Not everyone in your story plays nice.
Let’s look at some of the people a story might need to give it strong conflict on more than one level.
There’s the obvious bad guy. He or she is someone who is psychotic or so driven by greed or hate or the need for a fix that you can rely on him to do bad things, probably at the worst possible moment for your main character.
Next you have a usually decent person who is driven by wanting or needing exactly the same thing your protagonist wants. Their normally reasonable selves become outright nasty as they fight for their goal. They don’t hate your main character, they just want to beat him to the goal. They want something – the protagonist is in danger of becoming collateral damage
Similar is the person who, for reasons explained (or not) in the back story dislike or compete with the main character. It could be a family feud or perhaps a belief that the main character has wronged them. Their focus is on harming your main character. The conflict centres around whether or not they succeed in inflicting that harm.
Then there’s the shape-shifter character who is so intent on playing their own game that the protagonist, who may have thought they were an ally, is let down, again at the worst possible moment. The shape-shifter adds intrigue by sometimes helping, sometimes damaging your protagonist. The conflict deepens because of the element of trust and trust betrayed and the uncertainty that this generates.
You can also have an assortment of low-level players who mislead or delay your protagonist’s course of action by lying or concealing information or by getting themselves into a mess and needing to be rescued. They can honestly believe some story that will take the protagonist on a wild goose chase. Whether deliberately or in innocence or to further their own little sub-plot they add to the drama.
A writer’s best friend in fiction is the stakes-raiser. The detective now needs to solve this murder by the weekend or he will be fired. The boss just dropped a deadline on him. Suddenly there’s an ‘or else’ that wasn’t there before. Bosses are great stakes raisers. Anyone who ratches up the pressure is not playing nice, but they ARE increasing the conflict for you, the writer.
The last person who gets in the way of the protagonist is the misguided helper:
“You need the car today? Oh, oops, I knew you needed new tires before the winter and your car’s up on the hoist.”
You can’t go chasing after the escaped murderer. I put your bullet-proof vest in the wash.”
OK. I’m stretching a point there, but you know what I mean. Next time you are looking for a way to increase or densify the conflict think of these people.
Do you have any other favourite categories of people who stand between your protagonist and happy ever after?