foils rather than out-an-out enemies and I model them more off comedy duos than anything else.

  7. Hi Carolyn,

    I think you make very valid points here. Life is full of conflict, there is just no way around it. But conflict is good - it can clear the air and bring up unspoken frustrations. In writing, if a book did not have at least some minor conflict there may not be a story. Something has to happen, something must motivate action. It doesn't necessarily have to be a person, but there must be something to propel the story forward.

  8. Jim, you're so correct. Internal conflict is an excellent tool, and it pulls us as readers further in. We never know if/when a character is actually going to expose their true feelings about a situation.

    Collette, and that's very true about minor conflicts being needed, or there wouldn't be a story. And again, great point that it doesn't have to be other people. We all struggle with something internally.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  9. Hi Carolyn,

    I teach literature and we always joke in my classes about how emotionally stable/wise/balanced people would make poor literature...some conflicts are more interesting than others, I think - especially internal conflicts and/or social conflicts. Hopefully characters grow as a result of the conflicts. If they don't, then I consider that generally not as satisfying...

    Thanks for a great post!

  10. Hi P.H.C., great point! If there isn't any growth then the reader's left wondering what was the point.

  11. Really interesting post and replies. I think conflict is essential in a story to breathe life and growth into it. I particularly love it when a writer is able to show internal conflict within the characters. I want to be led beneath the surface!

  12. Niamh, thank you for your comment, and it's so true. Your comment makes me think about the next post I've written to go up.

  13. The man thing is to make situations/conflict 'real'. Don't force a situation that wouldn't happen if your character was a real person just to add conflict to 'hook readers'. The story - not necessarily conflict or amount of conflict - is what hooks a reader.

    Too much conflict can actually interfere with character development. Give time to show growth also. All good stories should have ebb and flow.

  14. Shawn, great points. Thank you for commenting.

  15. My view is that it's not the size of the conflict as much as the way it's told. A kid who misses curfew, for instance, is not much of a scene. But compelling back story, dialogue, etc. may transform that scene into a revealing and pivotal moment...

  16. Perfectly put, Between classes (Steve). Thank you for your comment.


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