Here’s the first half of an unplanned two-part post. Stay tuned for the second half later this month.
Two years ago, I wrote a post where I asserted that every story must have a conflict. What I didn’t expand on then is why this is the case. That’s what I’m going to address today. This is one of my more philosophical posts, so grab a drink and get comfy. And though you and I can think of plenty of real-world events I could cite, I’ll be pulling examples from a fictional setting – the Empire of the Isles from the Dishonored series.
Conflict is Universal
The wise know that conflict is a natural part of human existence. It’s one of those inescapable truths we each must learn to cope with. For writers, the universality of conflict means we can rest assured that, no matter what kinds of conflicts we portray in our stories, every reader will be able to relate to it on some level.
We live in a divided age, so I don’t blame you for reading this section with a healthy helping of skepticism. The world of Dishonored also features heavy divides between classes and ethnicities. Gristollers and Morleyans hate each other, and everybody keeps Tyvians at arm’s length. But the authors of the book I’ll be quoting throughout this post remind us that money, power, and status aren’t the panaceas the have-nots often believe them to be.
“A street urchin lives day-to-day searching for food and shelter to make it to tomorrow. An aristocrat’s world might crumble down after the failure of a business enterprise. Their differences might be stark, but as everyone, they suffer and struggle, they face conflict – and in conflict lies the opportunity for adventure.” – Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game by Modiphius Entertainment
Normalcy is fragile for both of these characters. Though failure is more immediately life-threatening for one than the other, failure still carries the risk of devastating consequences. Social class and demographics change the source of your characters’ suffering, the nature of their struggle, and the shape of their resulting adventures. But the suffering, struggle, and adventure still exist for both. In the end, both protagonists must rely on their strength, wits, resourcefulness, and whatever allies they have to survive what fate has in store for them.
Look at the video games that started the Dishonored franchise, and you’ll easily find examples of both kinds of stories. The former fills the series’ expanded lore: the tale of Lonely Rat Boy, Billie Lurk’s backstory, the origins of the Outsider, and a plethora of smaller NPC side stories our protagonists come across on their adventures. Yet the latter forms the main plots of the original Dishonored and Dishonored 2. The driving motivations for our protagonists, Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin, is to depose a usurper and put the rightful Empress back on her throne.
Conflicts are Consequences of Impact
“One thing is certain, though: your choices always impact someone, somewhere, and sooner or later, in ways you might not expect or understand, the consequences always come back to you.”
Conflict has a negative connotation to it, but it’s evidence of something desirable. People instinctively yearn to make an impact on the world and in others’ lives. We want to create a legacy that will last after death. The rippling consequences of the choices we make play into that yearning, since those consequences, and the conflicts that rise from them, are evidence that you have made an impact. The true question is if this impact is the one you hoped for.
I’ve talked about the Hero’s Journey numerous times before on this blog. The model is relevant here because it shows character impact sowing the seeds of conflict right from the beginning.
The story truly begins with the hero receiving the Call to Adventure, often delivered by a character playing the archetypal role of the herald. What happens immediately afterward? The Refusal of the Call – either by the hero themselves or someone close to the hero. In the former situation, the herald makes a strong enough impact on the hero to draw this reaction (their refusal) from them. The hero and the herald could easily get into an argument at this stage over what should be done and who should take action. In the latter scenario, the hero is already making an impact on the people around them by compelling them to hinder the hero’s quest or at least urge the hero not to go.
Conflict Shows Character
In the following quote, Modiphius is advising gamemasters about the kinds of scenarios they should create for the other people at the table – the players – to play off of. However, if you replace “players” with “main characters”, the principle expressed here holds true for writers of traditional fiction as well.
“Every problem you present to the players is an opportunity to demonstrate their characters’ abilities: their strengths, their weaknesses, and their personalities. A bar brawl is an opportunity for the retired soldier to crack some skulls, while an uncooperative informant is a great chance for the persuasive characters to show off their talents.”
Showing how your characters deal with conflicts and attempt to resolve them is the most vivid way to show readers who they are and what they can do. More importantly, though, conflict is how you demonstrate a character’s growth. Modiphius even states this as one of conflict’s purposes in their game:
“You can think of yourself as [the player characters’] biggest fan; you want them to face conflict so that they can grow, and you want them to ultimately succeed.”
Hard choices test a character’s morals and principles. The character will either strengthen their beliefs in defending them or shift to something new. Tough situations also test the character’s resolve. Will they stay true to their goal even at knife point?
I’ve always written under the belief that a character’s truest self shines brightest when their back is to the wall. As outlined in “Building Characters Organically”, this is where I start most of my stories. I start at a moment where the protagonist is cornered, and they have to figure a way out.
Suppose our protagonist is physically backed against a wall by a guard, and she’s staring down the barrel of his pistol. The protagonist could succeed through her strengths and skills. She learned how to fight in Dunwall’s back alleys, and that empty whiskey bottle at her feet might give her an advantage. Or she could notice something about her adversary – something that could lead to a different kind of advantage. Maybe it’s the look in the guard’s eyes or the waver in his voice. Whatever it is, it makes our protagonist wonder if he’s conflicted with what the City Watch is ordering him to do. The protagonist isn’t the kind of woman who asks questions before throwing punches, so talking the guard down is a risky proposition. But if she takes the risk and manages to pull it off, she may learn how valuable psychology can be on the streets.
Thus ends part 1. You can expect part 2 in November’s Friday Fiction slot. My apologies to everybody looking forward to part 5 of “On the Red Line.” I’m in the thick of the busy season at work, and I don’t want to rush my first huge Friday Fiction project. For now, I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.