Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I learned this particular lesson when writing Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about various theories in the hope that the scene would seem more immediate, but since there was no compelling desire, just the relatively unimportant desire of the characters wanting to be heard, the dialogue came across as bickering rather than conflict. I kept the sections because they were a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and they did show the personalities of the characters in a fun and humorous way, but they didn’t have the immediacy true conflict would have brought to the piece.
In a novel, there are many conflicts. Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters want something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.
So, to ramp up the conflict in your novel, figure out what your characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it, show or tell the reader what is a stake (this is very important — if the reader doesn’t know what the characters want and doesn’t know what is at stake, then the conflict is muted) and then let the characters fight it out. It’s as simple as that.
An Excerpt From Light Bringer with Bickering Characters
They barely had time to exchange more than a few words when Philip heard a thundering knock.
“That’s Faye.” Emery went to let her in.
Faye strode into the living room with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant. “Who’s this?” she barked, fixing her gaze on Philip. “Oh, yes. Now I recall. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, disposable razors.”
Philip recoiled, wondering if this woman in the royal blue, turquoise, and orange dress was crazy, then he remembered she clerked at the grocery store where he’d purchased those very items. “Over-qualified for her job,” Emery had told him, “but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an ample woman in her fifties.”
He stepped forward. “I’m Philip.”
She grabbed his extended hand and pumped it as if trying to draw water. Or blood.
“Glad you could join us,” she said.
A brisk rap seemed to catch her attention. She dropped Philip’s hand and bellowed, “Go away, you gormless lummox. We don’t need your kind here.”
“Let me in, you draggle-tailed witch,” came a muffled voice from outside.
She opened the door and in walked a sharp-featured man wearing a yellow pullover shirt and plaid golfing pants.
“So how many widows and orphans did you fleece today?” she asked.
“Stupid ostrich! You know I’m retired.”
“Now you spend all your time trying to hit defenseless balls and hitting on show ghouls.”
He looked down his nose at her. “Show ghouls? That the best you can do? And anyway, Doreen is a sweet girl.”
She punched him on the arm.
An elderly, bow-legged man with a face the color and texture of walnut shells pushed past them.
“Gil isn’t coming,” he said, throwing up his hands.
Faye rolled her eyes. “Always so dramatic, Chester.”
Chester lowered his arms. “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”
“Oh, all right. Why?”
“He has a meeting with Santero. Santero’s selling his antique store.”
Faye hooted. “Antiques! Junk’s more like it. Broken rocking chairs, moldy patchwork quilts, and dusty canning jars. Who’d buy a place like that?”
“It’s a good location,” Emery said. “A downtown corner, not far from that monstrosity Luke’s remodeling into a bed and breakfast. Must be worth a bundle.”
Brian nodded. “The building’s in good condition, too — all new plumbing.”
“Well, anyway,” Faye said, “we don’t need Gil. Counting Philip there’s six of us.”
Philip held up his palms. “I’m not playing.”
“Nonsense.” She seized him by an arm and dragged him to the table.
He shot a beseeching look at Emery, who merely grinned.
“If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play, you overbearing hag,” the golfer said. By process of elimination, Philip decided he must be Scott, the ex-banker.
Faye stuck out her tongue at Scott. “Flush you.”