If you're like me, you avoid conflict at all costs. You see someone at Target you'd rather not speak to, and you dash over to another aisle and head the opposite direction. You exchange terse words with your spouse, and you conveniently find another room in the house to hang out in for a couple hours until the tide shifts. As sensitive human beings, we tend to avoid conflict, but as writers, we have to learn to embrace it for the sake of the story.
"They want to be themselves," she said.
"Who is keeping them from being themselves?" I asked.
"The popular girls."
"Why would the popular girls care about them?"
"They just do," she said.
And then we talked about true conflict, and I tried to boil it down as simply as I could. Conflict = someone wanting something and an outside force (e.g, person, elements, situations, disease, poverty) is keeping them from it. Conflict in a story also paves the way for a character to step forward and save the day--maybe the main character, maybe someone else.
So we talked about books she had read. Harry Potter, Wonder, The Hunger Games. What did the character want and who/what kept him or her from getting it? It's as simple as that and yet we sometimes struggle to put our characters through the battle. Suppose Harry Potter had been this beloved boy wizard who was the star of Hogwarts and no one ever tried to stop him from being the best student ever to cross the threshold. No Lord Voldemort. No Draco Malfoy. No Dursleys. How many pages of that story would you want to read? Probably not very many.
My first manuscript suffered from a case of conflict deficiency, and even though I attempted to put my two main characters through a series of tests, I never made them too uncomfortable. I mother-loved them so much, I couldn't bear to make them unhappy. Boring stuff that went on for 80,000+ words.
The manuscript I'm writing now is different and not nearly as easy to write. No one is very happy. The marriage is failing. The teenagers are being forced to make grown-up, life-changing decisions. Quite honestly, I find it difficult to see them suffer. But, unlike an early reader, I know where I THINK these people will end up. And while I don't have to wrap it up with "And they all lived happily ever after," I do have to write a resolution. The characters need to have come out on the other side as changed individuals whose lives will go on to even new conflicts. It's up to me, the writer, to guide them through it but not shield them from it.
Yesterday I finished reading Defending Jacob by William Landay--a wonderful story filled with conflict and twists and turns. You should read it. For other books with conflict abounding, I'd recommend Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Giver by Lois Lowry, to name a few. You don't have to read mysteries, sci-fi or any genre that's heavy on action to experience conflict. It should be present in every story including Charlotte's Web. What does Wilbur want? To live to be an old pig. Who's keeping him from it? The farmer who raised him for his meat. What role would Charlotte play in the story if there is no conflict for Wilbur? She's just an old spider in a dirty barn. The conflict allows her to step forward as a heroine to save 'Some Pig' so Wilbur can see himself as 'Terrific' as she does.
So, embrace conflict in your story in a way you don't in your real life. Don't steer your giant red cart in the opposite direction to avoid a messy confrontation. Put your characters through hell and love them enough to let them suffer and grow and change and come out on the other side as changed people. Your reader will thank you for it.
Images from Flickr; fighting wolves by Tambako The Jaguar; mad couple by Ed Yourdon; Target cart by Daniel Oines.