How to Define Conflict in Fiction


Conflict is the key element of any story that keeps the reader engaged. It’s what drives characters to make decisions that ultimately shape the plot and theme of a novel. Without good conflict, a book is dull, flat and ultimately boring.

The best way to describe conflict is as an opposing force that thwarts the protagonist’s main desire. This opposing force can be a person, like an antagonist (i.e., the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood), or it can be anything that is a barrier to the character’s goal. It’s important that these forces of antagonism are carefully tailored to the protagonist’s main desire. Otherwise, it will be difficult to create tension.

Conflicts often revolve around a resource that is either scarce or in high demand. Resources can be material or social, and both may create tension when they are not available.

For example, a girl might want to stay inside her house but be forced out by men. Alternatively, she might want to go out with her friends but be afraid to leave home alone. Both of these conflicts will cause her to feel stressed or anxious. Conflict can also be driven by the need to maintain an appearance or reputation. This can happen when a person believes they must appear a certain way in order to fit in with a group or community.

Emotional awareness — the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions — is essential to conflict resolution. When people are disconnected from their feelings, it can be impossible for them to communicate effectively and reach mutually satisfying solutions. Conflict is also a natural part of human interaction and, when handled in a healthy manner, can strengthen relationships.

Another source of conflict is a clash of values. This can include a clash of religious beliefs, personal ethics, political affiliations, or social mores. For example, a person might believe that they have a moral obligation to help others, while someone else may feel that it is their responsibility to protect their own family first.

Lastly, a conflict can be driven by the need to defend one’s own position or belief system. This is particularly common in groups where members are unable to see that their positions may be incompatible with the views of other members.

Ultimately, the type of conflict that a character faces can reveal a lot about that character and how they will react to the situation. This can be a hugely helpful tool for a writer to identify what they need to do next in their story. This can then lead to other scenes and ultimately, other layers of the plot. This is because the choices that a protagonist makes in response to their conflict will then influence their actions and, in turn, other events that occur within the story.