1. Fracture Alliances
There’s a good chance your story has multiple protagonists working together, or a powerful side character that is providing support. If everyone on Team Good is getting along, you’re setting yourself up for some dull scenes. Instead, amp up the conflict between the characters. Your interpersonal conflict could include:
- Petty squabbles: Perhaps your adventurers are fighting over a doll gifted to them by a thankful villager. Two of them vie for possession of it, while the rest become convinced that it’s really a golem waiting to rise up and kill them during the night. That not only adds conflict, but also builds tension via a possible threat.
- Personality conflicts: Let’s say two mechanics are assigned to restore the warp drive on the same derelict. But one thinks the other is incompetent, and the other thinks the first is condescending. It gets to the point where they’re sabotaging the environmental controls to make each other uncomfortable. Their mutual sabotage creates a space-time portal, and the ship is sucked in. Now they must bond if they ever hope to find their way home.
- Mismatched goals: Three mouse queens could join forces to construct a weapon to defeat the cat that threatens their lands. But one wants to use the weapon to control the cat, and through it all of Mouselandia. The second queen insists on killing it, while the third simply wants to chase it away, fearing the wrath of the giant two-legged one. They’ll argue about it, building up to an inevitable fight once the weapon is finished.
If you’re trying to avoid conflicts like these, you can also revive Team Good scenes with some playful banter.
2. Create Dilemmas
If your audience can see into the head of your primary protagonist, you have a great stage for another battle. All you have to do is create something for their inner selves to fight over. Make your character waver back and forth as they struggle to resolve their private dilemma. Inner conflicts are often created by:
- Fears: Let’s say your protagonist is afraid of gnomes, and then discovers that gnomes have stolen all of the family photo albums, and even worse, the only fake beard that fits. Now they have to choose between facing the gnomes, and watching their kids’ disappointment when Santa doesn’t appear.
- Secrets: Maybe your protagonist took apart their lover’s pocket watch in order to complete their amazing music-box printer, then learned upon their lover’s return that the missing watch was the lost key to the city’s giant mechanical defender. Now they must decide whether to tell the truth about what happened.
- Responsibilities: Perhaps your hero has been safeguarding a dangerous book that is the key to awakening dark and powerful gods. They know they must not open it, but it keeps whispering to them during the night, telling them that it contains the secrets to defeating evil. Slowly going mad, they must fight against temptation.
If you have a character-centered story that doesn’t have an inner dilemma yet, it would almost certainly benefit from one.
3. Cultivate Enemies
You can always plop another enemy in the story to increase the entertainment value. This character could have a huge variety of characteristics; what’s important is that their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s. New enemies could be characters that:
- Hurt the hero in the past: After you’ve established that the hero’s father is dead, they go on a daring rescue mission. By pure chance, they encounter the dark and mysterious figure that killed their father. Later, the hero quits their mystical training early to run off to fight this person, even though it’s an obvious trap.
- Were hurt by the hero: A previous battle between the hero and an arch villain could have left the beautiful metropolis in ruins. Someone angry about the casualties of this battle then creates a experimental lab in their basement and concocts a substance capable of removing the hero’s powers.
- Are competing with the hero: After your hero finds out there is something terribly wrong with the old and beautiful house they bought for super cheap, they become determined to perform an exorcism. But little do they know that their neighbor uses the house to harvest soul energy, and will go to any lengths to sabotage their plan.
The big trick is to connect this person with the rest of the story. An enemy is too important to come out of nowhere.
4. Cripple Heroes
You can power up the conflicts you already have by making it harder for your hero to deal with them. Just take away something your character was counting on to defeat the big bad. Then your character has to struggle not only against the big bad, but also to adjust to their loss. The blow could come in the form of:
- A stolen item: Let’s say your hero has developed a computer virus that is poised to take down the nationwide surveillance network belonging to Big Brother. But just before they unleash it, the secret police show up and seize all of their equipment. Your hero will need to find another terminal with access to the mainframe before the clock runs out.
- Social disgrace: The hero has plans to attend a high class ball, where all the oldest and most powerful vampires gather. But the host has discovered their allegiance to a secret underground anti-monster league, and the hero is no longer welcome. Now they must rely on a sexy disguise and a dangerous (but even sexier) escort to get in and find their target.
- Lost powers: Your heroes have a ship that can easily outmaneuver any border patrols, but unfortunately, the cargo hold is currently full of cattle being smuggled across the border. Making quick maneuvers will cause the beasts to panic and harm themselves. To sneak the ship into port, your heroes must create the perfect distraction for the patrol.
Depending on what you choose, crippling your hero could make your story a little darker. But it could also make it more powerful.
5. Unleash Disasters
People don’t just fight each other. There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are traveling. They’re also a great option if you need a conflict that only shows up once, then disappears. Disasters might be:
- Resource shortages: Your heroes could be on a long journey to destroy an evil artifact. But they run out of the provisions provided for them by the elves, and little food can be found in their desolate environment. Soon they must choose between sneaking into the enemy camp to steal supplies and hunting a large and dangerous animal.
- Severe weather: The hero’s seaship* has just set out in search of lost treasure, when a typhoon hits, tearing it apart. The hero manages to snatch the map before being thrown overboard. Another ship rescues the hero, but it is run by an untrustworthy captain bearing an eye patch and a feathered hat.
- Wild creatures: Your hero could be traveling to visit their reclusive grandmother. But the woods they must travel through are full of zombie wolves, and the creatures are enraged by the hero’s red cloak. Will the hero get to their grandmother’s house before one or both of them are eaten?
It’s a good idea to do some research when including natural threats. You may want to include lava as a threat, but your character can’t walk into a cave with extensive lava flow, even if they don’t walk on the lava itself. They would die from the heat or fumes.
Once you’ve chosen the conflict you want to add, the trick is weaving it carefully into your story. Even natural disasters, which are often one-off challenges, require some foreshadowing. Build up to it with a healthy dose of tension, and even after the conflict is resolved, make the effects linger. That way, everyone will think the conflict was there from the beginning.
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