Conflict is the mother of story. Without conflict, a story is either pointless – and therefore boring – or simply has not yet reached the point where conflict has been introduced.
But sometimes conflict comes from a source that is, shall we say, less than comfortable. Without getting into too much detail about my real life in meatspace, what I’m talking about today are schisms; when two or more people are very close, but something happens and they part.
And before you start making your premature deductions, dear reader, no, I’m not talking about breakups between lovers. I’m actually heading more in the direction of schisms within a family.
It is a continuing fascination of mine to think back on the American Revolution. Historical events might lead one to believe that such a conflict was unavoidable – and if it was, well, that’s up to the historians to debate. Actually I find American history to be one of the most boring topics encountered in my so-called education (followed closely by math. Those courses were like horse tranquilizers to me at 7:00 in the morning). No, it’s not the history itself that I’m interested in, rather, a small detail that may or may not be overlooked: how families were divided during this period.
I recall a story – I remember not whether it was a novel, a short, or just some excerpt read out to us kids – in which a family of colonial days got wind of the coming conflict, which had already rumbled along the coastal cities by the time the story began. The father of the family was fiercely loyal to the English royalty, while his son(s) held sympathies for the revolutionaries. While most families will produce children that challenge the views of their parents (especially in the modern era), this story served to illustrate a time period during which such divisions were more intense than anything many of us ever really know.
I think the story ended with the boy(s), who were of age to join the fight, took up arms to help battle for independence while the father joined the British forces. Both sides believed themselves to be fighting for the right thing – the younger believed the king to be a tyrant who had no right to control colonies an ocean away, while the elder felt a strong sense of gratitude for the crown (probably for having allowed the colonies and their way of life to grow in the first place). This is a common trait in wars, when both sides think themselves on the side of righteousness. Nothing new there, and no doubt families were divided over more conflicts than just the American Revolution.
I think that story ended with the father being killed and of course with the revolutionaries being victorious. Whether or not one of his sons pulled the trigger I can’t recall. Most of those years are a blur to me.
Anyway, when I see stories like these, with intense personal schisms mixed in with political turmoil, I can’t help but see the potential. Well-written stories will portray the view of both sides of a conflict, at least when the idea is to instill a strong sense of nobody being right (or everybody being wrong) in their opinion or reason for fighting. The Game of Thrones series, which I cite far more often than I would like to admit, is a perfect example of this. The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact do the direct opposite – but that is, of course, because these are very different authors with very different agendas and audiences. That’s all well and good.
So how can we use this?
Personally, I have two story elements in the works that I’d like to share with you, dear readers. For one, it does serve as therapeutic to share some of these thoughts. For another, few things motivate me more to keep writing than talking about my writing – vain as that might sound. And I’m usually intensely self-conscious of sounding vain.
Intense appears to be the word of the day.
Anyway, here are two story elements that take place in my mainline novel project that directly relate to the theme we just discussed.
Story Element 1 – A Historical Event
Without too much backstory, I hate the conventional use of contemporary elves, refusing to utilize the word in my own writing because I simply do not favor the imagery and flavor it conveys in mainstream fantasy. What this means is that if I’m going to use an elf-like creature – and I certainly do – it has to be unique, or at least unique enough to be distinguishable from all the blond-haired knife-ears that fill out the pages and screens of media that I … don’t consume.
Dark elves are a theme visited time and time again, and not to say my own take on the “dark elf” is wholly original, the race I call czaths can most easily be described as “a hardened people with draconic blood in their veins.” They come from a volcanic land and their temperament, lifestyle, and appearance reflects this.
At any rate, the czaths have an event in their history that I simply call The Bastard War, a time when, much like the aforementioned story about the American Revolution, there is a powerful division among loyalists to the sovereign leader (who happens to be a dragon), and the younger, upstart rebels who seek to disrupt the tyrannical status quo. During last year’s NaNoWriMo event, I managed to churn out about 70% of a stand-alone novel that mostly details the events that precede the Bastard War. One can safely assume there are a few family schisms in said story.
This idea (as vague as it might appear in this blog post) just sort of emerged from my psyche, no doubt as a result of various elements (fictional or otherwise) I’ve come to experience over my life. Like a lot of my writing, I did not sit down and think “Okay. This story is going to be an allegory of the American Revolution but in a fantasy setting and the characters being a mix of drow and flamekin.”
Story Element 2 – A Brotherly Conflict
For those who do not know, I made quite the leap and changed my surroundings not very long ago. For those of you who do not know even more, my family includes myself and two brothers, a family that has, long before my big move, become quite divided (more physically than idealistically).
But even that’s changing. The longer I stay abroad, the less in common I am finding I have with most of my family. This is a peculiar realization, as it tastes of both bitter distress and sweet liberation.
Regardless, long before any of this happened, I came across a strange thought, a latent fear of mine, also connected to the aforementioned theme. What if I were ever to be at odds with my family? Or more specifically, the man I call my older brother? At seven years my senior, I undoubtedly fall into what I call the “Little Brother Complex,” (just as much as I have the “Middle Child Complex.” If you are either, you know what I mean.) I possess a subconscious desire for the approval of my sibling like anyone would seek the approval of a parent. Approval is a powerful gift, one the likes of which I have, if I may dip into the personal arena, received only from a few select individuals. One or two of those, luckily, were family, from time to time.
Regardless, moving where I did and for the reasons I did has caused unforeseen conflict. And as I said, long before any of stuff-I-purposefully-keep-vague began happening, but it is surprisingly akin to a powerful theme I am writing about between two important characters of my mainline novel. In it, we witness a relationship between two brotherly characters who become divided – a schism having been formed along the fault lines of ideals, intent, and eventually actions. In other words, we have two people who once loved each other who are now at war.
So. As a writer. How can I use this?
Granted, the lens of fantasy (and writing in general) allows for the freedom to embellish certain aspects of such a conflict. Perhaps I’m going through something of a difficult time with my family in meatspace, and while my writing may reflect some of the feelings, the events written do not necessarily mean there is a lack of love, or an existence of violence, which may or may not appear in my fiction.
No, it is – as are all things in this carnival we call life – quite complicated. One wonders whether a favorite book of mine – The Brother’s War, by Jeff Grubb – was written by a man who had experienced great conflict with sibling(s)?
Conflicts like this make for the most engaging and powerfully felt of stories. If you can, write your stories – fiction or otherwise – based on real people and real relationships. The difference is most palpable to the reader, in my experience.
How about something quite different from not only the subject matter of this post, but also from the type of music I usually share? This little piece comes from the soundtrack of L.A. Noire, a game I wholly believe to be quite underrated, and its music is some pretty high quality stuff. Judging from the titular use of noire, a body might be able to guess the type of music to be found in such a setting, and as such I would sooner suspect that it’s a very specific type of taste. You know, the appreciation of really old music kind of taste, heh.