In an online writing discussion the other day, someone asked if curiosity automatically presented conflict. I had to think about that. If the curiosity isn’t at odds with the character in any way, if nothing is stopping the character from following their curiosity, there is no conflict. Curiosity, in that case, is about doing what comes naturally, going with the flow. And going with the flow is not conflict. Conflict is going against the flow.
Curiosity can lead to conflict, of course, since curiosity can get our characters into trouble, and trouble does present as conflict. Or perhaps the character is tempted to follow his curiosity but he needs to resist since his curiosity always gets him into trouble, and that temptation/resistance is conflict. In fact, curiosity is a great reason for a character to get into trouble, which moves the story along (especially if you’ve shown that your character is apt to follow his/her curiosity no matter what.)
As a plot driver or as a motivation for your character’s actions, curiosity may not have the emotional power of love, hatred, vengeance, anger, fear, but it has a power all its own. This drive to know new things, to find out about life’s mysteries, both major and minor, is one we can all understand. If we find a locked box, don’t we all want to know what is inside? If the box belongs to our spouse, do we have a right to open it? Do we look for the key? Do we open it? In real life, we might resist the urge out of respect or loyalty, but if we read a book where the character finds the box, we sure keep reading to find out how the character satisfies his/her curiosity . . . and ours. For that is the crux of a story — as readers, it is our curiosity to find out what is going on that keeps us turning pages. If we didn’t care, if we had no curiosity about what is happening in the story world, we’d toss the book aside and find other things that arouse our curiosity, such as what’s on television, or who’s online.
So, even though curiosity doesn’t automatically create conflict, it might lead to conflict, and for sure will keep us reading.
Oddly, curiosity can also bring peace, which is the direct opposite of conflict. If a character has suffered greivous trauma, if the character as no other reason for living, their natural curiosity might give them a reason. Sometimes all one has to hold on to is curiosity as to what the future holds. And that realization brings peace of a sort. At least, it does bring peace until you start throwing more trauma at your character, because peaceful characters are not necessarily compelling characters.