Let’s face it, guys. Without conflict, there is no story. Happy characters are boring. Characters that go through their days without some sort of conflict are… meh. Readers read to escape not to experience the same kind of life they’re already living. They want to see the characters suffer and almost give up only to win in the end. If there’s no struggle, there’s no reason for readers to root for the character or continue reading.
However, that doesn’t mean you can add a few arguments between characters and you’re set. Arguments, generally speaking, aren’t true conflict. Anything that could be solved with a discussion is a weak conflict.
Does this mean you need to add danger to your story so the conflict level will be high? Nope. But, that would work. You need to focus on what’s at stake and why. In order for your characters to struggle, they need to have goals. (Note: I’m talking about the hero and/or heroine and possibly villain, not minor characters.) What does the character want/need? Does he want a promotion? Does she need to move out of this crappy town and away from her ex? Does he need to find a lost treasure? Is she chasing her son’s killer? These are all external goals.
But in order to make your characters three-dimensional, they need to have internal goals too. This means they need some sort of internal struggle, something that will show how they’ve grown as “people” by the end of the book. Does she lack self-confidence? Does he feel guilty about a traumatic event that occurred? Does he seek power? Does she need revenge? Does she need to overcome a tragedy and open her heart up to love again?
Once you know what the characters’ internal and external goals are, you can formulate a conflict that keeps them from attaining that goal until the end.
She wants to move out of town to get away from her ex, but she can’t because she shares custody of their five-year-old daughter with him and had agreed in their settlement to stay put. They argue about her wanting to move away on a daily basis. YAWN.
She wants to move out of town to get away from her ex, but she can’t because she shares custody of their five-year-old daughter with him and had agreed in their settlement to stay put. But, he doesn’t make her life easy. He’s pissed that she divorced him and wants to make her pay. They don’t just argue. He’s on a mission to destroy her. He ruins any attempt she makes at dating and has convinces her boss she sold company secrets to the competitor, which results in her getting fired. If he can prove to the judge that she can’t hold a job or supply a stable life for their daughter, she could lose her daughter to him.
And you could keep building the conflict from there until she almost gives up, gains a sliver of hope, pushes herself to do one last thing, and wins.
Basically, make your characters suffer. Torture them with conflict. Don’t make their lives easy. Make them work for their win.