Jim Wyatt


This blog offers a writer's perspective on how to read and a literature teacher’s perspective on how to write. I hope the topics will be useful to anyone who wants to read more closely or to study the craft of writing. It’s meant for writers and readers, for students of fiction and their teachers—for anyone who's curious about the ways in which writers tinker under the hood.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Conflict, part two

In the last post, I said there were two crucial questions to ask about conflict:
  • What does this character want?
  • What stands in his or her way?
As a writer, I find that these questions are central in building a story. Too often I sit down in front of my computer with a character in mind but with no clear sense of what his or her story is. In order to create story, I have to ask myself what my protagonist wants and why that’s difficult to achieve. Often I find myself spinning my wheels until I remember those questions.

As readers, these questions can often give us some surprising insight into the stories we read. The answer to the first question is likely to tell us something about theme; the answer to the second is often linked to setting.

In our discussion of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my IB English class, we asked ourselves what it is that Tomas wants but can't have. One student suggested that what Tomas wants is freedom, but another pointed out that if Tomas truly wanted freedom, he could easily have had it. He could have stayed in Switzerland, thereby gaining both political freedom and freedom from Tereza. But, of course, Tomas doesn't stay—he returns to Czechoslovakia, to a Prague occupied by Russian soldiers, in order to continue his relationship with Tereza. So what does he want? At last someone suggested that what Tomas really wants is certainty. He wants to know, for example, if his relationship with Tereza is worth the sacrifices; he wants to know what type of life has the most value.

It seems to me that asking this question of what Tomas wants leads us to some surprising insights into the book. Upon reflection, we might decide that Kundera's book is in fact less concerned with questions of political freedom than it is with questions of understanding: How do we know when we are seeing pattern or coincidence? Can we ever really understand someone else? How can we decide what a symbol stands for? When faced with a dilemma, how can we know which course of action is correct?

And the second question? What stands in Tomas’s way in his quest for certainty? Well, I suppose the world does—life just doesn’t seem to be designed to offer us much certainty about anything—though setting surely plays a role here. In communist Czechoslovakia, with its Kafkaesque twists and turns, the problems of certainty are compounded.

(Compare Kundera’s story with George Orwell’s 1984. In contrast to Tomas, Orwell’s Winston Smith does want freedom. What stands in his way? Again, the answer seems linked to setting: in the totalitarian world of 1984, freedom is impossible. I think that setting is almost always some component of the forces that oppose a character’s desires. (But I'll write more about that in another post.)

Conflict arises from a character desperately wanting something he or she can’t have. It’s the basis for story.


"Three types of conflict," my students yawn. “We know all this. Person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature. Learned it already. Boring.”

Yes, I learned that, too—though back in my day, when we were less vigilant about sexism stalking our language, we cheerfully called them man vs. man, man vs. nature, etc. But I want to argue that this way of thinking about conflict doesn’t really tell us very much about fiction. I want instead to suggest to a different way of thinking about conflict.

Take a look at the following and decide for each which of the three types of conflict is represented.




Answers? Well my best guesses are: A.) monster versus monster. B.) man versus robot. C.) man versus the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

It seems to me that this “three types of conflict” rule was really invented just so that we could think up exceptions. (And now, considering this, I remember an old song by the band Was (Not Was) that seemed to make the same point. Over a synthesized disco beat, a vocalist recited, “In my life there’s just three things: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Woman, and Man vs. The Empire Brain Building.” You can listen to a bit of it here.

But I have another, more fundamental, problems with the “three types of conflict” rule: I don’t see what insight it gives us. First of all, there's usually not one type of conflict in a story but multiple conflicts. And even if we are able to categorize a story as containing one of these three types of conflict, why should we care? If we were to decide, for example, that the primary conflict in George Orwell's 1984 is person versus person, what does that reveal to us about the book?

I suggest that a better way to think about conflict in a story is this: conflict arises from a character wanting something he or she can’t (easily) have.

There are some types of stories that are obviously about the things that characters desire and the forces that stand in their way. Think for a moment about quest stories: Galahad seeks the Grail; Frodo wants to destroy the ring by casting it into Mount Doom. But perhaps all stories have something of a quest to them--all characters strive and want. And so I think that there are two interesting questions to ask ourselves about conflict:
  • 1.) What does this character want?
  • 2.) What stands in his or her way?