Note: In most cases, your main character is a human. If it’s not, feel free to use the term ‘human’ as you see fit. Side note: I highly recommend The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate for an excellent example of a non-human main character.
Human vs. Other Humans/Society
Depending on your chosen character arcs, your main character might spark against one or more individuals. In this case, a clear hero vs. villain route is established and the conflict should be quite evident.
Guiding Questions: Why are they at odds? What is it about their personalities or ideals that have set them against one another? How does this play out over time?
Another type of conflict is Human vs. Society. You may have noticed that every dystopian book starts with this type. The main character is at odds with the world they live in.
Guiding Questions: How do your main character’s ideals clash with the society in which they exist? What do they strive to change and how will they carry out this plan?
Human vs. Self
In other cases, your main human might have extraordinary inner conflict. This might look like any one of the following tropes: basic needs vs. desire, good vs. evil, sanity vs. insanity. These are all rich conflicts that might play out in a mental battlefield.
Guiding Questions: How will my inner conflict unfold? Should I use an unreliable narrator to emphasize mental duality?
Humans vs. Other
Other types of conflicts pit your main character against issues that might not have an easily recognizable face. Elements such as the Unknown (think supernatural like ghosts or, think alien species), technology/machines, or an even bigger concept like Fate (the ancient Greeks loved this one.)
Guiding Questions: How do these elements collide with my main character and disrupt their everyday life? How can I craft a character arc for an unconventional character like Fate or a machine?
Make it Visual–Map Your Conflict
Being a visual person, I firmly believe that life is better with pictures. When you’re planning out your writing piece, or if you’re in the midst (or even finished), try this exercise. Grab a pencil, some different colored highlighters (or any writing implements with various colors) and some printer paper.
First, use your pencil and draw a big circle that represents your main overarching conflict. Now, name this and write it along the edge of this big circle. Use the examples from above to identify it, for example, Lucretia vs. Her Mental Illness. Choose one color and highlight your main conflict. You won’t use this color again.
Next, make other circles that represent the minor conflicts in your writing piece. If they’re outside the main conflict, and do not interact with it, then put them outside the main circle. Color-code each new conflict according to characters, ideas, or sub-plots. Whatever you choose, have the size of each minor circle correspond to its importance in your writing.
Now, examine your Conflict Masterpiece. What do you notice? How many circles are outside the main circle? Could these be eliminated? Could you bolster up something else?
And finally …
Hopefully, these tips will help you examine your conflict with a tighter lens and challenge you to push your writing boundaries. If you do make a Conflict Masterpiece, please tell us about it in the comments. And, as always, best of luck with your writing endeavors.