Monday, February 1, 2010

Fantasy lit conflict: Epic vs. intimate, external vs. internal

Spanning genres and media, conflict is a main driver of interest in stories. We follow along in a book or movie to identify and observe the escalating struggles that our heroes face, eager to learn their solutions and resolutions.

Fantasy lit affords its stories the freedom to explore conflicts of all shapes and sizes. We have the classic, epic flavor, of course. Harry vs. Voldemort. The Fellowship vs. Sauron’s forces. The Na’vi vs. the Sky People. (Sorry, still a huge fan of Avatar. Can’t wait for it to break the last Titanic record this week!) This level of conflict is typically the most obvious. It gets the most air (or page) time. It’s what’s featured on the jacket cover or in the movie preview narrated by that guy with the cool, raspy voice.

But good stories go beyond the apparent and develop the plot with more subtle, personal layers. What about the condemned relationship between Arwen and Aragorn, two lovers who hail from differing societies and life expectancies? Or the scholastic and social rivalries between Harry and Draco, or even Harry and Ron at times? Or little Percy’s quest to win the approval of an all-powerful, but aloof father? These types of struggles are supplementary to the main conflict, yet in many ways, they are just as vital to the success of the story as the “Big Bad” that our heroes must overcome. Without these more intimate battles, the story itself would feel bland, tired, and derivative.

What are some of the most intriguing, compelling conflicts you’ve encountered in your favorite stories, and why did they draw your interest?


  1. This is your best post yet. I mean, it literally oozes your passion for this genre.

    I just looked at the top of my favorites list and I'd say the most common conflict regarding the MC involves society, and themselves.

    The Hunger Games, The Road, The Giver, The Maze Runner, besides all starting with 'the', they all have an element of societal oppression, or in the case of The Road, no society whatsoever.

    I am no literary expert, but I think the society as an antagonist is similar to battling Mother Nature. They are both broad ideas, but can provide intimate struggles for our beloved characters. I am not sure that most people like the idea of such an abstract conflict being at the center of a story, but most of my favorite books are not at the top of other's favorites. They usually like my list, but don't share the passion.

  2. Thanks, Jon!

    Great thoughts. I think society or nature as the main antagonist is a lot more pervasive than we realize. We have dystopian classics like BRAVE NEW WORLD or 1984. Or for nature, how about THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA? Authors have long known about the reader's ability to relate to the struggle against culture or Mother Nature. Haven't we all felt like it's us vs. the world at some point in our lives? (Maybe as YAs, hah!)

    Even if the story has an individual antagonist, that character can be representative of some bigger theme. Going back to AVATAR (I swear, I'll stop mentioning this movie someday :P), we have Parker who is the stereotypical CEO villain, apathetic to the rights and needs of the indigenous since the Na'vi are in the way of sinking his hands into a big money pit. Or Miles, Head of Security, who is the big ol' army meanie, cruel and over-the-top in his representation of military tyranny. It's no wonder people are drawing political agendas from the movie.

    You're like the tenth person to recommend THE HUNGER GAMES and THE GIVER to me. I'm gonna have to sink my teeth into those soon.

  3. STOP the planet from revolving right now! You haven't read THE GIVER?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! Okay, freak out over. Seriously, you, a couch, and three hours and you'll be grasping at epiphanies as they float through the air, like meaningful dust seagulls.

    As for THE HUNGER GAMES, as much as it pains me to say this, wait until August 20. Read the first book, you'll be done by midnight on the 21st. Then you'll be at Barnes and Noble at seven AM to get Catching Fire because no matter what people tell you, you'll resist buying both books from the beginning. Then, by 12:00 AM on the 24th, you'll be standing in line with the rest of us losers. $10 says it's so.

    BTW, word verification is scarlock, new species or an antagonist much?

  4. LOL, like I said: I'm uncultured. :)

    I will hold out for THE HUNGER GAMES, based on your recommendation. I'm not a betting man.

    Hmm, yeah, sounds like an androgynous villain name. Maybe I'll toss that one into my WIP. :)