Tag Archives: internal conflicts

Just Under the Surface: Subtle Conflict


In our culture, the bigger the explosion, the better it sells. Action movies rule the box office, and readers ferociously consume romance, fantasy, and thrillers for the intense conflict. Our sensory input sure loves the loud conflicts. But what does the mind love? What does the brain crave? Subtle conflict. Tension between two lovers because of the faint scent of perfume on the collar. A character’s chest pain that doesn’t seem to subside. A character’s gnawing feeling to return home. These are sometimes called “minor conflicts,” but can change the entire ending to a story and leave readers breathless.

When we think of conflict, we think of some pretty violent words: fight, war, blood, feud, anxiety. Okay, maybe I just have anxiety when I think about conflicts and confrontation. But here are words we don’t usually think of right away when it comes to conflict: sleuth, spy, unreliable narrator, slow, time, patience. When does a plot twist truly blow your mind? When the hints and foreshadowing have been so subtle that you didn’t piece it together until it was right in front of your face. This kind of conflict takes time and patience to build.

In subtle conflict, the author dives into character motives, changes in the environment, and/or a slowly-shifting political climate. Not as flashy as a war, say, but an extremely effective tool when planning a book’s climax.

One of the best examples of subtlety in contemporary literature (that I can think of) is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens, the protagonist, is a butler in England that takes great pride in his work. He is very loyal to his job and his employer to a fault. Stevens tells about his day-to-day duties through his own rose-colored lens in such a boring way that you begin to question why you’re reading the book in the first place.

And then, something small, almost inconsequential, strikes you as amiss. Very slowly, you begin to piece together that not everything is how Stevens perceives it to be. By the end of the book you realize, through no major conflict, what the conflict truly is: Stevens lies to himself, seeing only the best in his employer and his life. He is the conflict; he refuses to see things as they truly are.

While I don’t expect very many people would describe The Remains of the Day as “exciting,” or “thrilling,” I describe the book as being “artfully written,” and “beautifully subtle.” When I finished the book, all I could say was: “Wow.”

While anyone would agree that strong conflict is necessary in a compelling book, that doesn’t necessarily mean those conflicts have to be loud and in your face. They can be floating just under the surface, slowly building pressure and tension until the climax.

Fire-breathing dragons are cool, and explosions are nice. But don’t forget the subtle conflicts that can truly make your story memorable, unique, and blow your readers’ socks off.

About Kristin LunaKristin Luna copy
Kristin Luna has been making up stories and getting in trouble for them since elementary school. She writes book reviews for Urban Fantasy Magazine and her short story “The Greggs Family Zoo of Odd and Marvelous Creatures” was featured in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All alongside Peter S. Beagle and Todd McCaffrey. Her horror story “Fog” will be featured on Pseudopod in May of this year. Kristin lives in San Diego with her husband Nic, and is working on a young adult novel.

The Beast Inside

heart_beastIn many of my favorite novels, the heroes/heroines face battles, have adventures, and deal with creatures of supernatural ability in fantastical worlds.  In the very best of those, however, the greatest obstacle comes from within.

Many of us face challenges in our own lives. They tend to be more mundane than those we read about, but flat tires, layoffs, and leaky roofs are some of the difficulties we learn to face and overcome. Would it be more impressive, in real life, when someone overcomes a monster? Maybe. But I think that most of us recognize that our biggest challenges, and the ones that are hardest to master, come from failures we perceive inside ourselves: a nature that tends toward selfishness, gossip, insecurities…the list goes on. So, what truly brings out the hero in our heroes/heroines, and resonates most deeply with our readers, is when they master self, the thing many of us acknowledge as our greatest threat. How do we, as writers, help our characters to go through that inner hero’s journey?

First, we have to give them flaws and a good reason for those flaws. Before you write, ask  some questions about your character such as: What kind of childhood did he/she have? How did those events/people, circumstances shape his/her perspective? What flaws are inheritted and what flaws were created? What flaws could prevent my character from succeeding at one of his/her goals? What has to happen in order for him/her to face and overcome those flaws? In order to grow, a character must start with perceivable limitations.

Next, how do those flaws manifest themselves? Right to begin with, readers need to know how these faults get in the hero’s way, how big of a problem they are, whether our hero is aware of them, and how equipped he feels to handle them. An inner demon is as powerful, if not more powerful, of an enemy as monsters, warlords, or evil computers. Treat it as such, with the same try-fail cycles as the physical enemy, the same battles for dominance, and that glorious moment of defeat that allows our hero/heroine to reach their potential.

In the end, seeing our character as a better/more capable person is as gratifying as watching them win the day. Giving our characters something within themselves to overcome will give them depth, interest, and engaging conflict. Make it good, make them suffer, and watch your readers’ engage.


Colette Black lives in Arizona with her amazing family, two dogs, and a mischievous cat. Current publications include the Mankind’s Redemption series, The Black Side anthology, and an appearance in One Horn to Rule Them All: A Purple Unicorn Anthology. More info at: www.coletteblack.net

The Conflicts of Character Design

There are many parts of creating a new novel, and creating realistic characters is probably one of the most challenging ones. Characters need to be believable. They need to have their own personality, habits, and traits that set them apart from others. If done correctly, the reader will be able to relate. They’ll understand and feel concerned. It’ll pull them deeper into the novel and they’ll keep reading to figure out what will happen. If done poorly, it will throw them out of the novel. They won’t be able to believe and before long, they’ll look elsewhere and leave your novel behind.

When I create new characters, I focus on the conflicts. Everyone has conflicts they face and have to deal with. It’s the sum of all these conflicts that can lead them on the road of hero or villain. These conflicts will generally take on the shape of external and internal, two sides of a fight that is always raging in everyone.

Internal conflicts are anything that tears your character apart from inside. This can be dealing with a phobia, memory, or other psychological barrier. It can be need to be the best, or look the prettiest. It can be the fear of the dark that makes your character abandon others he could easily save. Or the pride that keeps him from admitting he was wrong. The internal conflicts are generally the deeply ingrained problems that the character spends the entire novel attempting to overcome.

External conflicts are everything else that keeps your character on track. The broken home he has to deal with, the abusive parents. They can include the weather, environment, wild animals, or other characters. Anything that goes against what the character would do and forces them to make decisions.

When you create a new character, consider all the conflicts that they have to deal with. Write them down and keep them in your mind as you write them. They’ll keep your character constant and provide motivation to act, even if it’s running away. Once these conflicts are established, your character can show true heroism by not only saving the day, but by having to overcome their natural reaction to do so.