Katara looks horrified as she stares at the living frog on her tongue.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang cures his sick friends with frozen frogs.

Is your manuscript full of scenes where the protagonists hang out and have fun together? This is tempting to write when we love our characters and don’t want to impose hardships on them, but it often leads to a story without structure. For readers, this quickly gets dull.

Fixing this involves looking for the nearest potential source of problems. While I recommend finding large-scale problems to hold the story together, you’ll probably need to keep characters busy with obstacles at the scene or chapter level. To that end, let’s go over seven conflicts that are easy to work into low-key situations.

1. Basic Necessities Are Missing

Your characters might need food, water, medicine, or shelter. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be a hardcore survival arc. In fact, in many stories, this becomes a great opportunity for wish fulfillment. Imagine:

  • Your characters are carrying some ancient books when it starts raining. They rush to find the nearest available shelter and end up in a mysterious inn where all the rooms seem to clean themselves.
  • Your characters are traveling when their waterskins run out. One of them finds an animal trail, and they follow it to a secret grove containing a spring that shows their true reflection.
  • Your characters are far away from home and have to fend for themselves. They find an abandoned garden outside the ruins of an old castle. It still has a little produce they can eat, and they decide to tend the garden to make it productive again.

The trickiest part is simply finding a reason why your characters don’t have access to what they need. If they’re traveling, that’s easy. They might also be on a day trip outside, or medicine might run out and be hard to replace.

2. A Gatekeeper Is in the Way

Have you ever noticed that in many stories, every bit character the protagonists talk to is an asshole? That’s because making minor characters act out is an easy source of conflict. While some stories go too far with this, you don’t have to.

Take a look at what your characters are doing. Are they relying on a librarian to find a book, a clerk to check them in, or a merchant to sell them something? If you don’t have these kinds of minor characters in the story, you can add some gatekeepers like bouncers or guards.

Then, make your minor characters resist doing what the protagonists need. They don’t have to be an asshole, nor do you need bigotry in your story just so a bartender can say, “we don’t serve your kind.” All you need is a reason why the gatekeeper doesn’t think they can help. A secretary might say that their boss is not to be disturbed, or a bouncer could say the club is full.

If you like positivity, your protagonist can connect with the gatekeeper at a personal level, find out what their needs and limitations are, and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

3. Rules Have to Be Broken

Take a look at what your protagonists are already doing, and imagine how it might be against the rules – of the household, the school, the business, the state, or any other authority that might be present. However, try to keep rules reasonable. A group that bans love just to keep your protagonists apart is going to stretch believability. Don’t be the Jedi Council.

A useful trick is changing the time so your protagonists need to break into somewhere off-hours. What if they need a book immediately and the library is closed? Parents are also much less likely to let their kids go out to see friends in the middle of the night.

Activities could also be banned if they’re considered dangerous. This doesn’t mean they’re lethal every time. The authorities only have to get tired of people ending up in the hospital because they explored those abandoned buildings or did unauthorized science experiments.

To create tension, rule breaking should have potential consequences. This becomes especially tricky if your characters are breaking rules on an ongoing basis. If they keep disregarding rules and nothing bad happens, then, pretty soon, the rules will feel meaningless. In that case, give them a punishment that means something. Then, make the next potential punishment bigger.

4. Events Fall Outside the Comfort Zone

If you like focusing on character feelings and growth, give yourself a meaty character arc to work on. You want an arc that’s easy to cover while the characters are doing whatever they’re already doing. A great solution is to make a character experience some emotional discomfort because of their current activities.

This might come in the form of a phobia, past trauma, or anxiety. Establish it early in the story, and help your audience understand why it’s there.

  • Is your character uncomfortable meeting new people because of social anxiety?
  • Are they afraid to venture into the woods because someone they knew died out there?
  • Do their hands shake when they try to play their lute in front of a crowd because they lack confidence?

Once you’ve chosen something, make sure your character can take baby steps. If their hands shake when they try to perform but your first plot point calls for an amazing performance, that’s an issue. Instead, maybe your character plays beautifully because they think no one is listening. When a curtain is pulled aside to reveal a crowd watching, they immediately falter. Then they flee, berating themself for screwing up. That gives them a small success while leaving room for growth.

5. It’s Hard to Get Somewhere

Any time your characters have to get from point A to point B, you have lots of opportunity for travel-related conflicts.

  • Could there be a wall, canyon, or another physical obstacle in the way? Make your protagonists figure out how to get past it safely.
  • Might the destination be tricky to find? Maybe the protagonists only have a name, forcing them to gather some clues before they know where to go.
  • Is the environment tricky to navigate? The protagonists could get lost on the way, especially if something happens to their map.
  • Do the protagonists need to find some form of transport? Maybe it’s hard to find a spaceship captain willing to take them to the edge of the galaxy.

When creating travel conflicts, it’s important to set the right expectations with readers. They should know that traveling will be difficult ahead so they don’t expect the protagonists to reach their destination on the next page. If your protagonists are naive or overconfident about their plans, a side character can give them a warning to foreshadow future problems.

6. Characters Are Separated

Separate your protagonists, and make them find each other again. This can mean a literal separation, or it can just mean that the protagonists decided to do some things on their own.

  • Characters who always do an activity together could start chafing because of the compromises they have to make for each other. They might separate so they can do everything their own way, only to learn it’s not as great as they imagined.
  • If an authority figure is involved, they might have to do some rule breaking to see each other. But the authority doesn’t have to be cruel; maybe the protagonists were just sent to different schools when they’d rather attend the same school together.
  • Characters who are traveling could get physically separated. Eager to find each other again, they might have to think through what the other person would do.

Regardless of how you do it, separation gives you a great opportunity to build relationships. Apart, the protagonists can realize how much they need each other. Once they’re back together, they might express their appreciation – whether that’s through a grudging nod or a big hug – and then discuss how to prevent future problems.

7. Someone Gets Sick or Injured

Whether it’s catching a cold in the rain, twisting an ankle, drinking poison, or having blood stolen by a vampire, stories offer plentiful opportunities for reparable harm. Of course, the fun part isn’t injuring your character – it’s letting another character care for them!

That, too, comes in many flavors:

  • To start with, a protagonist might have to get an injured buddy to shelter, safety, or a professional. This might call for a romantic bridal carry or a big cart for that half-giant friend.
  • After the injured character has been transported, a supportive protagonist might have to locate something essential, whether it’s an antidote, a doctor, or a protective charm.
  • If the sickness or injury is mysterious in nature, a protagonist might have to do some clue gathering. Curing the character could depend on knowing what harmed them.
  • If your character is a healer or mage, they might struggle to mix the right potion or conduct a difficult ritual to save their friend.

Naturally, recovering characters need someone to cook for them, keep them company while they are in bed, and all that good stuff. That probably won’t be a conflict; it’s the reward you get for adding a conflict.

People often associate “plot” with high-stakes, stressful content. But using plot structure just means your characters are solving problems. Those problems don’t have to be dark and edgy.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Jump to Comments