Chuck Wendig's as always hilariuos post 25 Ways To Fuck With Your Character (or Building Conflict One Cruelty At A Time) puts into words the themes which every writer uses to cause conflict in their story, whether instinctively or by conscious design - and lets hope it's mostly instinct.
As Chuck so nicely puts it, 'story is born of conflict and conflict is born of characters in trouble'. So dump your characters right in said trouble - there are many fun, excellent, sadistic ways to do so.
Here's the gist of the list:
To torture your character into an intriguing situation, a writer may add the following ingredients:
1. An antagonist who stands actively between the protagonist's deeds and desires.
2. A 'Mightiest Burden', i.e. the stakes on the table.
3. Impossible odds.
4. Opposed choices.
5. An untenable secret life, that, if discovered, will destroy/ruin what your character wants/loves most.
6. A roadblock that denies your character the success of gaining what s/he wants.
7. Things your character doesn't want - as opposed to knowing only what s/he does want.
8. False victories. Chuck gave the perfect example: 'John McClane succeeds in calling the authorities and ultimately ends up causing a bigger shitstorm as a result'.
9. Take away what your character(s) love(s).
10. A time limit, like in some video games - sends your adrenalin right through the roof, doesn't it?
11. Hurt your character. Again, John McClane style.
12. Betrayal by a loved one - far worse than hurting John McClane style.
13. Rob the character of his fundamental identifiers - make him/her question who s/he is anymore.
14. Shatter your character's preconceived notions.
15. The Love triangle. 'Nough said.
16. Force your character to lie, thereby putting him/her on treacherous ground.
17. Throw in a 'simple' misunderstanding, sitcom-style.
18. Opposed goals.
19. Let your character make mistakes, maybe even willingly and wantonly.
20. Put loved ones in danger.
21. 'Never say never' - identify a role your character never wants to fill, then drop him right in it.
22. Let your character's weaknesses complicate the story.
23. Environment as antagonist. Freezing ice storm. Scorching desert. Setting can bring misery.
24. Let your character's past catch up with him/her.
25. This point is more of a summary, really. In Chuck's words: '...you (the writer) like the character, you want them to succeed, and that’s all well and good.... But you have to be willing to put the irons to their feet – a character’s success is only keenly felt and roundly celebrated when first he had to go through hell to get there'.
I have worked with ten of these 'trouble-devices', namely 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 20, 21 and 24. This list has helped me realize that some of them repeat themselves in every single story I write, sometimes more than once. Not sure if that makes them predictable, exactly, but it certainly makes them similar. Hopefully, now that I've had my nose rubbed in it, I'll recognize when I go off on that same ol' same ol' path again and can spice things up with some other trouble to wallop my protagonist upside the head with.
Two of these points will be difficult for me to integrate, just because you have to plan them in advance and I'm more of a pantser than a plotter, therefore I don't know what will happen early on in the game. This makes points 8 and 10 more challenging for me than the others. Still, I've learned to never say never. :-)
Are there more such conflict-themes? Which have you used and which ones are difficult for you?