Conflicting Values in Stories

Originally Posted November 30, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated February 08, 2023

Why use conflicting values in stories?

One of the most important things to consider as both a reader and a writer is why people turn the page and keep reading a story. Think about books you’ve read. What made you want to know more? What drove you to stay up too late to finish reading yet another chapter? What caused you to close a book that just couldn’t grab your attention and instead is tucked away for another day? 

When it comes to non-fiction, we generally read to learn something, but fiction is about entertainment. We read to be enthralled with stories that we enjoy—stories that make us feel something—stories that push us to think, laugh, cry, or simply escape into a world where we can forget about our daily stress.

Without conflict, your story will likely be the book on the shelf waiting to be opened again. Conflict is an important element in your story, and without it, your story is going to fall flat. Conflict is the lever that helps create tension.

Tension is the clincher that keeps us on the edge of our seats and builds up to a climax. It’s the thing that gets us turning the pages and wanting to hear more, to see what happens, and to finish a book. Conflict and tension raise the stakes. 

If there is nothing of value to be lost, the stakes aren’t high enough, and people won’t care what happens. Not good. When we don’t care, we put the book down. Our goal as writers is to keep people turning the page. 

One of the easiest ways to create strong tension is to tackle conflicting values, whether you do it between two characters, or it’s within one character as they struggle to do something.

  • Conflicting values can be between two main characters—the protagonist and the antagonist
  • Conflicting values can also be shown within a single character when put in a moral or ethical dilemma 

The best way to show the differences is through an example. Keep reading to see examples of these two compromising situations, and we’ll take a quick look at why they work. This will help you when you write your story, by offering a clear way to understand what is considered a conflicting value, and what isn’t.

What are values?

First, let’s look at values. Values are things that we find to be valuable within a character, traits that are respected, such as being disciplined, having courage, honor, or integrity. Think about your own set of values. You probably appreciate things like honesty, loyalty, or maybe perseverance. 

Now, with values in mind, let’s look at an example of conflicting values.

Conflicting values pit two opposing values against one another, like two boxers going at it in the ring. One comes out with the win (okay, in some instances it’s a tie), but just like a football or baseball game, or even a game of chess, when pitted against one another, somebody wins. 

Conflicting Values (examples): 

Would you kill someone to save another?

You aren’t a killer, and yet, to save a loved one you may need to kill somebody. This goes against everything inside of you. You weren’t born a killer, you have no desire to kill, and yet, if you don’t take action, your loved one may die. You’re facing a contradiction where you want to do something good (save your friend/family member/person in peril), but have to do something that goes against what you believe. What do you do? What does your character do? This builds tension into the story. 

What if you had to steal to feed your starving family?

You’re honest and not a thief. Yet, your family is struggling, starving for food, and you know if you don’t do something soon, it’s going to become beyond desperate. Your character may be forced to go against their values…to do something they believe is for a good reason. 

Let’s take something less extreme...

...but show you how it can work in smaller scenes and areas within your story. Have you ever told a little white lie? The thing is, we know it’s not good to lie, and yet in your mind, you might think it’s better to be kind to the person, then offer the truth. You’re conflicted. Do you not lie, because it goes against your values and you’re truthful? Or, do you gently buffer the truth to help your friend not feel absolutely crushed about something? 

If you’re stuck for ideas, start thinking about “What would you do?” questions. That can give you something to really chew on and think about, while offering you ideas to expand the tension in your story between characters. 

Antagonist vs. Protagonist

What if both feel like they’re doing the right thing? One is trying to save the small town that relies on the export of a crop. They know if they lose the industry that feeds their town, they’ll suffer, and people will go hungry. And yet, the other is trying to stop that export, because they feel it’s dangerous and for the greater good. 

The thing is, there may be two ways of looking at a story, and that’s exactly what you want in this scenario. Two characters are both fighting for good in their eyes, but they have opposing goals. So, each thinks they are the hero of the story, which creates a strong situation of conflicting values. Can you see how this will build tension and enhance the story? 

So, whether we’re looking at one character who is fighting something within themselves or two characters fighting for something they each believe in, you can use conflicting values in multiple ways. 

How can you increase the conflict and tension in your story to add depth?

One of the elements you can adjust as you build your conflict and tension, is to go deep. What does that mean? Dig into something you can really chew on. We could discuss a topic like blue cars for a short bit, and while I may prefer a light blue car and you prefer a dark blue car, there really isn’t much meat to the matter. It’s simply a matter of opinion, albeit nothing that challenges your values.

If however we were discussing something like tolerance, or a topic you’re passionate about like faith, accountability, or maybe integrity there’s more to dig into. Look at the topic of politics, and how we just went through an election. People have strong opinions and get passionate on both sides. They don’t react that way over which shade of blue car was driving down the road.

The thing is, when you push buttons with conflicting values in your story, you’re creating a moment of challenge for your character. You’re forcing them to either stand strong against an unpopular opinion, or maybe push to do something that’s uncomfortable for them, but they need to do to reach their goal.

What if they are forced to decide between good choices vs. bad choices? Salad vs. burger and fries when you have high cholesterol is a tiny example of this scenario. We know the salad is probably the better choice, but our mind might be pulled to the bad choice and crave those fries. Now, take that analogy and crank it up a few notches to make it story worthy. 

A general knows that if he makes a stand and takes down a particular enemy, it will be good for his career. He lives for accolades, promotions, and wants to climb the ranks. Good for him. Yet, he understands there may be an error, and there’s a question about if this particular enemy is actually the right target. Not everybody is privy to that information. So, if he takes the person out, it may be a mistake…and he has to live with that. But, if he doesn’t, he’ll look bad to others, like he’s weak. 

He is torn between what he knows, what he thinks he knows, and what others know or don’t know. He also realizes his career may teeter on his decision. If it comes out it was the wrong target and he knowingly went after them anyway, it will tarnish him. Yet, if it doesn’t come out and he doesn’t take the target down, he’ll be scrutinized, and it may hurt his career and future. 

You can twist these things to science fiction, romance, action, and adventure. There’s no single genre it works for, it’s simply about choosing strong enough conflicting values for people to get hooked into the story, and enjoy a satisfying read. Because, in the end, writing a good story is all about entertaining your reader and making them think. 

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