Conflict in our Story

For a primer in conflict, we need look no further than our daily paper or the evening news on television or radio. We read of bitter debates between political candidates or of powerful executives demanding sexual favours. Person vs. Person conflict. We read of forest fires, flash floods, devastating tornados, brutal blizzards, and global pandemics. Person vs. Nature conflict. We read of political protestors challenging government actions and environment advocates begging their citizens to take climate change seriously. Person vs. Society conflict.

If we did deeper in the news, following feature stories and magazine profiles, we also find accounts of people wrestling with their conscience, agonizing over a hard decision, or trying to overcome self-doubt. Person v. Self conflict.  We even find stories of people grappling with religious concerns, perhaps questioning God’s goodness after an unexpected loss. Person vs. God / Fate / Destiny conflict.

Conflict is all around us and within us. It is in our marriage relationships: 40 percent of Canadian marriages end in divorce; the average marriage now lasts only 14 years. It is in our religious affiliations: Christians profess love and unity, yet Wikipedia lists over 75 denominations in Canada, 1200 in the United States, and 30,000 world-wide. 

Our families, too, struggle with conflict—between couples, between parents and children, between siblings, and quite often between family members and in-laws. We tussle over our handling of finances, the most appropriate child discipline, division of household responsibilities, unfair expectations, and sometimes a lack of respect, trust, or recognition. 

If we are honest, there are plenty of sparks to ignite conflict in our lives: poor communication, misunderstandings, overreactions, insensitive remarks, repeated complaints, and differing goals, beliefs or values. Yet when we write the stories of our lives, we often hesitate to talk about such matters. ““If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” we remind each other.  As a result, we joke about “the elephant in the room,” but we write about our lives as if there were no conflicts. To the reader, it appears that for us everything always went well. We seem to be people who have never had problems and who probably would not understand the issues and stresses faced by others.

In the writing world, there is a frequent saying, to the effect: “No conflict, no story.”

As we move through our narrative scenes, it is conflict that drives the story forward.

The real question, I would suggest, is not whether we should talk about conflict, but rather how and why we do it and what we have learned from it. As author K.M. Weiland says, “We need to do it in a way that is life-affirming.” We need to talk about conflict in a way that is honest, respectful and affirming of our values and beliefs.

We have considered the traditional depiction of conflict as the opposition of a person with another person, with nature, with society, with the self, or with God, fate or destiny. We also may find it helpful to think of conflict as a complication for whatever we have felt to be our primary motivation or goal. 

In this light, it is useful to think of the conflict in our story scenes in one of five ways:

  • as an opponent to be contested (the familiar clash between protagonist and antagonist)
  • as a problem to be solved
  • as an obstacle to be overcome
  • as a tension to be faced, or
  • as a negotiation to be conducted.

The presence of conflict does generate much of the interest in a story, but it need not be conflict-for-conflict sake. It can and should provide more than mere excitement and narrative momentum. It also can show how you, as the main character, have sought to deal with hostility, complaints, arguments, unfair demands, disrespect, inappropriate blaming, or even violent encounters. Through your efforts to cope with and to resolve the conflicts in the life story you tell, we as readers learn what may work or not work in our own daily living.

Our Selves as Character

Conflict in Our Stories