Interpersonal Conflict

So there's a group of us who hang out pretty regularly in chat. A while back we decided to do a BN class. Once a week on Wedsnesday evenings those of us who are available--it varies from week to week--gather to offer our insights, perspectives, experiences, and ideas on a specified topic.

Last week we discussed the three types of conflict found in fiction. We were asked to give definitions and offer examples. Once a definition was generally agreed upon we'd begin discussing various formulas for acheiving that type of conflict.

Now, I've been a member of little group for a long time and I know we all tend to approach things differently. Writing is such a subjective endeavor it would be more bizarre if we didn't. So I go into these sessions knowing I'm probably not going to see eye to eye with my friends on every subject. I also have come to realize we tend to share a common ground and disagree mostly in the details, which is cool because it gives us lots to talk about in chat.

Internal conflict didn't generate much controversy. We all seemed to agree with the overall concept that internal conflict occurs within an individual. We discussed a few formulas an author could use to acheive internal conflict. My favorite and the one I tend use the most in my writing is Goal vs. Goal = Conflict. An example would be the desire to live (goal 1) vs. the desire to commit suicide (goal 2). The conflict is the result of these opposing goals. Does this mean the goals have to be mutually exclusive? I don't think so. I think they merely need to be different enough to cause some emotional and mental strife.

External conflict is likewise self-evident. It can take on many forms. The scenerios are endless. War. Nature. Geography. And on and on. The most common formula for this conflict tends to be Goal vs. Obstacle = Conflict. This could be anything from wanting to find a warm bed (the goal) only to discover the river has flooded everything within a 10 miles radius and there's not dry land, let alone a dry bed, to be found.

Interpersonal conflict became my stumbling block last week. In a broad sense it's conflict that occurs between people. It's that simple. I understand this but it's too broad for me.

When I think of interpersonal conflict in fiction I tend to focus on those people who have an ongoing relationship. This relationship doesn't have to be friendly or even the focus of the book. It can be but it doesn't have to. It can be between family members, friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers, or anyone else who has a significant impact on the character. It's not the woman at the bakery who makes a face when the somewhat chunky protagonist buys a bag of donuts. Let's even say the woman makes a snide remark. Sure, it may piss off our heroine or hurt her feelings, it may even set up the mood for the next scene, but this interaction is minimal and, in terms of relationships, insignificant. I didn't see this as interpersonal conflict despite there being two people involved.

Now, I was not in the majority in my viewpoint. I was on an island all of my own. Smoke signals couldn't have saved me so eventually I cried "uncle" and shut up.

But how do you define the scenerio I just described? If we never see this sales clerk again, if she plays no significant role in the book or the story line, I think she's an irritant. A prop. A means to an ends. She's incidental. Not that I'm saying she doesn't have a place or purpose. She's a piece of the background that has a flash of vibrancy in the fabric of the story.

Given this scenerio, I would probably focus on the internal conflict this woman's condemnation had on my character. I want to have people see me as thin vs. I really want that donut. Do I eat it? Cancel my order? Pay for it and then toss it in the first garbage can I see?

Of course, this woman could develop into a character who becomes very important. She ends up being the Weight Watcher leader of the new chapter our heroine has just joined. She tries to sabotage our heroine and actively pursues the heroine's boyfriend. Suddenly a relationship has developed and the conflict becomes interpersonal.

I know no one agrees with me on this but I'm perfectly content to break up my conflict into four categories: internal, external, interpersonal, incidental.