The Fictorians

Close Conflicts of the Romantic Kind

25 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | Scott Eder

Here on The Fictorians, we’ve been talking conflict all month—internal, external, character vs …, writer vs…, but we haven’t yet talked about romance. Time to change that. Now, I’m a Fantasy guy, both as a reader and a writer. The reading came first, of course. I started with Tolkien, Brooks, Hickman, McKiernan, and Eddings back in the day, gobbling up epic tales of elves and dwarves and dragons, magic and mysticism, and good versus evil on a planetary scale. Man, I loved that stuff. Still do, actually.

Over the years I’ve read a gazillion books, but the stories that stick with me, the ones that hold a piece of my soul, are those that not only satisfied my need for the magic, but also spoke to my heart. I love stories that explore the spark, the attraction, between two characters. A strong romantic storyline, carefully fed and nurtured, can turn a good story into a magnificent tale that brushes against the reader’s soul.

And what writer doesn’t strive for that each and every time he puts words to paper?

I’m not talking about writing a Romance novel, but a sci-fi/fantasy story with romantic elements. There’s a big difference between the two. A novel classified as romance is subject to what I call the “Three Laws of Romance”:

  1. The Law of the HEA – the story must have a “happily ever after” ending.
  2. The Law of Astronomical Odds – the odds against the characters realizingtheir HEA must be so astronomical, the reader cannot possibly foresee how they could ever get together.
  3. The Law of Forever Apart – keep the budding lovers apart for as long as possible. Once they get together, the story is over.

These three laws constitute an emotional contract between the Romance writer and the reader. Before reading the first word, a reader has their story-level expectations set. She buys into the formula and looks to lose herself in the unique twists and turns the author takes to reach that HEA.

Once a writer drops the “big R”, introducing a romantic subplot off the main sword and sorcery epic, the laws vanish. Anything goes. As a writer, this is where I live. I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel.

Badges? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Let’s talk about developing the romantic conflict. For writers who consider planning/outlining a four-letter word, the romantic storyline is something that develops organically, something that the characters “feel” while the words flow from the writer’s brain to his fingertips.

But I’m a hard-core plotter. I have to know what to do when or I’ll leave something out. In the early stages, while developing each primary character’s internal and external conflicts, I consider a third type—the romantic conflict. Which characters will fall in love, or like, or lust, depending on the needs of the story? How will it happen? Will it have a HEA? When will it happen? Writing in a land with no “Big R” laws, I can do whatever I want. I can string the reader along, plying her with stolen goblin kisses behind the ale casks and furtive cyclopean smiles from the high window in the wizard’s tower, only to have one of the characters turned into a coconut in the last chapter. While that might add a kick to a refreshing adult beverage, being turned into a fuzzy, hard-shelled fruit wreaks havoc upon a budding relationship.

That’s a mean example, but makes my point. Being a romantic, I would never do that to my readers without a significant amount of foreshadowing to cushion the blow. I want the guy to get the girl, or the elf to get the elf maid, or the whatever creature to get the blue whatsit. The key here is to consider adding that dash of romantic conflict to any plot.

Romance, love, attraction, they are all inherent in the human, or quasi human, condition. Fully resolved characters will encounter this at some point in their existence. Embrace it. Develop it. Write it. Give the story the added spark.

No Evil Required

24 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | Evan Braun

Evil exists in the world. In fact, to some degree it exists in all of us—a dark side that usually only emerges in our most private thoughts but may occasionally peek into the light of day. For the most part, we don’t let this happen. Indeed, for the most part we are good people. In evolutionary terms, goodness propagates itself more successfully; evil is inherently maladaptive.

The worst kind of motivation for a villain is intrinsic, deep-seated evil. They’re evil because they were born that way. Or they crave power obsessively. To me, this almost never rings true. I suppose there are some people like that in the real world, but they must be a rare breed. Most people think of themselves as more or less good—not necessarily saintly, but closer to Mother Teresa than to Adolf Hitler.

Intriguingly, even the people who really are closer to Adolf Hitler probably view themselves as being closer to Mother Teresa, and this is fertile ground for growing conflict in our stories. First of all, a villain is not the same thing as an antagonist. You don’t need a villain to tell a good story, but you probably need an antagonist. What’s the difference? Well, think about it this way. Sometimes you just have two fairly normal people who just happen to want very different things… perhaps even diametrically opposed things… and thus the clash happens. (Exhibit A: Sad Puppies vs. Social Justice Warriors; no evil, moustache-twirling villains here, but a hell of a lot of conflict-enriching antagonism.)

When building a story, try setting up a conflict between two or more sides in which every side could be anchored by a strong, relatable protagonist. The only difference between a protagonist and an antagonist is often the fact that the protagonist gets the primary point of view; if you swap things around, those two characters can easily switch roles without changing the fundamentals of the story.

As a thought experiment, it could even be interesting to try actually writing the story from different points of view. Walk in your antagonist’s shoes; make them the protagonist and see what happens.

Indeed, conflict requires no evil. Just opposition. And effective, relatable, compelling opposition is rarely in short supply.

1Evan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for the last two decades. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, is forthcoming this spring. He specializes in hard science fiction and lives in the vicinity of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Multidimensional Conflict

23 April 2015 | No Comments » | Jace Killan

5707821514_23b89e4164_bI used to confuse conflict with action. In film, we decipher conflict from dialogue and character’s actions and reactions. In writing we have the added dimension of thought. We can introduce the reader to conflicts through our characters in an intimate way.

We spent a month discussing how to develop characters and it may be beneficial to review those posts. In order to have good conflict we must start with great characters.

When developing a plot I place my characters together wondering how they will interact, asking myself if they’ll fall in love or want to kill each other and everything in between.

Then I start to develop these interactions into a story.

As readers we desire conflict, because we crave the resolution. We want to feel that relief. The greater the conflict the greater the potential resolution.

Some ways to deepen the conflict is to harvest the POV character’s minds, telling their tale of woe and enlisting the reader to the cause.

Add another dimension to that conflict by blowing the reader’s mind when you reveal the antagonist’s motives for his/her actions.

Warning the following might contain some spoilers, though I’ve tried to leave them vague enough.

For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Szeth (Picture courtesy of Flickr) is a bit of a hit man and the book opens showing him as the tyrant of the story. As we get to know Szeth more we understand that he is deeply torn between his actions and his religion.

Side note, Religion is a great tool in developing conflict because it can cause characters to do things that otherwise would seem wrong.

Back to Szeth. As a reader I care for Szeth even though he is committing heinous acts. I fear for what he might do and fear for what might be done to him. I suspect in the next book there is a battle between Cal and Szeth, two characters that I adore and wish the best for and would love to see succeed, but they are on a crash course and I am fearing the worst. That’s great conflict.

In Dan Wells book, I am Not a Serial Killer, the protagonist is very likable, even though he admittedly would like to do some terrible things. Likewise the Antagonist does horrific things and yet his motivation is sweet and kind. It makes me hate and love both characters at the same time and makes for some incredible conflict seeing it from the antagonist POV and longing to understand more the antagonist’s motives because the character is so unique.


koon_9780345533456_cvr_all_r1.inddIn Tick Tock by Dean Koontz, all of the conflict arises from the relationships of the characters. The conflict by itself, the plot of the story would be pretty haunting and neat, but adding in the relationship the protagonist has with his mother and a woman he only just met, adds dimension upon dimension to the conflict. Additionally, the reader discovers more about the characters as the story progresses creating new layers to the conflict.

Here’s a short example from film—Star Wars, episode IV. Pay attention to how the conflict arises out of the interaction of characters and advances the story along.

Conflict from Luke wanting to leave but Uncle and Aunt won’t let him. We later find out that one of their motivations was to protect Luke from Darth Vader.

Conflict arises from Droids. Luke and Uncle debate what to do with the droids. Droids try and run away. The empire is looking for the droids. Each of these is on a different vector, travelling in different directions, but all collide at the family farm and then Uncle and Aunt are killed.

Their deaths facilitate Luke’s deciding event. The Droids lead Luke to his mentor Obi Wan and the protagonist is whisked away on a great adventure to save the galaxy.

So in summary, develop your characters first and then ask how they interact with each other. What crazy situations may arise as their different motivations and directions collide? Then go deeper. Add more layers and more dimensions to those conflicts by further showing motivations and developing reader empathy for both sides of the conflict.


jace 1I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve got an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can visit my author website at, and you can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page.



Kill Them With Kindness

22 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | Nathan Barra

Whenever someone asks me where I grew up, I claim Atlanta. Though I was born in Ottawa and lived on or above the Mason-Dixon line for the first fourteen years of my life, the person I am today came into being through the time I spent there. Though, I’m not a true southerner (you can’t be unless your roots go five or six generations back), I have picked up on some of their tricks.

When I first moved to the south, I remember thinking how nice and polite everyone seemed to be. A large part of the Southern social contract is devoted to avoiding overt conflicts. True, brawling does happen, but relations often stay friendly after wards. Things happen at a much slower pace, and no one really cares if you are two or three hours late to a bar-b-q. Southerners have turned hospitality and friendliness into an art form.

They have also turned sneakiness and subtly into a competition sport. In this arena, southern belles are the Olympic athletes. I’ve met women who can flay you alive and leave you thinking that they paid you the sweetest of complements. It’s actually pretty amazing to watch.

This tendency comes from years of practice in a culture and social system that strongly discourages direct physical conflict and prizes politeness and civility. However, when you try to disarm someone they will simply find another means to fight. Humans are still apex predators no matter how much we work to “civilize” them. We are also social animals who constantly struggle for their place in the clan’s heiarchy. When you take combat into a social arena, you simply change the rules, not human nature.

Where physical combat is an attempt to damage someone’s physical body or possessions, social combat is a war of perception and reputation. The combatants are trying to insult, slight, discredit, and embarrass one another in such a way that it influences the opinions and views of those around them. In so doing, the combatants are trying to change how others react to and interact with their target. Though more difficult and much longer term, social combat can also be designed to change how a person views themselves and how they in turn interact with the world around them. Break down someone’s self esteem, make them feel worthless and stupid, and they will break.

We are taught to ignore social combat as children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Unfortunately words, and the perceptions they alter, have incredible constructive and destructive power. Don’t believe me? Look at the absurd amounts of money political candidates pour into their media campaigns or the budgets that companies devote to advertising. These avenues are just mass social combat.

Social combat is nothing new to either life or fiction. However, it has seemingly had a resurgence in recognition and popularity. Reality TV is almost entirely based off turning social combat into a circus. Those sorts of bouts are more often like social brawls, however, lacking the refined elegance truly skilled combatants. For true social warfare, one can look to The Song of Ice and Fire books or their The Game of Thrones HBO made for TV adaptation. Many viewers love the politics and backstabbing as much, if not more than the physical conflicts. Some of the series’ most popular characters, such as Tyrion Lannister, Lord Varys, Little Finger, Tywin Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Melisandre, are beloved because of their skill and wit. In fact, the writers of The Game of Thrones directly call out the effects of social combat in a conversation between Varys and Tyrion in season 2 episode 3.

Varys: “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?”
Tyrion: “Why? Am I about to hear one?”
Varys: “Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”
Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword.”
Varys: “Does it? He has neither the crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.”
Tyrion: “He’s has a sword, the power of life and death.”
Varys: “But if it is the swordsman who rules, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?”
Tyrion: “I have decided I don’t like riddles.”
Varys: “Power resides where men believe it resides, it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

Social combat has a lot to offer fiction writers and our stories, but it is also difficult to use well. However, if you keep these six tips in mind, you can quickly find places to integrate this sort of conflict into your own writing.

  1. Not everyone is cut out to be a master of social combat. Most people are not particularly good at it or even aware enough to notice when it is going on. Do all your characters have huge muscles and advanced military training? Then why would they all be able to fence with grace and skill in the social arena? Characters who are masters of this sort of conflict are some combination of intelligent, witty, clever, well spoken, charismatic, and mentally nimble. Most importantly, they have experience using those attributes to influence others.
  2. People who are really good at social combat are also highly empathetic and perceptive. They understand how people will perceive their words and actions, and use that knowledge to create a desired effect.
  3. Social combat is still combat and should therefore have real and damaging stakes. After all, the diplomat and the swordsman both may be trying to kill you, but only one is doing so overtly. To ensure that proper tension is maintained, it is critical to make the consequences of failure are clear to the reader and the pacing appropriate to the conflict.
  4. Social combat is layered and filled with misdirection. Verbal sparring and the artful insults are rarely direct. Be sure to make full use of sarcasm, innuendo and referential humor (within the context of the story). Subtext is also a powerful tool. David Jon Fuller wrote a comprehensive post on this very topic last week, so I’d recommend taking the time to go look at it for some practical tips.
  5. If the conflict is too obvious, social combat becomes melodrama. However, if it is too subtle, it’ll be missed by all but the most astute. Where you shoot for on that continuum depends on your audience and how important the conflict is to your overall story. I have found a lot of success in using sequels and deep immersion to highlight social combat and its effects. After all, if your character is skilled at social combat they will be aware of when it is happening and will both plan for and react to social sparring matches.
  6. As writers, we have two major advantages over our characters when it comes to social combat. First, we have time to carefully think through and tweak each move in the conflict. Second, we enjoy unparalleled access to the thoughts and reactions of all sides of the conflict. Make sure you use these advantages for all they are worth!

Good luck and happy writing!

About the Author:NathanBarra_Web
Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” Visit him at his webpage or Facebook Author Page.


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