It’s a fact few of us like to acknowledge, but we all need conflict. Conflict is what drives us to grow and change. It’s what shapes us and points us to the destiny we choose for ourselves according to how we handle that conflict. It’s hard and it hurts and nobody likes going through it, but it’s the push we all need.
Here’s a funny fact, though. While we hate facing conflict in real life, we demand it from our fiction. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons for this, but I can hazard a guess for at least one. Encountering conflict in the stories we read allows us to experience, vicariously, the intense strife of the characters without suffering the repercussions. To plumb the depths of their souls and find out what they’re really made of.
Hold up a mirror
Doing this gives us the opportunity to explore ourselves on some level, however subconscious. We read of characters in impossible situations, forced to make difficult choices, and we ask ourselves, “What would it cost, emotionally, to take such a risk? What joys and glories might be gained by doing so?”
We follow the characters through conflict—experiencing right beside them—and as we read about them, we are learning about ourselves and our world. There is truth in fiction, and it’s not always easy to face. One reason Christ taught in parables was as a mercy to his listeners, so that each could understand and accept as much as he was ready to, and not more.
Opposition in all things
The conflicts in story tend to boil down into two opposing forces. These are examples of some of the most common battles we encounter in fiction, and in life:
Hero vs. Villain: Think Harry Potter versus Voldemort
Belief vs. Truth: an adopted girl believes her parents were secret agents killed in the line of duty rather than face the truth that she was abandoned at birth
Wants vs. Has: Wanda wants to be president of the company and sit in the corner office. But what she has is the janitor’s job, dusting and vacuuming that office.
Heart’s Desire vs. Expectations: I immediately thought of the elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Everyone expected him to make toys and pack Santa’s sleigh, but all he really wanted was to be a dentist. So it’s off to the Island of Misfit Toys!
Fear vs. Goal: George has a goal to present his research findings at that conference in South Africa, but in order to do so, he has to face his fear of flying.
Hero vs. Self: we all know what that feels like. We battle within ourselves every day, weighing our options, listening to the little angel and the pushy devil perched on our shoulders as they make their persuasive arguments.
It’s a fact of life, and there’s no shirking it. However, we can learn a lot about conflict and avoid some of its worst effects through reading story. I’m reminded of the old commercial for the bathroom cleaner with scrubbing bubbles. “We work hard, so you don’t have to!” the bubbles shout as they slide down the drain.
Characters in story go through the tough stuff so that—just maybe—we won’t have to.
How about you? Do you enjoy conflict in story? Love reading a story where the hero overcomes crushing odds? Tell us about it in the comments.