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Writing Rules and Fantasy: Stories Need Conflict

This is the fourth in a series of articles about common writing rules and how they apply to fantasy writing. Here are the earlier articles in the series:

Show, Don’t Tell
Adverbs
Kill Your Darlings

One piece of writing advice that seems to be more-or-less unquestioned is that stories need conflict; they are driven by it and will stutter to a halt without it. This is often suggested as a kind of cure-all for manuscript ailments. Story floundering? Add conflict. Writer’s block? Add conflict. Characters aren’t coming across properly? Conflict. Pacing feels off? More conflict!

So what makes conflict so special, and is it actually as vital as so many believe it to be?

Why Add Conflict?

book of searching by breathing2004The reason that conflict is considered to be so important is that it creates the need for a story in the first place. If Kara wants a spell book but can just go to the library to collect it, then the story is over before it’s really begun. If Kara finds that the book has been stolen from the library and then has to go searching for it, we have the beginnings of a plot. To make this story longer, the easiest thing to do is add more conflict – the thieves might set traps for her or fight back. She encounters dangerous creatures on the way. She enlists help, but her companion has very different ideas about how to proceed with their quest. And so on.

So conflict creates story, and helps to keep it moving forwards. Conflict can also speed up the pace, and add tension and excitement. There are some who would go even further and say that it is not just the story, but in fact every scene that needs some kind of conflict in it.

Change and Obstacles

The problem with using the word ‘conflict’ is that it carries associations of battles and arguments, neither of which is absolutely necessary in a story. In many cases, when people talk about conflict, they actually mean one of two things – change and obstacles.

The fact is that many stories don’t actually arise from conflict, but from change. A character may wake up one day to find that the world has magically altered. A change is enough to instigate the story, and the character’s curiosity or wandering is enough to begin it. The character will then be faced with various obstacles. It is quite possible for the entire story to contain no enemies, no antagonist, no arguments or fighting, and no opposition.

Escaping the Tower by Jon FosterThe two most obvious kinds of conflict are arguments between characters and physical fights. But conflict doesn’t have to mean aggression, and it would be a mistake to believe that simply shoe-horning in another battle will magically fix a failing story.

Most conflict in a story arises from obstacles. A character wants something, but something else is stopping her from getting it. She might be after a physical object, or pursuing love or knowledge, or trying to save a kingdom. She might simply want to stay alive and sane. Her obstacle could be real or imagined: a person or a thing, the weather…anything. The conflict arises from the fact that the character cannot get what they want and so must find a way to acquire it, or that they are in danger of losing what they value and so must find a way to protect it. Conflict means not letting the protagonist win too easily. Make them work for their goal.

Active Characters vs Passive Characters

Thinking in terms of conflict can help avoid characters who are too passive. Main characters do not always have to be brave and heroic; they might run from the action instead, but this is still active. A passive character can quickly bore or frustrate the reader. A character who tries but fails is interesting; a character who simply drifts along and lets things happen to him is extremely annoying.

Conflict also aids character development, as we learn more about the characters and watch them grow through the ways in which they choose to face adversity.

Fantasy Conflict

Need ideas for conflict in a fantasy story? You’re in luck; fantasy provides some incredible opportunities for dramatic, surprising and exciting conflict.

The Evil Baddy
Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk by Michael KomarckThe most common kind of fantasy conflict comes from one antagonist who is hell-bent on taking over the kingdom, murdering and pillaging, and/or torturing our particular hero in devilish ways. In the past these antagonists have often been the pinnacle of evil, a dark lord in his tower who seems to hate all life and happiness. Recently villains have become a lot less one-sided, and in some cases even sympathetic, but many of them still exhibit a rather one-track mind.

Conflict is more effective when it seems realistic. This means that if there is one main antagonist, then his or her character is just as important as the main hero’s. The villain needs motivations and a personality. Many villains believe that what they’re doing is right. This is particularly the case if your antagonist is not the Lord of Evil but simply a rival king or warlord of a neighbouring nation. A good way to approach this is to imagine how your story would be told if rewritten from your villain’s point of view. How does the world look to him or her? It’s also worth remembering that conflict comes in many different forms. Just as your hero has to face obstacles that are not sent by the main villain – bad weather, bad luck, dangerous creatures, companions/minions who won’t behave, nagging parents, etc – so your villain will probably have to face such things too.

Discovery: The Magical World
Conflict can be as simple as change, and what is a bigger change than a magical new world? Whether the protagonist is a person from our world who has suddenly stepped into the magical, or whether they are already existing in a fantasy world before slipping into the unknown, a new world with strange creatures and customs provides all kinds of opportunities for obstacles, problems and conflict.

Alien Plant by nJooMonsters
Monsters are the obstacles of many fantasy stories, from epic fantasy to urban fantasy, and particularly in that space where weird fantasy and horror merge. Orcs, goblins, dragons, ogres, trolls…these have all been done many times. They’re a useful fantasy staple, but in this genre you can literally invent anything. Go wild, have fun, and add as many teeth as you like.

Politics
Yes, a lot of people assume that politics are boring. But politics, when used well in a story, can be fascinating, dangerous, and utterly absorbing. In fantasy you might be inventing whole worlds and their countries, or perhaps altering our own by adding magic into the mix. Which governments are interacting with which, what is at stake, and how does it affect the characters of your story? Politics can also lead to war and battles, the most obvious form of conflict.

Social Issues
What if magic is banned in your world? How might people react to this? Would there be resistance groups or activists? How might certain characters feel about slavery, oppression or prejudice? Do your characters have differences of opinion on these subjects?

Conspiracy by andreasrochaMystery
Conflict can arise when a character wants to solve a mystery but various obstacles stand in his or her way. This also creates conflict for the reader. If the reader desperately wants to find out the answer, then everything that slows down the investigation immediately becomes more tense and exciting. Mystery, whether it’s a murder or other crime, a strange artefact, the identity of a spy or assassin, an individual’s strange powers, etc, lends itself very well to fantasy worlds.

Evasion and Pursuit
One of the most common forms of fantasy conflict is the quest, and the obstacles and creatures encountered on the way. These problems will usually be faced and fought, but a really sensible party of heroes might decide to evade the threat instead. This carries with it a completely different set of dangers than fighting would do, and in many cases is actually more exciting to read about.

The characters do not always have to be trying to find or achieve something either. Perhaps they are being chased or have been kidnapped, or have already stolen the magical item and are now trying to make it home with the loot. Perhaps the quest story is told from the point of view of the people trying to stop it.

Cover of Kalimpura by Jake Lake. Cover art by DanDosSantos.Family
Family are all too often left out of fantasy stories, particularly those with teenage protagonists who often tend to be orphans. Family is a huge part of most people’s lives, and it would be so for the people of a fantasy world too. Imagine all the character conflict that could arise from the hero taking parents or siblings along on their quest. What about a mother-daughter thief team? Or a brother and sister serving together in the Royal Guard? What about the support that family could offer against other dangers? In fantasy, with its world-shattering events and literal monsters, it can be easy to forget the conflicts, concerns and joys of everyday life. These may seem inconsequential in some fantasy plots, but they are a vital part of what makes us human, and of what the good guys are probably fighting to protect.

Internal Conflict
This is one of the most important kinds of conflict in any story, as it shows motivations and allows character development. Everyone struggles against themselves at one point another – guilt, anxiety, lack of confidence, uncertainty, fear of what one can or might do, vengeance and anger…these are all great things to explore. This is particularly effective when it comes from unexpected sources – for example, if the hero begins to sympathise with the villain and worries that they don’t know what’s right anymore, or if the villain struggles with low self-esteem.

Conflict Pitfalls

One important thing to remember when adding conflict to a story is not to include obstacles and fights simply for the sake of it. If it’s nonsensical for a battle to happen at this point, then don’t include one. Dark Elves by namesjamesWhile roaming the dark streets of a city at night, a mugging might work where a highly-charged intellectual debate would feel silly.

If the author simply adds in a new monster every time the plot is flagging, the story may begin to feel too episodic and not structured enough. Heroes and readers both need down-time. This doesn’t mean a break in the conflict, but rather a switch to a different kind of conflict. While resting in camp, for example, this might be a good time for self-doubt, disagreements between characters, or pursuing romantic goals.

Your characters should also react in a believable way to any conflict. If your protagonist is a coward, would they really fight the monster, or would they try to creep past it instead? Conflict does not mean there has to be action or combat at every turn.

Are there any particular kinds of conflict that you love/hate in fantasy novels? Do you have any tips for how to add conflict into scenes? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Title image by namesjames.

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5 Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent! Tension is also a great keyword to cling onto. Tension on every page. When I started to think in terms of tension instead of only conflict everything kind of fell into place. Tension can encompass a lot of subtleties. For instance, conflict in dialogue is one thing; tension in dialogue has a broader spectrum.

  2. Zyrah says:

    Great article. My favorite forms of conflict tend to be emotional struggles characters place on themselves. Especially situations like when a character has to assassinate someone he loves, destroy his king’s beloved kingdom to save the king he’s known since they were kids, or fail his quest for the greater personal good.

    If done correctly they are portrayed as actually being difficult choices and I love it even more when the characters decide against doing the normally “right” thing, such as choosing to save an entire kingdom over a single person. Personal battles like this tend to show me a lot about a character and having to live with the choice afterward, It’ll probably color the character for pretty much forever. So if he threatens someone else and the other characters roll their eyes, I’ll be the one laughing. After all, he was willing to give up an entire kingdom for one person; what’s murdering a few people for the same? Of course, maybe I’m wrong and it’s scarred him in some way…

    This is why I love books!

  3. Realmwright says:

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to [post a link to] your series on my blog. You make so many great points that I simply must share!

    The pressures we put on ourselves often exacerbate any external conflict to psyche-shattering levels of self-doubt. Take a ‘hero’ that’s trying to overcome an abusive childhood, broken home, mean boss, girl problems, etc…but rather than standing up and dealing with them, they hide out in a bottle. To even begin to get better, they need to get over the hurdles and walls they’ve constructed for their self.

    Or I’d like to think I could save myself in a zombie apocalypse. But could I deal with a group Walking Dead style? Protect my family? Find food? Survive the winter? In a situation like that the shambling hordes of undead really just become background noise to other conflicts. But they remain a lethal, infectious plague of background noise that would love to eat your face!

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