I don’t watch much television, but I’ve watched a couple of shows over the past few days (they will remain nameless to protect the guilty) whose incredibly lazy writing drove me nuts. All of its characters did stupid things to force them into conflicts. These weren’t stupid things that people might actually, on occasion do; these were idiot decisions like the vampire hunter in a B-rate horror movie who decides to hunt down Dracula alone as the sun is setting. It’s lazy writing, and I have a quickly-diminishing tolerance for it.
Conflict is critical to the modern, western story (it’s not always as central in some non-western fiction). Let me correct that: realistic conflict is central to the modern, western story. Conflict should come organically from the characters—it doesn’t matter if the character is a superhero or an everyday Joe—and it should not be something forced down onto them by a lazy writer who simply needs something to happen. If the conflict doesn’t result from the realistic actions, beliefs, or foibles of the character, then that conflict likely will not resonate with the reader, who will see right through its contrived nature. At best, such contrived conflict will elicit groans or annoyed shouts, but may well cause the reader to put down the story (or turn off the television, which may not be a bad thing).
A lot of times, realistic conflict isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I don’t know my characters well enough when I start a story to realize the conflict I want won’t work. I’ve had stories, such as “The Schrödinger War,” sit around for over a year because I couldn’t match the right conflict with the correct character. It used to take me a while to see this problem in a story. Now it’s one of the first things I look for when a story isn’t working. Then it’s of matter of changing the conflict to fit the character, or changing the character to fit the conflict. Simple, right? Maybe not, but it has to be easier than hunting vampires at dusk.