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What Tolkien teaches us about conflict

Reader Emily Casey, @EmilyCaseysMuse, asked for some tips on how to sustain conflict when two characters are working toward the same goal. Great question, because conflict usually derives from opposing goals. So how can you have conflict when goals are in alignment? Fortunately, that’s not the only source of conflict, and there are a bunch of ways to introduce conflict between cooperative characters and groups. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series provides some wonderful examples.

Shared goal, contrary strategies

One of the best methods is to give your allies contrary strategies for achieving the goal. This works for a whole lot of reasons. First, if the goal in question is something difficult to achieve (which it should be), something for which there isn’t necessarily a single, obvious strategy to attain it (which there shouldn’t be), then it is perfectly natural that two different people might have different ideas as to how to go about it.


What, you guys can’t walk on snow? Losers.

Think about the Fellowship, in Fellowship of the Ring, when they’re crossing the mountains through the horrible snow, debating whether to press on or get out of the snow and brave the dangers of the deep paths by going through the Mines of Moria. Crossing the mountains, in a Middle Earth bereft of helicopters, is a difficult yet necessary goal for the fellowship to achieve. It may be done in multiple ways (over or under), both of which carry risks and challenges. They thought to go over, but that turned out to be harder than they thought, leading naturally to conflict as everybody argues over whether to change strategies.

It’s not a shallow conflict, either. Not if you play it right. Because eventually, one side or the other has to win. They can’t split the party and go both ways, because the whole point of the Fellowship is to get Frodo ‘ringbearer’ Baggins safely to Mordor. However it turns out, half the group is going to be left with resentment and bruised egos over having lost the argument. This is then fodder for later conflicts.

Shared goal, incompatible personalities


I’m watchin’ you, Boromir...

Another way is to simply pair up characters who can’t stand each other. Just to pick an entirely random example, take Aragorn and Boromir. Man, those guys were at each other all the time. They just seemed to rub each other the wrong way at every turn. For them, this animosity usually expressed itself in service of the first method, contrary strategies: Although they both agreed about defeating Sauron , Aragorn favored destroying the ring, while Boromir preferred to use its power.


Back, or I’ll shiv you, elf-boy!

Of lesser import—and played more for comic effect than outright drama—you have the early interactions between elf Legolas and dwarf Gimli. Elves and dwarves being ancestral semi-enemies in Tolkien’s world, they didn’t get on well either. For them, though, it was more about chest-beating and sniping at one another at every opportunity.

Whether played seriously or for comic relief, ad hominem conflicts like these still serve to keep the essential feeling of tension in your scenes.

Strange bedfellows


No, this isn’t the least bit creepy. Why?

A third method is in situations where characters with entirely unrelated goals can achieve them by temporarily cooperating. Take the case of Aragorn and the Army of the Dead. Aragorn’s goal is to save Minas Tirith from being overrun by Sauron’s forces. The dead—the restless souls of an army that, in the backstory, had been faithless to Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur—just want to rest, which they can’t do because they broke their oaths way back when. Aragorn offers them an out: “Fight for me, and I will hold your oaths fulfilled.”

Tolkien chose to play it straight; Aragorn is an honorable fellow, he keeps his part in the bargain, and all’s well in the end. But notice that there’s a lot of tension along the way. Aragorn isn’t sure that the ghosts are really on-board with his offer. The ghosts aren’t entirely sure that Aragorn will keep his word. Neither side has much trust in the other, leading to a lot of great dramatic tension.

It’s not quite conflict, per se, but I put in this list because it achieves the same result for the reader—uncertainty about the outcome—and because in your novels it quite easily could turn into true conflict. You don’t have to play it straight. You could exploit the fact that it’s so easy for these marriages of convenience to fall apart, for one side or the other to break the deal, leading to outright conflict.

Allies, for now


Betcha didn’t think I had this much whup-ass in me, did ya?

These are situations where characters come in and out of alliance, as the needs of the moment dictate. Fundamentally, the dynamic here is two characters who have divergent long term goals, but whose short term goals sometimes agree. And when that happens, they’re at least grudgingly willing to help one another out. In many ways this is a darker turn on the strange bedfellows motif, but with more direct conflict, and the pairing of Frodo and Gollum makes a wonderful example.

At times, Frodo and Gollum share explicit, immediate goals. For instance, evading the Orcs at Cirith Ungol. So, sometimes they cooperate. But simultaneously they both know full well that they are diametrically opposed in their long term goals. Gollum knows Frodo’s aim is to destroy the ring, and Frodo knows Gollum’s aim is to reclaim it for his own. Frodo is under no illusion whatsoever that Gollum won’t strangle him in his sleep at the first opportunity, while Gollum harbors no misconceptions that he might, just possibly, be able to talk Frodo into giving him the ring.

This kind of layered alignment-plus-opposition leads to an enormous amount of wonderful tension and a deliciously shifting dynamic between these two characters. It’s also why Gollum chooses to lead Frodo through Shelob’s lair, on the pretense that it’s a safe way to sneak past the Orcs. Treachery!

Conclusion

So, there you go. Four broad methods for creating, sustaining, and developing conflicts in situations where characters or groups are otherwise aligned. You know the old saying “Keep conflict in every scene?” Conflict requires forces in opposition; a protagonist and an antagonist. For some scenes this is obvious. The battle scenes in Lord of the Ring have antagonists out in the open, in the form of Orcs or Nazgul, to fight with. Open conflict is easy. But when those kind of antagonists aren’t present, this is how you do it: by using these four methods to turn allies—at least temporarily—into antagonists.

Got a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave it in the comments!

June 23, 2011 18:26 UTC

Tags: character, conflict, allies, antagonists, goals, strategies, personalities

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13 Comments:

Posted by linda on June 24, 2011 04:07 UTC

Wow, great post! Thanks for sharing this. Lots of great things to think about.

Posted by Wist on June 24, 2011 14:08 UTC

“What, you guys can’t walk on snow? Losers.” lol epic!

Very good article, thank you for sharing.

Posted by Jason Black on June 24, 2011 16:42 UTC

@linda, @Wist,

Glad you enjoyed it! And yes, thinking up the snarky captions was half the fun. :)

Posted by Gibson on June 24, 2011 18:16 UTC

Great post. The amazing how such simple changes to character motivation can be so effective in making a better story. Admittedly I feel kind of dumb for not picking up on this in LotR and others, let alone including the dynamic relations in my own story. Leaves me with a lot to consider for improving my story. Thank you for posting.

Posted by Jason Black on June 24, 2011 18:23 UTC

@Gibson,

Don’t beat yourself up. I have a tiny edge, in that this is what I do. :) My belief, supported by interactions with many clients and their manuscripts, is that the vast majority of writers approach these things from a “gut feel” perspective. They don’t really think about dynamic character relationships in any sort of explicit, analytic manner. They just sort of get an idea about a dynamic in their heads, and write what “feels right” as they go along.

Writers who have a knack for this can end up with some great stuff that way.

For the rest of us, who actually have to work at it, I think a bit of explicit analytical deconstruction is very helpful. So that’s what I use this blog to do: to bring elements of characterization out of the darkness of intuition and into the light of conscious recognition. Where, you know, you can actually do stuff with them.

Posted by Emily Casey on June 24, 2011 18:33 UTC

Great post! Thanks for replying so quickly (and with such great content, too). I was using one of these in my WIP and kind of using a second. This post will help in fleshing the second one out a lot more.

Who knew LOTR could be so helpful? Guess I’ll have to watch the series again. The extended versions, of course. You know, for research. ;)

Posted by Karon on June 26, 2011 19:45 UTC

Really good! Thanks much for this.

Posted by Jesse Koepke on June 26, 2011 20:05 UTC

This is such a good article. I find that the best writing articles are the ones whose tips I can immediately begin envisioning how to work them into my stories, and this article did exactly that. The four things are so simple and make so much sense. Thanks for writing this!

Posted by Susan Kelly on June 26, 2011 21:08 UTC

Great post! Darkness of intuition, that’s where I’ve been mired. It’s hard work trying to create tension and dynamic characters on purpose! Thanks for your guidance.

I am trying to come up with . . . oh, my gosh, lightbulb moment! an actual antagonist! for my character who is an IT/businessman type. I want it to have as much drama as a life-and-death-swordfight, and all I can think of is boring stuff like he’s not going to get his IPO through, or maybe the IRS is after him. Not enough!!! Is my problem that those things don’t affect the core of him? Maybe I haven’t got to the core of him? What he’d die for? He’d die to beat the IRS? Siiiiiiigggghhhhhhh.

Posted by Jason Black on June 27, 2011 05:16 UTC

@Karon, @Jesse— Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. My mantra is to write stuff that is directly useful, that you can take straight back to your keyboard and do something with. Glad to have hit the mark for you with this one!

@Susan—

You’re on the right track. Because you’re right, no reader is going to give a damn about his IPO or about his ability to successfully cheat on his taxes. Those things aren’t interesting in and of themselves. But they can be interesting in terms of other things in the guy’s life.

If I were you, I’d think it through in terms of how those shallow, superficial goals relate to whatever the guy’s real goals are. Cheezy example:

He’s a widower, with a five year old daughter. The daughter is having some emotional troubles, relating to the death of her mother, and the guy hasn’t been much help to her. Perhaps losing his wife sent him reeling, too. Let’s imagine that in his initial stage of denying his feelings, running from his grief, he reacted by throwing himself into his work. Making deals right and left, replacing the emotional high of his former love life with the high of turning a successful, profitable deal. It’s a shallow substitute, of course, and therefore he needs a lot of successful, profitable deals in order to keep himself emotionally up. Which leads to cutting corners, which leads to the IRS looking into his dealings.

Which, in fact, have been downright illegal in some cases. Now, he’s not a bad guy. He’s not a criminal at heart. He was just in a dark place, doing some things he wouldn’t have done otherwise.

But after a year or two, he comes out of it. He comes back to himself, he comes to terms with his wife’s death, at which point he becomes able to see the hurt his daughter is still going through. And of course, he wants to help her. He wants to be the best damned daddy that ever walked the earth, to help his daughter overcome.

Which is great, except now that he has this goal—a deeply personal and meaningful goal—the IRS is snooping around. They know he’s done some illegal stuff, and they want to put him in prison and repossess everything he owns. Which would be a tragedy; if he goes to prison, his daughter loses her daddy, too. She’ll be effectively orphaned.

Which he cannot allow to stand.

Under these circumstances, beating the IRS in an audit even when he knows he’s guilty as sin, that becomes a goal the reader can get behind. Not because we want him to get off scot-free despite his crimes, but because we don’t want to see the girl suffer any more than she already has. We don’t want to see her best chance of not turning out to be a totally messed-up kid get taken away from her if he goes to jail. Because we all know how it’s going to be for her, in all likelihood, if she ends up in the foster care system or something. And if those are the circumstances, then as readers we will be absolutely on-board with this guy doing whatever he needs to do to beat that audit.

Maybe you like this scenario, maybe you don’t (although if you do, you’re welcome to use it with my compliments), but regardless, the strategy is this: find a way to link whatever external challenge you want to present the guy with, to something with very high personal stakes for the character. If you can do that, readers will go right along with whatever extreme (read: dramatic) measures the guy has to do in order to win.

Posted by Susan Kelly on June 27, 2011 16:28 UTC

Ah, I think I see!

My guy is a young guy, never been married, so your scenario, though tempting, means I’d have to give him a daughter, who would then have to die anyway, and I don’t think I could do that, but I was thinking betrayal by a loved, trusted colleague, with dire consequences for himself, might do it. Especially if I can make him suspect, but not be sure, for quite a while.

I guess it’s always a matter of making them risk losing the thing they love the most.

Oh, we’re so cruel! Bwahaha!

Posted by Debbie Ridpath Ohi on June 29, 2011 13:35 UTC

Great post, Jason. Though I do admit to being highly distracted by the screen shot with Sean Bean while I was trying to focus on the article. Heh.

Posted by Stephanie on July 05, 2011 22:02 UTC

Legolas and Gimli might be ancestral semi-enemies, but at least they both know how to braid their hair!

Great post! Very insightful. I love the LOTR examples. :)

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