Some writing theory says that the conflict should take the form of an antagonist, a real live breathing human being that acts in opposition to the hero. I am not quite that set in concrete. I think other elements can work as a source of conflict; self, acts of nature, Fate, etc.
I do think though, if you’re going to have the source of conflict be society, it makes it much easier to write if you can encapsulate societies views and mores in actual characters in a book rather than simply an abstract concept.
For example, if a person is struggling against racism, that absolutely manifests itself through relationships with people; coworkers, strangers on the street, teachers, familial ties, the banker you deal with, the person you buy your groceries from. Racism comes in all forms, too. Conscious, mean spirited, and clueless. How much more powerful will your novel be if you can show all those different ways discrimination raises its ugly head?
One route to conflict might be the hateful, bigoted racist, some specific person making your character’s life hell on earth intentionally.
But it is important to remember that all an antagonist has to do is obstruct the main character’s goals, and that can be done out of love or a sense of protection just as easily as it can out of a sense of hatred or anger. In fact, if you look to your own life, who has caused you the most pain, set the most obstacles in your path? Those who love you or those who hate you? So cast a wide, broad net as you look for the source of your conflict, but if it’s society, do consider encapsulating society’s views into an actual person.
The second societal conflict, poverty, is harder because it isn’t necessarily imposed on one person by another. It can be very impersonal. Again, if you can find secondary characters to help personify this, you may have an easier time of writing it. The social worker who can only do so much, the teacher who can offer only the smallest of aid, the friend who tries to make it better, but ends up making it worse. Those kinds of things.
But ultimately, I think the trick to making poverty an active force in the novel is to really delve deeply into the character and get those personal reactions to poverty onto the page; all those small deaths by a thousand cuts type of ways that poverty destroys ones spirit. If you live in a world ruled by poverty, you live in a world entirely different from the one many of us occupy. If you’re writing about that, make sure you get that different world view on the page so we readers can experience it viscerally.
If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend John Scalzi’s post on poverty, intense, heartbreaking stuff. Just a few examples:
Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.
Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.
Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.If you even pick a handful of the experiences on his list to incorporate into your character, it will be very powerful.
Please feel free to ask more questions in the comments. And don’t forget, everyone who comments will be entered in a drawing at the end of the month for a copy of Orson Scott Card's, Character and Viewpoint.