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Kick Your Story Up a Notch by Knowing Your Character’s Conflict Style

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16443534782_94d7e49faa_b.jpg?resize=1024There is a story that I wish I saw replicated more often in fiction. It goes like this:

Two siblings are fighting over an orange. It is the only orange they have, a rare and delectable treat. The orange will rot if it isn’t consumed today, so the siblings’ mother offers to cut it in half. But the siblings say no: each wants the whole orange. Finally, the mother takes each child aside to talk. She learns that the first child wants to eat the orange. The second child wants the peel to use for an art project. The mother peels the orange, and gives the first child the fruit, and the second child the peel, and everyone leaves happy.

A version of this story gets used in books on negotiation to illustrate different methods of resolving a seemingly intractable conflict. But in a great deal of popular Western media, this type of resolution to a conflict might be seen as unsatisfying, even boring. An ending where everyone is happy and gets 100% of what they want? Yawn.

But what if I told you that not only could this story be made interesting, but that writers miss critical opportunities to introduce readers to non-oppressive ways of looking at the world if they ignore different conflict styles?

livememe.com - Boy, That Escalated Quickly

Conflict is at the core of many of our most beloved stories (here, I’m defining conflict broadly as a situation in which a character’s need or want is frustrated by an opposing force). It moves our plots forward and forces our characters to adapt and change. It keeps readers interested: we’re always trying to get them to ask, “And then what happened?”

I’ve written before about how my own avoidant conflict style (I’ll define these terms below) made it difficult for me to set my own characters at odds with each other. It also meant that I unintentionally would write characters who, like me, avoided conflict.

The key word there is not “avoidant”—plenty of conflict-avoidant characters can still drive the plot—but “unintentional.” I wasn’t being intentional about how my characters dealt with conflict, and so I never forced them to finally confront one another. Which led to some dull, flat stories.

What changed was when I started applying what I learned as a conflict resolution student to my conception of conflict in story. Because just as there’s more than one way to crack an egg, there’s more than one way for a character to deal with conflict. Here are a few.

What are conflict styles?

Conflict style is how your character addresses their own concerns in a conflict situation. Those concerns typically revolve around three areas:

  • Result – Will I get what I want/need?
  • Relationship – How will this conflict affect my relationship with the other party/ies?
  • Risk – How much trouble is this conflict going to cause me, and how much will it cost for me to lose?

The way that individuals deal with these concerns determines their conflict style. These styles are often divided into five categories:

  • Avoiding – Ignoring the conflict.
  • Accommodating – Giving in to what the other side wants.
  • Competing – Doing whatever it takes to win, regardless of consequences.
  • Compromising – Giving up some of what you want to allow the other side to get some of what they want.
  • Collaborating – Making the effort to understand the other party’s needs, make sure they understand yours, and working to reach a resolution where everyone is happy.

In the orange story, the children display a style defined by competition. Many epic novels fall into this category, in which one side must wholly defeat the other to save the world. On the other hand, the mother in this story can be said to have a collaborating style, which attempts to find a solution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns (note that this is different than a compromising style, in which the imagined solution is both expedient and partially satisfying).

It also illustrates the importance of addressing needs rather than addressing positions. The siblings’ positions were opposed: each wants the whole orange. But their needs (the fruit, the peel) were not. Not every conflict is this neat, of course: it’s interesting when the parties to a conflict can’t articulate their own needs, but things can get quite exciting when those needs are diametrically opposed.

And this is where we, as writers, could start making the story of the orange more interesting. For example, we don’t know anything about the siblings. Are they the same age? The same gender? What are the dynamics of power between them? What if one of the siblings tends to always get what they want, while the other always gives in? What if this is the one time the accommodating sibling stood up for their needs? Perhaps they’re trying to gain admission to a fancy art school to finally pursue their dreams, but they need the whole orange peel to create their masterpiece?

Now we’ve got a more interesting story: one with personal stakes.

Why do conflict styles matter?

There are a few reasons why paying attention to your characters’ conflict styles can make for better stories. The first is that, simply, it can be entertaining to explore what happens when different styles clash. What would it take to force an avoidant personality to take part in a conflict? What happens when one side is concerned about the impact that a conflict will have on their relationship, while the other side cares only about getting what they want? Being purposeful about how your characters address conflict can add layers of interesting nuance to your story.

But there’s another reason to identify conflict styles, and that is to avoid unconsciously reinforcing cycles of oppression and domination that have real-world consequences.

livememe.com - Boy, That Escalated Quickly
Yeah, I used the meme again.

When you don’t think about conflict styles, you might tend to default into the ones that are most familiar to you. And for those of us who were raised in a certain culturally dominant media landscape, that usually means one side must achieve Total Victory over another.

Incidentally, this also ties in with the idea, popularized by Hollywood scriptwriting advice, that a protagonist must be “active.” The active protagonist knows what they want (even if it might not be what they achieve, or even what they need), and then, in pursuit of that desire, “takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around them. The protagonist is the one pushing the action and pursuing their external goal with dogged determination. That’s the hero we want to see.” You might think of Ripley in Alien, Sabriel in Garth Nix’s Sabriel, or Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy. Their choices directly affect the plot, and the audience roots for them as they struggle toward their goals.

These are popular stories for a reason: they’re riveting! But something else that these stories have in common: what our heroes want is to defeat—dominate—the enemy. Ripley wants to kill the alien terrorizing her spaceship; Sabriel wants to bind the necromancer Kerrigor; Katniss wants to deny the Capital a victor in the Hunger Games. They won’t stop until they get what they want, no matter what gets in the way.

There are, of course, plenty of popular examples where Total Victory is not the desired outcome. I’m thinking in particular of many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, in which balance (usually between nature and humanity) is the end goal; and of books like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which (minor spoiler) does not have a traditionally happy ending, and yet concludes on a note of cautiously hopeful coexistence.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe storytellers are obligated to be purposeful in the type of stories we are putting in to the world. I know not all will agree. And I am not arguing that storytellers must always show constructive, mutually agreeable conflict outcomes, or that stories should be read as morality tales or Biblical parables. Just like writing tragedies, there is absolutely significant value in writing conflicts that spiral out of control, or how people divorced from their own needs can be unable to reach a satisfying resolution because they themselves are too entrenched in their positions.

What I think we should question, however, is the narrative that Total Victory is the default, desirable outcome to a conflict. It can’t hurt us to be more purposeful about the way we write conflict in our stories, whether that conflict is between siblings or between nations. At the very least, we might find ourselves better equipped to expand our own definitions of what constitutes a conflict and its resolution.

P.S. – Here’s a conflict styles assessment from the U.S. Institute of Peace, which you can take either to find out your own style or that of your characters.

What is your main character’s conflict style? What are some of your favorite stories that don’t end on Total Victory?


About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.


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