I first heard about conflict lock from Bob Mayer–he does great workshops on this. I don’t know if he heard it from someone else, but it has spread, however, I’m still surprised to find folks who don’t really understand (or put in) strong conflict.
The first thing you have to do, however, is figure out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.
In a romance, many people think BOTH the hero and heroine are the protagonist–that’s not possible. There is one protagonist in every strong story–yes, even in an ensemble cast which may have very strong secondary leads, there’s still a protagonist.
The other thing to work out is if the other person in the romance is the antagonist or not–it doesn’t have to be set up that way. For example, in my book, Under the Kissing Bough, the heroine is the protagonist–she has to change the most (she has the strongest character arc, which makes her the protagonist). The antagonist (the person from keeping her from getting what she wants) happens to be the antagonist. Now…let’s look at another book. In A Proper Mistress, the hero is the protagonist (he has to change the most)–but it’s the hero’s father who is the antagonist. He’s the one causing the hero’s conflict–and the hero is causing his father conflict. That’s a conflict lock.
Very often what I see in manuscripts is that the conflict is contrived–it comes from the author manipulating characters as if they are paper dolls–and there is no real conflict from issues and goals. There’s no conflict lock.
So…how do you make a conflict lock?
As noted, you start by figuring out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.
Now you have to figure out what are your characters’ main goals.
Goals create conflict if this is one thing that only one person can have, or is two opposite outcomes, or is the same outcome with vastly different approaches.
The best summary I’ve heard of this is also from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.
What does that mean?
- What does a character want?
This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really really wants.
The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.
- What does a character really want?
Under ever want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.
- What does a character really, really want?
When you find out what a character really wants, ask: But what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.
This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical to marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.
- What does a character really, really, really want?
This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl. The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.
Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict. Working out characters who want things that conflict with the main characters wants.
You also want goals with consequences–failure to achieve the goal will mean a change in status (not that things stay the same). The goal works best if it really, really, really matters to the protagonist (and the antagonist). And you want the goal to reflect something to do with the theme–or the story won’t resonate as well as it should.
You also want to look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict.
In every book, I love it when ever character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. And all of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea (of course) meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together.
And that brings up the next issue with conflict.
If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.
This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.
Recently I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day (Everything Must Go). His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.
Now this is a character that seems without a goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.
The really interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling at first to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff that no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.
Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story. And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.
That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters. If you build this into the characters when you are first starting out with the story, you won’t have to contrive additional conflict. You’ll have tons of material all set up.