I have already talked about the importance of giving your character a goal, and giving them a good reason to pursue that goal. But there’s one part left, a vital part which turns a journey into a story. Anyone who has been writing for any length of time will have heard the word conflict. They may well want to throw things when they hear the word conflict. Or have a little cry. All the talk about external conflict, about internal, about weak conflict, about your conflict not being right. I feel a bit like having a cry myself now.
Anywho, to simplify the whole thing, conflict boils down to this. When your character has a goal, they must fail to reach it. You must find ways to make them fail. It is absolutely vital that the goal isn’t reached easily (basically because it’s boring if they do). So when Luke and Han went to rescue Princess Leia from the death star, they met problem after problem after problem. Think about this – when Han Solo answers the intercom, if he’d been all smooth and cool and the bad dude on the other end had said ‘oh, ok then. See you at lunch’ it wouldn’t have been very exciting. But instead he fluffed it, and then the bad dudes came and shot at them, and then they dived into the trash chute, and there was a monster in the water, and the walls nearly crushed them to death, and then C3PO didn’t pick up the com link for AGES. Conflict after conflict after conflict. This gives us lots of tension, which is what readers want. So when an editor says ‘torture your characters,’ this is what they mean. Give them a goal, then invent as many ways as you can to make them fail to reach it. For added effect, make the failure particularly painful for your character (so if your character has a phobia of spiders, put a spider between them and their goal).
I will talk about conflict in romance novels (and romances that really hit the conflict button for me) next time.