It comes in three key flavours:
- Internal – when your character is struggling to choose between two courses of action, or struggling for their better nature to win out against their worst impulses.
- Interpersonal – when your characters come into conflict with one another.
- Environmental – when your character(s) face some sort of non-personal adversary, like the weather or the broader society in which they live.
While I don't think conflict for the sake of conflict is a good thing, it's often helpful to look at ways to work more conflict into your story – especially if you feel that the pace is sagging in the middle.
Conflict can further your plot, make your scenes more interesting, and make your characters more realistic.
Here are seven ways to add more of it to your story:
#1: Create Divided Loyalties
My husband and I are five episodes into Amazon's The Boys at the moment (no spoilers, please!) and one growing source of conflict in that is Hughie's divided loyalties between his team and his love interest.
Perhaps your character is (or could be pushed into!) a position where they have to choose who to remain loyal to. It could be a family member versus a friend; an authority figure versus someone they owe a favour; two friends who've fallen out with one another ... any situation like this creates both internal conflict and (at least the possibility of) interpersonal conflict.
#2: Put Them in a Bad Mood
Sometimes, even nice characters are in a bad mood. In fact, given some of the terrible things that happen to good characters, it's surprising they're not more grumpy/snarky/etc. However naturally pleasant your main character is, it probably makes sense within your story for them to sometimes be ... less than pleasant to be around.
Who does your character snap at or treat unkindly? Do they feel bad about it? Does it have a knock-on effect later on, leading to more conflict?
#3: Allow for Plenty of Disagreements
Hopefully, your characters have different personalities and approaches to life. Perhaps your protagonist is cautious and measured, but their sidekick always wants to rush into action.
Two characters disagreeing on a course of action can make for useful conflict ... especially if the option they eventually go for doesn't work out well.
#4: Let Them Self-Sabotage
While I think you have to be careful this doesn't end up undermining important character development, some characters may fall back into old patterns of behaviour – particularly if they're under stress. (And if they're not under stress, you're probably not doing your job as a writer. ;-))
In what ways are your characters self-sabotaging? Maybe your protagonist ends up passively waiting for a situation to resolve itself, rather than taking action. Maybe they push away someone who's only trying to help. Maybe they turn to a less than healthy coping mechanism (drugs, booze, etc) that they'd previously managed to give up.
This can be a useful way to reinforce a lesson the character (should have!) already learnt. It can also lead to more conflict: someone who put up with the character's heavy drinking in the early chapters might have finally had enough of it.
#5: Foil Their Plans
Perhaps your character has a plan or goal in mind. It could be something small (like "have a quiet evening to myself") or something fairly big (like "tell John I like him").
Ruin their plans! Maybe the neighbours decide this is the evening they're going to complete their (noisy) DIY project. Or maybe John doesn't come out to lunch, because of a crucial work commitment. This can lead to various types of other conflict: for instance, maybe your character sleeps badly due to the neighbours, wakes up late, then gets yelled at by their boss when they finally make it into work.
#6: Remind Them How They Screwed Up Earlier
Things are finally looking up for your character. Through some hard-won character development, they've become a nicer/better/stronger person. They've overcome some of the things in their backstory.
Now's a good time to remind them of their past screwups. Who did they hurt? Who did they fail? What did they neglect? What did they break or destroy? Something as simple as a photograph, a look, a message, a scent, or an innocently meant line of dialogue from another character can be enough to remind them.
#7: Create a Misunderstanding
Misunderstandings can be a potent source of conflict – in real life, as well as in fiction. Maybe your character says something that they mean one way, but the person they're talking to is angry and offended because they misunderstood the meaning.
While most misunderstandings result from some sort of failure in communication, it's also possible to have misunderstandings that don't really involve any communication at all (e.g. an American character in the UK might be surprised/horrified to find that they're expected to drive a manual car, because automatic cars are the norm in the US and manual are the norm in the UK – statistics here for the curious: thezebra.com/insurance-news/2805/manual-vs-automatic).
While throwing in conflict at every single turn just for the sake of it could get pretty frustrating for your readers, not just for your characters, a fairly high level of conflict is what keeps your story interesting and engaging. If yours is lacking, try one (or more!) of the above to ramp up the tension and to complicate your plot.