Back in May, I heard fellow fantasy writer R A Smith talk about conflict in games and stories at Nerd East in Durham. Here are a few notes from that talk – really more of a relaxed chat with the audience – that I found useful:
The protagonist is either the lens for the trouble around them or, more often, the person going out and causing the trouble.
They never start by just wandering the world, their intentions just a blank sheet – they need to have an objective.
When talking about conflict in roleplay games we often start by thinking about fighting, as that’s what the characters are statted for.
Jim Butcher writes good blog posts on writing. He recommends focusing on the story question – what’s the book about? what’s driving the main plot?
When it happens, fighting should progress the story in some way.
How characters behave in a fight shows their personality – for example, do they disregard civilians?
Character and anticipation are important. This is why professional wrestling is successful – the draw is the soap opera element that makes fans anticipate each match in advance.
The Princess Bride has great storytelling fight scenes – for example the early fight between Wesley and Inigo Montoya, showing their motivations and styles.
To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?
Don’t Hate the Player
This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.
First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.
Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.
Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.
Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!
Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.
First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).
But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.
For The Love Of Conflict
But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.
These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.
Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.
So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.
What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Whether or not you think that characters are defined by their conflicts, those conflicts are clearly important to telling a good story. Internal conflicts and struggles make characters more interesting, and make it more difficult for them to face their external conflicts, adding to the tension in a good plot.
Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I talked about in general terms yesterday, is a great example of this, and of how to create these conflicts in different ways.
Physical challenges – Roland’s fingers
Roland, the protagonist of the book, is a gunslinger. His skill set, his confidence, even his sense of identity is built around that role. And straight away, within a few pages of the start of the book, his gunslinging ability is impaired when a lobster monster hacks off two fingers from his right hand.
Suddenly Roland is in conflict with his own body and his own instincts. He has to learn to function without wielding a gun in that hand, to re-make the habits and ways of behaving that keep him alive. King has inverted a common trope of both fantasy and westerns, where the hero shrugs off and forgets serious wounds, and instead made his hero’s struggle with his own body a major plot point.
Challenges of will – Eddie’s addiction
Eddie, the first of the three characters Roland draws to him, is an addict. His drug habit defines his whole life – his friends, his enemies, the trouble he’s in as we first meet him and the far greater trouble he gets into later on. But this is about more than providing external threats, it’s about defining Eddie’s internal conflicts.
King provides a compelling picture of a man facing that addiction. Eddie wants to be free of the drugs, yet at the same time he doesn’t. It’s a conflict that highlights the complexity of human will. Not all of our conflicts are as straightforward as wanting something and striving to make it happen. Desire is complex, willpower can be hard to muster, and that battle for will is Eddie’s conflict. It makes it hard for him to achieve what he needs to at times. It breaks both his body and his mind. But it also allows us to see Eddie’s strength, the battle showing that he might have the will to get through this, and through the other challenges on the way to the Dark Tower.
Odetta and Detta – extreme internal conflict
Then there’s Odetta and Detta, two personalities inhabiting the same body, both in denial about the other’s existence. It’s like King has taken the idea of internal conflict and pushed it to the greatest extreme he can think of. The two personalities are so distinct it almost becomes an external conflict, as we wait to see whether Odetta can fight off her dark self and retain not only control of her own body but continuing existence within her own mind.
The whole spread
King shows us a wide range of internal conflict in The Drawing of the Three. Each character faces a different sort of major conflict, and lesser struggles deriving from that. These conflicts are externalised through the character’s actions, not just dealt with through paragraphs of inner monologue. They make everything else more difficult and more interesting.
If you’re thinking about how to write internal conflict and so make interesting characters then I really recommend reading this book. And if you’re reading it already then keep an eye out for internal conflict, both as a writerly tool on display and as a theme of the story.
Enough from me. If you’ve read the book what did you think of its exploration of these characters? And even if you haven’t, what other great internal character conflicts can you think of?
I spent most of yesterday writing a murder mystery party, a commissioned piece for a friend. Writing something like that is all about the characters. Description and dialogue will mostly be covered by the behaviour of the players on the night. What you get to create, as a writer, is the characters, their conflicts, and of course the clues and background that will lead to the revelation (or escape) of the killer.
The nature of the piece, filling it with secrets and arguments, made me reflect on the relationship between characters and conflict, and it made me wonder – are characters primarily defined by their conflicts?
Think about it. What do you know about the sheriff in High Noon? Probably just that he’s standing up to the criminals defending his town. What’s the defining shared feature of the heroes of Star Wars? They’re rebels, their very careers defined by the conflict they’re in. Or look at Harry Potter – his whole life, from the way his face looks to his family circumstances to his often neglectful attitude towards education, it’s all defined by his conflict with Voldemort. Without that conflict, Harry would just be one more ordinary wizard.
You could argue that conflict is a reflection of character, but given the central role of conflict in making stories dynamic, is it maybe the other way around? Are interesting characters interesting because of the conflicts that they represent, the struggles they go through, the things that they value enough to get into a fight over them?
Does conflict make the character?
Not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know. Which do you think is the driving force?
But there was something interesting about this film’s use of conflict that seemed worthy of more comment.
It’s been widely noted that the film’s main villain, Malekith, didn’t have a lot of screen time. At first glance this seems an odd choice for an action movie, especially when they’d cast the ever-menacing Christopher Eccleston in the role. There’s talk of more Eccleston footage that wound up on the cutting room floor. Maybe that’s the case, maybe it’s just what people want to hear.
But while I wouldn’t have minded more Malekith, I thought this decision actually played to the film’s strengths, and highlighted where its real conflicts lie.
Internal vs external conflicts
Most of the conflict in a film like this is external to the characters. They aren’t grappling with their doubts and inner demons, though there’s usually a nod to that. The main things they’re grappling with are each other, in big knock-down fights or exchanges of pointed dialogue.
But there are levels of external. There are the threats and conflicts that rise against the group of protagonists, and these are those between them. The Dark World is mostly about the latter. It’s about the politics of Asgard, family feuds between gods, and to a lesser extent the conflicting ways that human society responds to the unfamiliar.
The battery and the machine
So if the film’s main theme and story isn’t about dark elves, where does Malekith fit in? Was he just a bolt-on to provide action set pieces?
Of course not. His presence applies the pressure needed to bring out those other conflicts. He’s the rising water that leaves people hunting for rescue, the sinking balloon from which someone must be thrown for the good of the rest.
The machinery of the story might be bickering Asgardians, but Malekith and his minions are the battery that powers that machine. And in that role, they get just the right amount of screen time.
If you’ve seen the film what did you think? Not enough Eccleston, or just enough? Was it all just about Tom Hiddleston? What were your highlights?
I just finished reading Terry Prachett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long War, their sequel to The Long Earth. It’s fair to say that, while there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, I wound up as ambivalent about it as I was about its predecessor. This time though I think there was a clearer, more definite problem, and it’s one that interests me as a writer – it’s the problem of expectations.
The Long War is set in the Long Earth, a series of millions of parallel Earths between which people travel. Over a decade has passed since the events of the first book, and humans are settling more and more into the parallel worlds. But there are conflicts brewing, as social and political change disrupt the status quo.
As with The Long Earth, this is well written. It flows easily, the characters are likeable and interesting, and the world that’s being built is fascinating. I had the same problem with the narrative’s ambling nature as I had with the previous book, but that’s a matter of personal taste – I prefer my stories with a bit more focus, a bit more intensity to them.
But this book had a problem its predecessor didn’t, and that’s in the expectations it set. Both the book’s title and its blurb implied a racheting up of the conflicts that were stirring in the previous book. There’s talk of how war is coming, and it’ll be unlike wars that have come before. It got me all ready for an exciting tale of action, in which the military implications of flitting between different worlds would be explored. That sounded exciting.
And that’s not this book. It’s clear from the ending that there’s a reason why Pratchett and Baxter chose the name they did, and that the more low-key resolution is there to make a point. It’s an interesting point. It’s an optimistic one for human nature. It even says something about the nature of the Long Earth. But it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect. There’s wasn’t a big build-up of tension. There wasn’t a feeling that things could go violent at any minute. And there really wasn’t a war. In fact, if not for a single reference near the end, the book’s title would have seemed to be completely cheating.
The thing is, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it hadn’t set those expectations. I’d have known from the first book what I was getting into. I’d have settled in for more well-written ramblings through a well developed world. But that Wasn’t what I was led to expect, and as I read I found myself increasingly disappointed as that promise wasn’t fulfilled.
The writers on the Writing Excuses podcast often talk about the need to end a story by fulfilling the promises you make at the start, the things you’re implying it will be about. A book’s title and blurb are part of that start, and The Long War didn’t live up to its promises. As a writer, I’ve made a mental note not to make that mistake myself, to consider what my titles are telling the reader.
Have you read The Long War? What did you think? And can you think of other examples where books don’t deliver on their promise, or deliver something completely different, for better or worse?