Delving For Treasure in the Conflict Mines
© 2005 Deborah Hale
Fantasy fiction has a real affinity for the underground. Dungeon exploration is a staple of fantasy role-playing games. Some of the pivotal events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place in the depths of The Misty Mountains and Moria. In my fantasy novels The Wizard’s Ward and The Destined Queen, The Blood Moon Mines are a hated symbol of oppression. One of the reasons deep places may hold such a fascination for us is because they couple the threat of danger with the lure of riches – precious metals, gems, buried treasure, hidden magical artifacts. That creates an instant sense of conflict, which is pure gold for the storyteller.
So grab your pickaxe and prepare to delve into the layers of conflict for nuggets to enrich your fantasy fiction. As a map for our exploration and a torch to light our way, let’s use that beloved fantasy film, Willow.
The Mother Lode
The central conflict of Willow is made crystal clear even before any characters appear on screen or any action takes place. A print narration surrounded by swirling mist tells the audience “It is a time of dread…Seers have foretold the birth of a child who will bring about the downfall of the powerful Queen Bavmorda. Seizing all pregnant women in the realm, the evil queen vows to destroy the child when it is born.” Yikes! Less than two dozen words and the battle lines are drawn. Not just good versus evil, but innocent, vulnerable good versus powerful, ruthless evil. There can be no question whose side the viewer will be on.
Central conflict is the storyteller’s mother lode – capable of grabbing and holding the sympathy of your audience. Dig it up and get it out there fast so the reader knows what’s at stake in your story. A strong, clear central conflict can power your fantasy fiction, providing goal, motivation, focus and urgency. Every word your characters speak, every action they take will contribute in some way to that over-arching struggle.
In Willow, the good characters are constantly trying to protect the baby, their only hope for the future. Meanwhile Bavmorda and her followers throw all their energy into destroying that tiny but ominous threat to their power. The evil queen stalks into the dungeon to seize the child but the midwife slips out of the castle with the baby hidden in her basket. Later, dogs pursue and kill the midwife, who sends the baby floating down-river to Willow Ufgood. That central conflict plays out again and again throughout the film, with the risk constantly rising. Even in scenes where it is not shown explicitly, the threat is always lurking, keeping tension high.
Having all your good-guy comrades continually fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against the similarly united baddies will take you a long way as a storyteller. But it’s rather simplistic and may begin to bore your reader after a while. Also, it isn’t the way things happen in real life, where there can be almost as much hostility between allies as there is between enemies. Because fantasy writers ask our audience to suspend disbelief about big things like made-up worlds, magical beasts and working enchantments, it is important for us to ground our imaginary tales in the reality of human nature. That’s where the one-to-one conflict between characters comes in. It can sustain individual scenes – holding them up the way that pole supported Sorsha’s tent… until Madmartigan knocked it down.
Speaking of Madmartigan – he and Willow go through most of the film as very reluctant allies with many disagreements. Part of that is rooted in their sharply different temperaments. Willow is a cautious fellow whose priority is keeping the baby safe and comfortable. Madmartigan is a gutsy risk-taker. Though they don’t realize it in their frequent arguments, each is learning from the other, slowly becoming a perfectly balanced team. Of course, Madmartigan is in conflict with almost everybody at the beginning of the film – Willow, Airk, the brownies, the cuckolded husband in the tavern. But his heartiest spite is saved for Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha. “I hate that woman.” She’s not too keen on him, either. “One move jackass and you really will be a woman!” But all that changes when the brownies get careless with a dose of love potion…
Diamonds in the Rough
That brings us to another type of conflict that the romance genre mines assiduously but is sometimes overlooked in fantasy fiction – internal or intrapersonal conflict. This is the pull-haul between opposing inclinations within a single character. Since the evolution and resolution of this conflict leads to change and growth in your characters, it is a precious gem well worth some extra deep digging.
While pursuing his quest, Willow Ufgood constantly battles his fear, his self-doubt and his desire to return home to his beloved family. In Madmartigan, courage and a rough-hewn nobility struggle against the urge to look out for number one. He’s hit with an extra dose of internal conflict when he begins to fall in love with his enemy, Sorsha. As the film progresses, Sorsha is equally conflicted – torn between her growing feelings for Madmartigan and loyalty to her mother, Bavmorda. Whenever the forces of love, courage, confidence or selflessness win a small battle for the hearts and wills of your characters, those moments dazzle readers with the sparkle of well-cut gems, foreshadowing and contributing to the ultimate triumph of good on a grand scale.
Panning for Gold Dust
There are some subtle storytelling techniques that can pay off rich dividends when it comes to your story conflict. One is to give your characters opposing goals. This sparks instant conflict. Sorsha wants to capture the baby. Willow and Madmartigan want to deliver Elora to the safety of Tir Asleen. Until Sorsha is won over, this leads to an escalating cycle of conflict.
Not all conflict needs to be within or between characters. Often circumstances or nature can provide an obstacle the characters must overcome. Willow’s small size, in the land of much bigger, stronger Daikini folk, often makes it a struggle for him to do the things he must to protect Elora Danan. Early in the film, Madmartigan must struggle to escape his cage at the crossroads.
If the writer is clever enough to give characters urgent goals, then the very passage of time becomes a source of conflict. Time may be running out for something crucial to be accomplished. Or the clock on a bomb may be ticking, drawing ever nearer to the moment of disaster. What’s so magical about using time this way in your story is that it can transform even passivity and inaction into conflict. Every moment spent dithering or resting is a tiny victory for the opposition.
Ron Howard and George Lucas made brilliant use of time conflict in Willow, especially near the end when Bavmorda must perform a long, complicated ritual to destroy the baby. This gives Willow and the others a chance to strike back, drawing out the moments of most intense conflict when the fate of the story hangs in the balance and one small Nelwyn must summon up all his hard-won courage and confidence to defeat the forces of evil.
A word of caution – pointless bickering or misunderstandings between characters is not true conflict, though the unwary may have trouble telling the difference. Genuine conflict is anything that stands in the way of the characters achieving their goals. Did anybody besides me find the constant bickering between the brownies Rool and Franjean got tiresome pretty quickly?
Conflict can be a difficult element of storytelling for writers to master. Didn’t our mothers always tell us to play nice and not torture younger siblings? Besides, we love our characters – we don’t want to frustrate them, hurt them or break their hearts. But conflict is a must in commercial fiction, so get ready to channel your inner drill sergeant and open a can of tough love on your characters. Only by delving deep and hard in the conflict mines will they and you unearth the ultimate treasure of success.