Conflict is the challenge a character must face and, in the end, overcome. Children have short attention spans, and they don't keep reading if something doesn't grab their interest right from the beginning. Yet your story should never lead easily and inevitably to a resolution.
Think of "conflict" as another word for "problem." The characters need to struggle a bit to resolve a difficulty. For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, how can Dorothy get home to Kansas? What obstacles must she overcome? How can the Tin Woodman get a heart and how can the Scarecrow find a brain? How will they manage to locate the Wizard of Oz? Will the Wizard help Dorothy and her friends or will he keep them from reaching their goals? And how will they avoid being killed by the Wicked Witch?
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all of these problems, at various points, provide drama and conflict, tension and suspense. All of these problems involve either goals that the characters desperately want to achieve—to go home, to find a brain—or dilemmas that the characters want desperately to avoid, such as being killed. Young readers can't imagine how all these problems will be solved, and so they keep reading and turning the pages.
This problem of facing challenges and figuring out how to overcome them makes for exciting reading. If the characters don't have a problem to solve, they have no basis for an adventure. And the problem can't be trivial. You want your readers to care about your characters, and to remain curious about the way the problem will be solved.
As the writer, you must devise a story problem and then intensify it by throwing difficulties in the way of your characters. Believe me, they can take it! Keep asking yourself: "What does my main character want?" Make sure the answer is something important enough to involve the reader in the story.
Here's a little secret: Children, like adults, love a mystery. Don't forget to hold something back to be revealed at the end of your story. Perhaps the villain wasn't the nasty teenager on the motorcycle, after all. Instead, the villain was the baker, who put poison in the cookies. Perhaps the kitten, whom everyone thought was a stray, is actually a messenger from the Queen of Cats, sent to save the city of Pawtucket from Creeping Cataphobia. Children delight in discovering these secrets at the end.
An active hero makes for an exciting story. If a character passively allows events to push him here and there, the reader quickly loses interest. Think about your favorite children’s book. Doesn’t the main character want something badly? In Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Winnie is offered eternal life, a gift most people long for–but will she take it? In Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate Dicamillo, Opal wants friends and companionship. The big, ugly dog she adopts gives her the courage to reach out to others.
In a good children’s book, the main character’s goal or motivation provides the fuel for the action. How he uses that fuel, or chooses to pursue his goal, reveals a great deal about him. Does he ask his friends to help him or go it alone? Does he make a plan or act spontaneously? Are his goals logical or way out in left field? In shaping any character, you must provide a series of actions or choices that lead him toward, or away from, his goal. Even more than what she says, a person’s actions reveal her true character. Your readers won’t truly understand your character until they see what she does.
Revealing your characters’ relationships
The characters in your book don’t exist in a vacuum. They interact with one another. They impact and change one another. Different relationships bring out different aspects of your main character’s personality. For example, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Tom is Huckleberry Finn’s comrade, Becky Thatcher’s love interest, and Aunt Polly’s ward.
Each character enters your story with a set of desires, goals, and fears that is different from every other character’s. Some characters form alliances, but others clash and compete with each other. As the story progresses, relationships change. Characters who were antagonists in the beginning may become friends by the end of the story. Other characters may go their separate ways. It can be difficult to keep track of all the changing relationships among your characters.
Allowing your characters to change
In real life, people love surprises–pleasant surprises, that is. In a story, even an unpleasant surprise can be exciting because it creates tension and involves the reader in your characters’ lives. When your main character is confronted by an unpleasant event–the death of a pet, a fight with a friend, parents divorcing–he changes. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Your job as the author is to show that change and to make the process seem believable.
One way to do this is to become familiar with the stages of grief. When most people have an unexpected loss, they go through a series of predictable emotional states. First is a denial: "No, Rex can’t be dying!" The next stage is bargaining: "Maybe an operation can save him." Next is anger: "It’s your fault! You shouldn’t have let him run into the street." Then depression: "I’ll miss him so much." Then acceptance: "I’ll always remember Rex. He was such a good dog." By showing your characters changing in stages, the change seems convincing.
Another kind of change occurs when a character confronts an antagonist or villain. In some stories, the main character defeats the antagonist by outsmarting her, making an ally out of her, or taking away her power. But there is another possible outcome. In some stories, the main character realizes that she doesn’t need to defeat the antagonist after all. She has an insight that somehow changes her. Beauty and the Beast, in some versions, is the story of an inner transformation as well as an outer one.