The Root of Conflict in Writing and in WritersAll my life I have been swaying between two ways of being – to be accepted or to be different. I used to think there was contradiction in this, that on one hand I was trying to be a part of something and at the same time wanting to avoid being labeled or limiting myself to one group or occupation or way.  Did I want to be a popular kid? Yes. Did I want to set myself apart from the popular kids? Yes.

But here’s what I’ve finally come to in my life . . . it’s a realization at which I arrived through writing, the most true way I am in the world – the way I am in the world that is both about being part of something  – a tradition and a community of writers – and about being different – as an artist, as a creative person, as someone who chooses to live life with a creation as my central goal.

Here’s what I finally figured out: I want to be heard. I want to be known in the fullness of who I am.  

I can’t know for sure, but I think all of us want to be known.  In fact, I suspect that most of what we do in the world – working to provide food for our families, attending churches, growing gardens, writing books – is because at the heart of who we are we want to be known and want to know ourselves. Somehow we understand that doing these things may win us the chance to be seen, heard, and understood fully.

If this desire for being recognized and understood is universal – and I ask your grace because I’m still working through this idea – then it makes sense that our characters – be they fictional or from our own lives – are also seeking to be known, too.


One of the central tenets of any work of prose (and I might argue poetry, too) is conflict.  A character has to want something, and something has to stand in the way of her getting it..  The conflict – the battle between the character getting what she wants and the obstacles that get in her way – is sometimes external (Jason Bourne’s missions are thwarted by terrorists), sometimes internal (can Luke get out of his own fear and use the Force?), and sometimes both. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The man in the boy in that story are fighting to stay alive, and so that conflict is external. Yet, the man also wants to connect to the boy, to be known and understood by him. To be loved.

Or consider Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death.  Here, the protagonist, a young woman named Onyesonwu is on a quest to end a war, but to achieve this goal, she must come to accept and understand her unique gifts – including her ability to turn into animals.  Onye struggles with an external conflict in the grandest sense, a war, and an internal one that is about self-acceptance and self-understanding.

The same is true for nonfiction as well.  In Jeanette Wall’s amazing memoir The Glass Castlethe central conflict exists because Wall’s parents – particular her mother – neglect her, and the young girl must learn to care for herself. But the internal conflict is whether or not Wall will condemn her parents and shut them out.  (Incidentally, Wall’s work is one of the most brilliant I’ve seen in holding the tension between awareness, acceptance, and forgiveness.)

In more journalistic forms, the conflict is often a question – a central query that the author herself may be asking.  Sharman Apt Russell calls this a fruitful question – the core inquiry that drives the book forward. In her book, An Obsession with Butterflies she asks and then seeks to answer this question: What does a butterfly see when it enters a field of wildflowers?

Thus, one of our works as writers is to be sure we put our characters into conflict or, in the case of nonfiction, write the story in such a way that a reader can see what the characters want and how they are challenged in achieving that desire.  

To do this, we need to remember a couple of things:

  • We don’t need to know the answer or the way through.  We don’t necessarily have to see how the characters travel through the conflict or where they end up at the end.  In fact, some would argue that we might have more energy for a work if we don’t know exactly where we’re going or at least the precise route by which we’ll get there.
  • Everything in a work needs to work with this conflict.  The setting, the plot, the dialogue, the characters . . . everything needs to make sense in terms of the central conflict of the story.

So here are a couple of questions to ask as you ponder the conflict in your work:

  1. What is it that my main character wants most?  
  2. What is getting in his way of having that thing? 

If you can hold those questions as you write, you’ll have a compelling story that matters.


There’s something else here, too, something for us as writers, as creators.  There’s a question we carry in everything we write:

What am I hoping people will know about ME by reading this work?  In what way is this work serving to meet my greatest desire – to be seen, heard, understand, and known? 

Perhaps then, this conflict between wanting to be known and realizing that our words are always going to fall short, that we are never going to be understood completely by other human beings, perhaps that’s the root of our fear as writers. . . perhaps our continued battle with this conflict, our continual fight to find the words and sentences and paragraphs and stanzas to get ourselves out there, perhaps this is the gift to our readers and to ourselves.

Could it be that the root of our greatest fears as writers – the fear that we will be unheard and unknown – is also the root of our greatest strength? And if so, can we welcome our fear then? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea in the comments below.

On Friday and Saturday, Nick Stephenson is offering a FREE webinar , where he’ll be teaching us all how to find our readers – the folks who are already interested in our books.  Nick’s central tenet in all he does is to avoid being sleazy, and I LOVE that.  I’ll be at Saturday’s webinar session, and I hope you’ll check out one of the webinars, too.  I learn something every time, and Nick’s teaching is helping me find more readers. . . he’s helping me find more people who want to know me, and I love that. Sign up for the webinars here. 

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